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The Universal Magazine

Frida Kahlo: Paris Celebrates Again the Ancestor of Non-Binary Fashion

Self-Portrait Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo continues to make her mark on art. An extraordinary personality, her life, although short, was marked by suffering and disillusionment. It is through her works of art that she expressed her physical and psychological tortures. An emblem of body positivity and an LGBT icon ahead of her time, she leaves behind the memory of a visionary woman. From 2023 to 2024, the city of Paris pays tribute to her with two exhibitions, a rare recognition for a female artist. Recognized as a major figure in surrealism, Frida Kahlo is reborn once again. But who is Frida Kahlo? Autopsy of an absolute myth.

A life of suffering

Her original first name, she owes to her father, a German immigrant in Aztec land. In his native language, "Friede" means peace. From her birth in 1907, this choice of first name causes quarrels. Not appearing in the calendar of saints, the priest threatens to refuse her baptism. So it will be Magdalena Carmen Frieda for the church, but Frida for close ones.

She grew up in Coyoacán, a province of Mexico, in the "Blue House" where she would live all her life. Taking advantage of her curiosity, her father thought it good to teach her photography.

Unfortunately, at six years old, she is struck by polio, which leaves her right leg atrophied. Her foot stops growing, which earns her the nickname "pata de palo" ["wooden leg", ed.].

In 1925, fate strikes Frida Kahlo again. Victim of a serious accident, she is on a bus when a tram hits them, her and her friend. As a result, the bus explodes. Frida suffers multiple injuries: broken legs, damaged spine, and a foot pierced by an iron bar.

After the accident, Frida spends several months in the hospital. She finds herself forced to wear a corset, which she will never leave until the end of her life.

During her convalescence, Frida Kahlo finds refuge in painting. She decides to dedicate herself to this art to testify of her life and her trials.

Queen of the self-portrait

Frida Kahlo’s inspirations

Frida Kahlo draws inspiration from herself and aspires to become a full-fledged artist.

To protect her fragile spine, she paints on a custom-made easel, allowing her to work lying down.

Her parents install a mirror on the ceiling. This device already puts the self-portrait at the center of her work. By painting herself, she expresses her personal sufferings. Her painting becomes the outlet for her pain.

Frida Kahlo poses in traditional costumes for her self-portraits. She is one of the first female artists to paint herself, anticipating the narcissism of our time: the art of the selfie before its time.

She creates more than fifty self-portraits, almost half of her artistic production. One of her most famous self-portraits remains Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.

Frida Kahlo's Self-Portrait with her Velvet Dress
Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with her Velvet Dress

The elephant and the dove

In 1928, Frida Kahlo meets Diego Rivera, a Mexican painter twenty years her senior. A famous muralist painter, he immediately notices Frida’s unique beauty.

They will marry a year later and Frida Kahlo imposes Diego on her parents. Her mom will say that "it’s the elephant marrying the dove". Indeed, the couple is mismatched: Frida has style, in addition to being radiant and coquettish. On the contrary, Diego, although tall, is chubby and not very graceful. And he is twice her age!

Very quickly, their relationship becomes tumultuous. Frida is captivated by this man, madly in love, but often unhappy.

Fickle, Diego will even go as far as to cheat on her with her younger sister Cristina. What Frida will never forgive him: "I suffered two serious accidents in my life. One in which a tram knocked me down. The other was Diego" she will say. And despite the couple’s notoriety, Frida will remain in Diego’s shadow.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, her husband, in 1948
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, her husband, in 1948

In 1938, she meets André Breton and his wife Jacqueline Lamba. "Art like a ribbon around a bomb," they will say. This meeting will change her career.

Thanks to the couple’s vast network, Frida Kahlo becomes known and her paintings arouse interest. From then on, Frida devotes herself exclusively to her painting. She exhibits for the first time in 1953 at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Mexico, a year before her death.

The love story of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is marked by a deep political commitment. Together, they support communism and revolutionary ideas. Both become members of the communist party.

Frida Kahlo also embraces the cause of the indigenous populations of her country. After her marriage, she abandons western clothing, including the men’s costumes she sometimes wore. She now prefers colorful dresses typical of Mexican tribes.

As a fashion icon, Frida Kahlo already asserts herself as a non-binary style woman. Through her varied clothing preferences, she embodies freedom, both in her life and in her art.

