Frida Khalo by Imogen Cunningham
Frida Kahlo photographed in 1931 by Imogen Cunningham. Silver gelatin print.


International Women’s Day 2016

When I think of strong and inspiring women the very first person that comes to mind is the great artist and political activist Frida Kahlo. She inspires me both as a great artist, and as a person of great character and strength who overcame her constant pain and disability to keep on expressing herself through her art and lifestyle.

Frida Kahlo: a brief history

There are many excellent books about Frida, some of which I will list at the end of this post  so,  if you are interested and (assuming you don’t already know) would like to know more, you can look further into the life and works of this imaginative and inspiring artist. I give only a light history here as an introduction:

Frida Kahlo was born on 6 July 1907 in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City to parents Matilde Calderon De Kahlo, Mexican and Wilhelm Kahlo,  German. Her father was a professional photographer who compiled a photographic inventory of pre-Columbian architecture for the government under the dictator Diaz until the beginning of the Mexican Revolution when earning a living became more difficult for Frida’s family.

She identified so strongly with the Mexican Revolution that she often thought of herself as being born in 1910,the year it started. Her father was also an amateur artist and a great influence on Frida, he taught her how to use a camera, retouch and colour photographs and he lent her his box of paints when she was confined to bed after a serious tram accident in 1925. This wasn’t the first time Frida had had to spend long periods of time convalescing, she had also had a bout of Polio at six years old and was recovering for nine months during which time her right leg grew thin and her right foot was stunted in its growth. Her health was further compromised when she was involved in a serious tram accident when she was travelling home from school. The accident left her with pain and disability due to devastating spinal and pelvic injuries, so throughout her life she would have to be confined to her bed for months at a time, and took to painting whilst recumbent on an easel made for her by her father.


Despite her injuries she continued to live a spirited and exceptionally creative existence, as well as life as an artist, she was married to the Mexican artist Diego Rivera and with him campaigned for the Mexican Communist party. She was friends with Trotsky and Andre Breton, she taught at the School of Painting and Sculpture. Frida desperately wanted to have children but the accident damaged her pelvis and womb so she was unable to carry them to term. This haunted her for the rest of her life.

There is no art more exclusively feminine, in the sense that, in order to be as seductive as possible it is only too willing to play alternately at being absolutely pure and absolutely pernicious. The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon around a bomb.

[Andre Breton, 1939]

The Broken Column, 1944

One of the most compelling things about Frida’s work is the way she confronts her own suffering, and challenges the viewer with strong images of not only her pain, but also her sexuality, thus breaking the taboos of the day and dealing with her own feelings on her body. Such bravery and stoicism show her dignity and an ability to turn her pain into an expression of her own life -her fluid creativity and self-analysis expressed. Her pain was not only a physical one, but the pain caused by her turbulent relationship with Diego Rivera – a notorious philanderer. The painting below expresses her pain at Diego’s many affairs which she felt wounded her like the deer.

The Wounded Deer Frida Kahlo
The Wounded Deer (The Little Deer), 1946

Sometimes, when I have to use a wheelchair or aids to help me move around when my MS or Rheumatism (both expressions of an over-excited immune system) get particularly troublesome, I think of Frida’s bravery and ability to enjoy her life despite her difficult circumstances. Such dignity, and the ability to turn her pain into her creations can only inspire me and I too find new ways of expressing myself and a new way of looking at life because of what I experience. Of course, I am lucky in that I am doing well at the moment and have no current need of the wheelchair but know if I need to use it again I can recall proud Frida and her great resilience, and also find that it helps me to understand better others who are in need.

Frida and her surgeon, Dr Juan Farill, beside her portrait of him. [Gisele Freund 1951].


Frida Kahlo ‘I paint my Reality’. Christina Burros. [Publ. Thames and Hudson]

Kahlo. Andrea Kettenman. [Publ. Taschen]