Artist Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in Mexico City, Mexico, to a Mexican Indian and Spanish mother and Hungarian Jewish father. She died at age 47, on July 13, 1954, but she is, quite possibly, the most world-famous disabled woman living or dead. Her art is her fame, as well as her relationship with fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera and her communist politics. Deeply personal, her art is filled with imagery of impairment and physical pain.
There are indications that in addition to childhood polio, a devastatingly injurious tram accident at age 18, and the loss of a limb in her later years, Kahlo was born with some spinal condition such as spina bifida.
Along with the paintings shown here, I've got a collection of links more interesting than anything I can write about Kahlo:
Her paintings are catalogued and described fairly well (in both English and Spanish) here, as part of an excellent site all about Kahlo, her life and her work.
This article, "The Trouble with Frida Kahlo" by Stephanie Mencimer, published in 2002 in Washington Monthly explores how Kahlo -- and all female artists -- needed to have a tragic or sensational personal story to enter the male canon. Mencimer's analysis begs for a disability studies rebuttal, particularly comments like this:
Some feminist art historians have struggled against such reworkings of women artists, but Kahlo's pop-culture mania revives it with a vengeance. Kahlo certainly facilitated this process by painting herself as the quietly suffering female. In every possible sense, the mass-culture Kahlo embodies that now-poisonous term: victimhood. She was the victim of patriarchal culture, victim of an unfaithful husband, and simply the victim of a horrific accident. But that's probably one reason why she's so popular. "People like to see women as victims," says Mary Garrard, a professor of art history at American University.And this:
Many of her surgeries may have been unnecessary. Even Herrera notes, "If Frida's physical problems had been as grave as she made out, she would never have been able to translate them into art." Kahlo's close friend, the famous doctor Leo Eloesser, believed that she used her many surgeries to get attention from people, particularly from Rivera. There's no doubt that she was obsessed with him in a way that should make feminists cringe. She also made several suicide attempts and spent much of her adult life addicted to drugs and alcohol.Though the article is well worth a read for it's look at how Kahlo's inability to bear children is widely interpreted as a tragedy when she may well not have seen it as such. And for when Mencimer notes this:
One wonders what the postal service was thinking when it put Kahlo on a stamp. "Visas are denied to [foreign] artists with Frida Kahlo's politics," notes Chadwick.Here is, I think, a more developed and disability-studies-friendly analysis of Kahlo's self-portraiture. (That's a link to the main page of a Frida site. Check out the sidebar feature labeled "Frida and her obsession of self-portraits.")
For true disability studies analyses of the 2002 film Frida, starring Salma Hayek, read Marta Russell's CounterPunch review and a wonderful discussion between Harilyn Rousso and Simi Linton at DisabilityWorld. Both movie reviews note the obliteration of any depiction of Kahlo's childhood polio and it's early effects, with the tram accident framed instead as the life-altering tragedy to her physical health. Also, her recovery from that accident is made complete in the film so that a tango between Kahlo and another woman is not complicated by what would have been an interesting limp. The Rousso-Linton discussion ranges beyond the movie itself to look at use of the word "cripple," sexuality, and class and disability.
Remember the scene in the garden where she's sitting in her wheelchair a few months after the accident? To me, this is the quintessential stereotype about the person who is in an accident or illness--that their main desire, preoccupation is to be able to walk again. She is sitting in the garden, her parents arrive and she gets up out of the wheelchair, takes her first steps and suddenly becomes almost nondisabled.... I found it shocking when we finally do see her using a wheelchair in an ongoing way, which is about an hour and a half into the film. We are given no sense of the progression of her disability. Until then, her disability was not shown as affecting her daily life. It was shown as affecting her painting - both her decision to paint and at least some of the content of her paintings, but not the details of her life. She was by and large portrayed as a "non-disabled disabled women." Then suddenly well into the film she is shown as quite significantly disabled.Here's a link about Liz Crow's short experimental drama Frida Kahlo's Corset. "Corset" refers to the orthopedic back braces Kahlo wore because of her impairments.
From a 2005 exhibition, here's the Kahlo site for the Tate Modern Art Museum in London.
Finally, this PBS site on the film The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo includes five of Kahlo's works of art made into image maps with additional info available to mouse rollover.
Links lead to visual descriptions in English and Spanish: The four paintings in this post are The Broken Column (1944), Tree of Hope, Remain Strong (1946), Henry Ford Hospital (1942) and Self-Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill (1951).
Thanks to Penny for the heads-up on Frida's birthday.