Today is Frida Kahlo’s (supposed) 110th birthday! The Mexican artist was actually born in 1907 but frequently told people her birthday was three years later, so it would coincide with the start of the Mexican Revolution. An activist and artist, Kahlo not only used her portraits to communicate the intense struggles she experienced in her lifetime, but also to give a vital voice to indigenous and Mexican culture.
Here are five things you simply must know about Frida Kahlo!
1. Painting saved her
When an 18-year-old, Kahlo suffered a horrendous streetcar accident, she was left with a broken spinal column, collarbone, ribs and pelvis. Bed-bound for most of her life due to chronic pain and the 30 surgeries that followed her accident, Kahlo found solace in painting. While recovering, she used her father’s paintbrush and a specially-adapted easel to paint from her bed. Kahlo’s fragile body became her muse, and she used her canvas to repair her relationship with her broken bones. There is nothing your average, emotionally-constipated Joe loves more than a troubled 'bohémienne', who sneers at a conventional lifestyle, and allows decades of ennui and anguish to drip across her canvas.
"They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."
2. She owned Exotic Pets
Much like weird-pet-fiend, Salvador Dalí, Kahlo was partial to a wild animal (or two) around the house. Along with a few Mexican hairless Xoloitzcuintli (a rare dog breed dating back to the ancient Aztecs), Kahlo also had two spider monkeys named Fulang Chang and Caimito de Guayabal, a parrot called Bonito and an eagle called Gertrudis Caca Blanca. Kahlo possessed an unyielding desire to nurture and mother, however, her accident left her unable to bear children naturally. Kahlo instead mothered her animals, giving them pride of place in her paintings and raising them with her companion, Diego Rivera.
3. She once arrived at an art show in an ambulance.
In 1953, Kahlo finally achieved her first solo exhibition in Mexico; however, as with most of her life, Kahlo was in hospital. Unable to attend her very first exhibition without medical assistance, the hospital arranged for Kahlo to attend the event in an ambulance, adding yet another layer to the artist's dramatic life. Kahlo's accident left doctors convinced she wouldn't live, let alone walk, dance or paint her way to being the one of the 20th Century's most successful artists. A life of perpetual emotional and physical pain shaped Kahlo's career, and the tragedy of her narrative induced a 'Fridamania' in later years, where her portrait would brace tote bags, t-shirts and phone cases as a mark of solidarity with the feminist painter.
"I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best."
4. She had many affairs… including with Leon Trotsky
On the rare occasion Kahlo wasn’t confined to a hospital bed, she was living a very colourful social life of dancing and dating. It was speculated that she had an affair with Marxist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, after he was granted asylum in Mexico in 1936. It was also widely known that she had a romantic fling with Black Pearl entertainer, Josephine Baker, in Paris three years later. Kahlo's character was a myriad of shades, coloured by her pain, fashion and sexual freedom. Although she sought to defy and destroy restrictive gender roles, her love for Rivera never truly waned, and her deep-rooted connection to what it means to be a woman left her one of the world's most inspiring artists.
5. She only became famous after her death
Kahlo died on the 26th July, 1954, twenty days after her 47th birthday, after a moderately successful career. Throughout her short life, Kahlo was mostly recognised as Diego Rivera's wife, not a deserving talent in her own right. The portrait artist mastered the ability of helping not only herself, but also her viewers, make sense of the world around them. The raw emotional value of her art rendered it so powerful around the world, because it delivered these answers in a tangible and personal form; allowing the world to finally see her as Frida Kahlo first, and Diego Rivera’s wife second.