Born in 1907, Kahlo was a queer, disabled Surrealist painter. Frida Kahlo is most well known for her iconic self-portraits, in which her unibrow, faint mustache, and piercing gaze are instantly recognizable. Beyond these self-portraits, however, Kahlo’s art and persona have earned her the legacy of an influential and inspiring artist. Her paintings, which were very controversial at the time, depicted the raw and truthful aspects of the female experience, covering painful subjects such as childbirth and miscarriage. She defied gendered clothing norms and refused to be limited by societal gender stereotypes. Although she rejected the beauty standards and lifestyle expectations forced upon women, she embraced and often took artistic inspiration from her womanhood. Exploring Frida Kahlo’s unique approach to art and taking a deeper look into her life is important as she is an empowering inspiration to many.
Early in her childhood, Kahlo suffered from polio, which caused her right leg to become weak and stunted; she also contracted gangrene in her stunted right leg and had to have it amputated, resulting in her use of a prosthetic leg. Adding on, in her teenage years, a bus she was riding collided with a trolley car, resulting in an accident that left her impaled by an iron handrail and other extremely serious injuries and fractures all over her body, including her back, pelvis, spinal cord, and ribs. These traumas left her both disabled and in chronic pain. With all of this trauma, it honestly could be easier to give up and find it hard to move on, however Kahlo displayed her true strength as it was while she was recovering and bedridden that she discovered her passion and talent for painting.
Although she kept her disability somewhat hidden in her daily life through the way she dressed, she openly expressed her pain and self-image because of her injuries through her art. In “The Broken Column” (1944), Kahlo painted a self portrait, but portrayed her spine as a shattered Grecian column and added nails stuck in her skin, all over her body. This is representative of her body image as well as the chronic pain she persevered through because of her disability. “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can,” she said. Kahlo reflected her pain in an abstract way where what she meant could be interpreted in many different ways.
In both her daily life and her art, Kahlo stayed true to herself. Much like today, women were expected to be ladylike and hyper-feminine, prim and proper at all times, without body hair. Kahlo, however, paid no mind to these restrictive expectations. Famously, she not only kept her natural unibrow and upper lip hair but exaggerated them in her striking self-portraits. In this way, she challenged the oppressive, patriarchal structures that govern society. She did not avoid painful or gruesome topics. Her injuries from the trolley accident left her infertile, and, for years, she struggled with her inability to get pregnant, and suffered multiple miscarriages and therapeutic abortions, which she had to get for her own safety. She expressed her anguish by depicting her struggles in her paintings, which were considered too graphic. She also painted uterine blood and breastfeeding. This is notable because at this time, issues of the female reproductive system were considered taboo and indecent to discuss in a public manner.
Kahlo did not allow sexist, societal restrictions of her time to limit her self-expression. She did not hide from the difficult subjects. Instead, she leaned into the difficult, painful parts of her experiences and used them to produce beautiful, raw works of art. It is this rawness and authenticity in her depiction of womanhood and all it contains that makes her a feminist icon.