Queer Icon: Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

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By Kyle Parker

Frida Kahlo
(1907-1954)

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist best known for the surrealist self-portraits that explored psychology, death, love, gender roles, and cultural identity. As a child, she was stricken with polio, which left one leg longer than the other. When she was a teenager, she was in a streetcar accident in which a metal handrail was propelled into her abdomen. Kahlo suffered miscarriages, extreme fatigue and chronic pain, and had to endure 32 surgeries as a direct result of that accident.

In 1929, Kahlo married prominent Mexican painter Diego Rivera. During the time that Diego was creating a mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Kahlo became pregnant. Unfortunately, because of her numerous health issues, she lost the baby. Through the pain, she created "Henry Ford Hospital" which depicts the tragic effects of giving birth to a stillborn baby.

Her miscarriages, her apparent infertility and continuing physical and psychological pain were tragedies which helped to define her character and, in turn, her art, but they were not the only parts of her identity that should be remembered, for she was never shy about any of it. Kahlo was also strong, resilient, defiant to societal and gender norms. She dressed in men’s clothing from a young age and, in a well-circulated family portrait from 1924, dons one of her father’s suits. A self-portrait from 1940 shows her in an oversized men’s suit with a cropped haircut, strands of long black hair on the ground, encircling her like a halo -- she had just cut to spite her husband after an argument. She divorced him that same year.

Kahlo’s marriage to Rivera is certainly an important part to her life. They were married for fifteen years before they divorced, and ended up remarrying. But the famous fresco artist, twenty years her senior, was not the only love in her life. Their marriage was peppered with infidelities on both sides -- in fact, it’s rumored that Kahlo had affairs with some of the women Rivera was romantic with as well. Kahlo was openly bisexual, having affairs with several women, including: Dolores Del Rio, Paulette Goddard, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jacqueline Lamba, and, perhaps most famously, Josephine Baker.

Exploring the many facets of her identity was the most critical aspect of her work and, through the many trials and tribulations of her life, Kahlo continued to create. Sadly, shortly after her first solo art show in Mexico, she passed away from health complications.

While her life was painful and full of strife, Frida Kahlo didn't let tragedy define her. Instead, she used her turmoil to create art and even more importantly, she created herself.