Frida Kahlo was, and is a revered artist, there’s no doubt about it. In more recent times she’s been celebrated for her loud, colorful, and unique style of dress, and her sensual yet brash and outspoken nature. Her painting style was uniquely her own, but like most creative souls she drew inspiration from what she experienced; from what she saw.
In Frida’s work we find influences that trace back to her Mexican folk heritage, symbolism, and the surrealism movement. And like a true master she combined her impressions of the outer world with her impressions of her inner life, creating a legacy that was truly her own.
Though known a an artist during her lifetime, she reached critical acclaim as a Feminist and Hispanic icon after her death. The 1970’s women’s liberation movement looked up to her as an inspiration, as a symbol of inner strength, and as a role model for breaking the mold of the female stereotype. After struggling in her own lifetime to forge a path that was uniquely her own, the now iconic Frida became a beacon of hope for many newly liberated women wanting a life that was bigger, fuller, and more representative of their hopes and dreams then the traditional roles society enforced. Thanks to her inner strength, her unwavering conviction and the stubborn grip she had on her ideals, Frida remains in the periphery of our awareness reminding us of the inner strength we are all capable of expressing. She stands among the great women of our time as a symbol of style, self expression, passion, womanhood, and courage.
Though she’s often been characterized as a surrealist, Frida famously stated that she paints her own reality, one third of her paintings being self portraits. These works of art are a representation of her inner life and daily struggles, raw and emotive they depict her pain, her dreams, and the many challenges she faced with her health, sexuality, and family life.
The thing that most inspires me about her art and self presentation is that she did not shy away from disclosing her vulnerabilities to the ever critical eyes of the world, in fact, owning her weaknesses and sharing them with the world is what made her the strong woman she was. In modern society, and especially among the male population, vulnerability is seen as a weakness to be avoided at all costs. But, Frida showed us otherwise, she showed us that by having the courage to be openly vulnerable we express an unwavering strength and grace; it is in this vulnerability that we express our truth, and this truth is our point of contact with the rest of humanity.
Frida laid her fears, hopes, and beliefs out on canvas for all to see and judge, she laid her self doubts out too, and the ugliness of the pain that haunted her. Her life was not easy, but that did not deter her, if anything it fanned the fire of her conviction. That to me is a powerful and extraordinary woman, one who does not stop in the face of physical challenges, heartaches, or disappointments. She expressed herself to her fullest ability and reached for her highest ideals constantly. Despite those that said she couldn’t, despite the accident that left her crippled, despite growing up in a poor neighborhood, despite being faced with the violence of a revolution, she persisted. She did not listen to the voices of her day, of convention, of expectation, of her family, of her culture, nor even the voice of her own inner critic.
In the many biographies written about Frida we are told that as a result of a bus accident that occurred in her youth doctors said she would not be able to walk. We are also told that she did not listen, that she was convinced she would walk, and that despite the odds, she did. But, not without pain and not without effort. Her conviction was her fire, persevering despite life’s limitations, and through her own experience she showed us that we are also capable of doing the things we put our minds to; because she could. We see that we can also be the women we want to be, because despite the many odds stacked against her, Frida became an accomplished artist, and a success in her own right.
Not only did Frida experience much pain and suffering as a result of the bus accident and the complications that ensued, but she also experienced multiple health complications that began when she contracted polio at age six, the polio leaving one of her legs thinner then the other (apparently why she wore long skirts and dresses). There are also speculations that she suffered from Spina Bifida, which may have contributed to her spin and leg development. During her life she endured 32 operations to her back and leg. Her pelvic bone was severed during the accident leaving her unable to carry a pregnancy to term, though she wanted children (and tried conceiving) she miscarried and underwent several abortions due to complications. Her surgeries confined her to many months in bed during which she spent time painting what she felt, how she saw herself, and how she envisioned life unfolding.
There is so much to be discussed about Frida, despite her many health challenges she lived a colorful and interesting life. Her marriage to Diego Rivera, a famous Mexican muralist was a tumultuous one, each of them having several extramarital affairs, breaking up but always returning to each other. Her involvement in the communist movement and the passion for change and revolution she had. The effect that growing up during the Mexican Revolution had on her outlook on life, and her art. The lifetime of chronic pain that she endured and overcame. Her international success and travels to Paris and the USA. Her sexual freedom and exploration of sexuality outside traditional roles, and with other women. And of course, how all of these experiences came together to create the extraordinary woman and artist that she was.
