A Brief Animated Introduction to the Life and Work of Frida Kahlo

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vis­it the Largest Col­lec­tion of Fri­da Kahlo’s Work Ever Assem­bled: 800 Arti­facts from 33 Muse­ums, All Free Online

Artists Fri­da Kahlo & Diego Rivera Vis­it Leon Trot­sky in Mex­i­co: Vin­tage Footage from 1938

Fri­da Kahlo’s Pas­sion­ate Love Let­ters to Diego Rivera

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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