Reducing an artist’s work to their biography produces crude understanding. But in very many cases, life and work cannot be teased apart. This applies not only to Sylvia Plath and her contemporary confessional poets but also to James Joyce and Marcel Proust and writers they admired, like Dante and Cervantes.
Such an artist too is Frida Kahlo, a practitioner of narrative self-portraits in a modernizing idiom that at the same time draws extensively on tradition. The literary nature of her art is a subject much neglected in popular discussions of her work. She wrote passionate, eloquent love poems and letters to her husband Diego Rivera and others, full of the same kind of visceral, violent, verdant imagery she deployed in her paintings.
More generally, the “obsession with Kahlo’s biography,” writes Maria Garcia at WBUR, ends up focusing “almost voyeuristically—on the tragic experiences of her life more than her artistry.” Those terribly compounded tragedies include surviving polio and, as you’ll learn in Iseult Gillespie’s short TED-Ed video above, a bus crash that nearly tore her in half. She began painting while recovering in bed. She was never the same and lived her life in chronic pain and frequent hospitalizations.
Perhaps a certain cult of Kahlo does place morbid fascination above real appreciation for her vision. “There’s a compulsion that’s satiated only through consuming Kahlo’s agony,” Garcia writes. But it’s also true that we cannot reasonably separate her story from her work. It’s just that there is so more to the story than suffering, all of it woven into the texts of her paintings. Kahlo’s mythology, or “inspirational personal brand,” ties together her commitments to Marxism and Mexico, indigenous culture, and native spirituality.
Like all self-mythologizers before her, she folded her personal story into that of her nation. And unlike European surrealists, who “used dreamlike images to explore the unconscious mind, Kahlo used them to represent her physical body and life experiences.” The experience of disability was no less a part of her ecology than mortality, symbolic landscapes, floral tapestries, animals, and the physically anguished experiences of love and loss.
Generous approaches to Kahlo’s work, and this short overview is one of them, implicitly recognize that there is no need to separate the life from the work, to the extent that the artist saw no reason to do so. But also, there is no need to isolate one narrative theme, whether intense physical or emotional suffering, from themes of self-transformation and transfiguration or experiments in re-creating personal identity as a political act.