So what made her character so inspiring that she remained with us till now? Her images, her paintings, her life story, they’ve survived the constant sea change of life and managed to stay relevant to the passing generations. Perhaps it’s her passion and fire that continues to warm our hearts? There is certainly an intensity in her nature that has kept us captivated.
Photographs of her speak of a self-assured woman with mastery over her sexuality and self-hood, a woman proud of her heritage, and her identity. Frida dressed and presented herself in a way that represented her inner-self, of which she was unapologetic. She gives the impression of being self-possessed and once we become familiar with her life story, she gives the impression that she is someone who steamrolls through obstacles.
Though she endured much physical and emotional pain she picked herself up and carried on, always true to her own essence. Her struggles did not hold her down for long, but rather fanned the flames of her determination.
Most of us can relate to some part of Frida’s life and experience, that is the part of her that makes her ‘real’ to us; relateable. Perhaps it’s her complicated relationships, or growing up in an unsafe environment. Perhaps its her health struggles, the exploration of her sexuality, or even the fervor with which she loved. Whatever it is that initially draws us to her is something we share with her, something we see in ourselves. This something is a thing we like, or a thing we wish to overcome.
Because beyond the things that we can relate to in Frida there also exists that part of her that seems unreal; desirable. That’s the part of her that we keep around to learn from. She represents the ‘stuff’ that seems unattainable, the stuff we wish we had the courage to reach for, but haven’t.
When we think of Frida – conjure her persona up – we experience the feeling of becoming inspired to reach for the unreal, the seemingly unattainable, because some part of us realizes that she did the same, and was successful at it. That part of us thinks to itself, if she could do it why not I? By knowing Frida’s story we come to realize there is a path to the goals we thought were beyond us. We observe that she found a way, and that encourages us to believe that we too can find one. We see her believing in her own strength, and that opens us to the possibility of believing in ourselves; reaching beyond our means, pushing beyond our perceived boundaries.
She demands an audience, she demands success, she unashamedly asks for it, claims it, and expands beyond. This takes courage, conviction and self-assurance (none of which necessarily occur in the absence of fear, doubt, or uncertainty). Frida represents that part in us we know exists but have yet to summon. By keeping her essence around us we can tap into her courage and self assurance as a constant source of strength and focus.
One thing that Frida did that deeply impresses me (and there were many) was share her pain unabashedly, she painted it for us all, perhaps so that we may learn and grow from it. She shared her struggles through the most emotive imagery, perhaps so that we may feel we are not alone in ours. Despite her chronic pain, she did not give in to life, but chose to express her passions, to create her art, to live a full life, and to love.
And live she did, a remarkable life of many layers, many experiences, and many colors. She chose to walk in her truth, despite obstacles real or imagined. What alluring qualities. She gave herself the freedom to be herself.
By observing her and other extraordinary women, by studying them and looking to them as mentors, we immerse ourselves in their essence, in the qualities that we wish to develop in ourselves. These mentors, if we let them, can help guide us and keep us in place of empowerment.
So what can we learn from Frida the woman, and Freda the Artist? We can learn the importance of finding our passion and living an inspired life. We can learn that struggles are something that we can and need to overcome, that they are inherent to life, and that it’s up to us to face them and steamroll our way to the other side. We can learn the power of vulnerability and openness, and that these qualities are our connection to our fellow humans. That to touch and influence someone we must tap into and have the courage to be our truest selves.
So, be inspired = find someone who walked before you that you look up to = get to know her = learn and grow with her = channel her energy = take her spirit with you where ever you go = remain in a constant state of inspiration = fan the flames of your story with the flames of those who came before = surround yourself with people of like minds.
I keep Frida close to my heart, and will continue to do so. I keep her image in my mind and on my mantle. And I remind my self of her and all the women I look up to whenever I am in a space of weakness or uncertainty. I urge all women to consider this practice.
Frida is an inspiring role model, but if she doesn’t hit a nerve, if she doesn’t make you want to jump out of your skin and into action, find someone who does, and don’t let go. In fact, find your tribe, dead or alive, and keep them close to your heart at all times. This will keep you in a constant moment of connection to that part of yourself you are striving to become, this will support you in keep your fire alive.
With Love & Light,