Frida Kahlo and her husband: Diego Rivera in painting
Frida Kahlo and her husband: Diego Rivera in painting

An icon of astonishing modernity

Frida Kahlo’s fame goes beyond her artistic talent. Her exploration of bisexuality in a conservative era has made her an LGBT icon. Her works address infertility, miscarriages, and sexual pleasure…

Attracted to beautiful minds, whether they are female or male, Frida Kahlo transcends genders.

Today, her peculiarities continue to seduce us: young people accumulate accessories in her image and some even embrace the unibrow. The acceptance of these differences has made her one of the first representatives of the body positive movement.

What is body positive?

Body positive is a movement that advocates the acceptance and appreciation of all bodies, regardless of their shapes, sizes or appearances. It aims to fight against unrealistic beauty standards and promote unconditional self-confidence.

Frida Kahlo displaying modern outfits
Frida Kahlo displaying modern outfits

Her cultural influence

Today, the artist’s works are considered true masterpieces. Frida Kahlo has managed to make a place for herself among the great masters and influential artists of her time. She is a major figure in surrealism. This artistic movement allows painters to represent their life in a raw way and to explore social themes.

A notable fact for Frida Kahlo’s posterity: on September 18, 2024, a major immersive exhibition will be dedicated to her in Paris, at the Grand Palais. This exhibition will be presented until March 2, 2025, succeeding the one at the Palais Galliera, which ended in March 2023. Frida is being offered two simultaneous exhibitions, which is rare for an artist.

Designed as a multisensory dive into the life and universe of the painter, this experience is unique. It is already renowned worldwide. This exhibition has won fourteen international awards. Although it is not the first immersive exhibition, this one stands out with 360-degree projections of more than a hundred works, photos, archival documents and animations; all accompanied by an original soundtrack composed by Arturo Cardelus.

Telling the life of Frida Kahlo, the exhibition unveils her diary. It also reveals new perspectives on her paintings. This exhibition-show has already been presented in Madrid, the UK, Argentina and Colombia. Praised by critics and the public, the exhibition is enjoying international success. So, just a little more patience… it’s coming very soon to Paris.

At the Galliera Palace, the modern outfits of Frida Kahlo
At the Galliera Palace, the modern outfits of Frida Kahlo

How did Frida Kahlo die?

Frida Kahlo suffered a lot physically and morally throughout her life. Her injured body led her to the hell of alcohol and drugs. As we have seen, her passionate and devastating relationship with Diego Rivera marked her existence and her art.

In August 1953, Frida had to undergo the amputation of her right leg up to the knee due to gangrene. This operation eased her physical suffering, but plunged her into a deep depression. In her diary, she wrote: "They amputated my leg six months ago which seem like a secular torture and sometimes, I almost lost my mind. I always want to commit suicide. Only Diego prevents me from doing so, because I imagine that I could miss him. He told me, and I believe him. But never in my life have I suffered more. I will wait a little longer…"

Weakened by a severe pneumonia, Frida Kahlo died on the night of July 13, 1954, at the age of 47; officially from a pulmonary embolism. However, some of her friends believed that her death was due to an overdose of medication, possibly intentional. The last words of her diary: "I hope the exit is joyful… and I hope never to return", as well as her last drawing suggest that she might have committed suicide.

Frida was cremated the next day, in accordance with her last wishes. She did not want to be buried lying down, having suffered too much in this position in the hospital. Her ashes rest in the Casa Azul in Coyoacán, on her bed, in an urn bearing the image of her face.

Since her death, Frida Kahlo has become a myth. Madonna owns works by the painter that she and Jean-Paul Gaultier admire. The latter was inspired by her for his 1998 fashion show. Although Madonna wanted to play Frida Kahlo in a movie, it was finally Salma Hayek who got the role. The film Frida, directed by Julie Taymor and released in 2002, is quite successful.

Today, people talk about "Fridamania" in reference to the many objects created in her image, such as cushions, headbands and t-shirts.

Frida Kahlo, despite her 47 years of life, has left an indelible mark on art and fashion. Her feminist convictions and her desire for emancipation make her one of the most famous painters in the world.

Salma Hayek, actress portraying the role of Frida Kahlo in the movie, Frida in 2002
Salma Hayek, actress portraying the role of Frida Kahlo in the movie, Frida in 2002

Frida Kahlo’s social networks