One of the first women artists to catch my eye, spark my interest and capture my imagination early on was Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Her parents were Guillermo Kahlo (1871–1941), a German-born photographer who emigrated to Mexico in 1891, and Matilde Calderón y González (1876–1932), born in Oaxaca to an indigenous father and a mother of Spanish descent. Her art, once described by André Breton as ‘surrealist’, she described as more a reflection of her ‘reality than her dreams’. She often painted her journeys, her pains and her loves through vividly coloured self-portraits. Her life was not an easy journey, riddled with illnesses – she contracted polio at 6 rendering one leg shorter than the other – and accidents – a bus collision left Kahlo with nearly fatal injuries, from which it took months to recover but left her with a lifetime of pain and illness. But it was the same accident that would have Kahlo begin to paint – while bed-ridden and with the aid of a special easel and a mirror that was placed above her – a series of self-portraits that today continue to penetratingly gaze back at us from each canvas. She would famously marry Diego Riviera, a marriage of artists but also of colliding passions. Her life with Diego was filled with love but yet again riddled with pain, particularly as she dealt with Riviera’s many affairs, her continued illnesses and her own eventual affairs. This, however, seemingly fuelled her artistic productions. Kahlo painted the self-portrait above in 1940 after her divorce from Diego Rivera and the end of an affair with photographer Nickolas Muray. In the painting, we see thorns digging into her skin and drawing blood. But instead of showing herself anguished, Kahlo stares back at us with no grimace or sign of pain. She is perfectly still, despite life – the monkey, the cat, the hummingbird – continues to pick, paw and buzz about her. Her nightmares and dreams are her reality.
A woman of mixed backgrounds, a creative mind, a lover, a political figure, a real storyteller and a brilliant woman painter – Kahlo is the inspiration behind the App ‘icon’ selected to represent the archive’s women painters.
(The feature photograph of Kahlo was taken by her father Guillermo Kahlo in 1932. The featured painting is Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, completed in 1940. The Frida icon is made by Icons8.)