Today marks the 100th birthday of Frida Kahlo, one of the most original painters of the 20th century and perhaps the greatest female self-portraitist ever. Eight days before her death in 1954, Kahlo finished the painting above by writing the words Viva La Vida (or “Long Live Life” in English) on the center watermelon. Even in the midst of her pain, Kahlo could find some reserve of joy in life and express it through her art in full, abundant color.
Even the love of her life, Diego Rivera, became a source of pain for Frida. Their dual portrait above shows them in happier times, before Rivera’s philandering became too much for their relationship to endure. Frida suffered multiple miscarriages during their marriage, due mainly to her injuries years before. Kahlo, too, had affairs during their marriage, with both men and women, most famously with the Russian Communist Leon Trotsky.
In Self Portrait With Cropped Hair (above), Kahlo assumes the clothes and hairstyle of a man, perhaps acknowledging her bisexuality. Kahlo definitely played with the concept of gender roles and identity in many of her portraits, which I’ve always seen as the strongest aspect of her oeuvre. Life in all its many facets, its heights and depths, was a laboratory on which her imagination continually experimented. Three days before her death, Kahlo writes in her diary, “I hope the exit is joyful—and I hope never to come back.” Rumors persist that she may have ended her own life (understandable in light of her pain), but nothing can end her presence in the world of art. We can only hope her end was joyful, just as we can only hope that she never truly leaves.
[I was very excited to see that the PMA has scheduled an exhibit of Kahlo’s work for February 2008 to celebrate this centennial. The accompanying catalogue will feature work by Hayden Herrera, whose biography of Kahlo remains the cornerstone of any research into Frida. The Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico plans to stage the greatest exhibit of Kahlo’s art ever assembled this year.]