top of page

Who is Frida Kahlo? Part Two

Updated: Jun 17, 2023

In the previous blog, we talked about Kahlo’s early life, the accident she faced, the first portrait she pained, and her love relationship with Diego. Are you ready for part two? We cannot only talk about Frida Kahlo in only one part, so let us talk a little bit more about her because she is a great painter.

Surreal or Realist?

Frida Kahlo met Andre Breton, one of the founding founders of the Surrealist movement, in 1938. Frida stated that she did not consider herself a Surrealist "until André Breton arrived in Mexico and informed me I was one”.

But, Kahlo denied it, claiming she simply depicted her truth. She also said, "Really I do not know whether my paintings are surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself". "Since my subjects have always been my sensations, my states of mind, and the profound reactions that life has been producing in me, I have frequently objectified all this in figures of myself, which were the most sincere and real thing that I could do to express what I felt inside and outside of myself."

The Suicide of Dorothy Hale

She had an exhibition at a New York City gallery the same year. She sold some of her paintings and received two commissions. Clare Boothe Luce commissioned one of them to paint her friend Dorothy Hale, who committed suicide.

Frida painted The Suicide of Dorothy Hale (1939), which depicts Dorothy's tragic leap. The patron, Luce, was horrified and nearly destroyed the painting.

Dorothy Hale's Suicide, 1938 - Frida Kahlo
Dorothy Hale's Suicide, 1938 - Frida Kahlo

Dorothy Hale is a Ziegfeld showgirl from the United States. She had a few failed relationships and her career was failing after her husband was killed in a car accident. She committed suicide on October 21, 1938, because she was in serious financial trouble and had to rely on wealthy friends. In her favorite black dress and a corsage of small yellow roses, she jumped from the top window of her luxury apartment suite in New York.

Clare Boothe Luce, Dorothy's close friend and admirer of Frida Kahlo, as well as the publisher of the fashion magazine "Vanity Fair," commissioned Kahlo to paint a "recuerdo" (remembrance) portrait of their deceased mutual friend for $400 almost immediately. Clare intended to give this portrait as a gift to Dorothy's grieving mother.

She assumed Frida Kahlo would paint a standard portrait of Dorothy to hang over the fireplace. Clare was shocked and nearly died when the painting arrived in August 1939 and was unwrapped. She was seriously considering destroying it, but her friends persuaded her not to.

This painting is one of Frida's most shocking and controversial works, depicting every step of Hale's suicide. It depicts Hale standing on the balcony before falling to her death and collapsing on the bloody pavement below. It was painted in the style of an "ex-voto (retablo)" by Frida. The tragic event is described in blood-red lettering at the bottom:

"In New York City on the 21st of October 1938, at 6:00 in the morning, Dorothy Hale committed suicide by throwing herself from a very high window in the Hampshire House. In her memory [...], this retablo was executed by Frida Kahlo."

Sculptor Isamu Noguchi paints out the part of the legend that has Clare's name, which was once read as "painted at the request of Clare Boothe Luce, for the mother of Dorothy," at Clare's request. Another change she made was to remove an angel that had previously appeared at the top.

Clare gave the painting to her friend Frank Crowninshield, whose son returned it to Clare's family after Frank died. After that, the painting was stored for decades. It was anonymously donated to the Phoenix Art Museum and is now on display there.

Frida was in deep depression and contemplating suicide at the time she painted this painting, having recently separated from Diego. Frida's compassion for women driven to despair by male abandonment may be reflected in this painting.

The divorce of Frida Kahlo

Andre Breton invited Kahlo to Paris the following year, in 1939. Her work is displayed there, and she has become friends with artists such as Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, and Pablo Picasso. That year, she and Rivera divorced, and she painted The Two Fridas, one of her most famous works (1939).

 Frida Kahlo's The Two Fridas, 1939
Frida Kahlo's The Two Fridas, 1939

This painting was finished soon after her divorce from Diego Rivera. Frida's two personalities are depicted in this portrait. The traditional Frida in Tehuana costume, with a broken heart, sits beside an independent, modern Frida. Frida wrote about this painting in her diary, claiming that it was inspired by her memories of an imaginary childhood friend. She later admitted that it expressed her desperation and loneliness as a result of her separation from Diego.

The two Fridas are holding hands in this painting. They both have visible hearts, and the traditional Frida's heart is cut and torn open. The surgical pincers held in the lap of the traditional Frida cut off the main artery that runs from the torn heart down to the right hand of the traditional Frida. Her white dress is dripping with blood, and she is on the verge of dying from internal bleeding. Frida's inner turmoil may be reflected in the stormy sky filled with agitated clouds.

The Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Institute of Fine Arts) in Mexico City purchased this painting in 1947. At the time, the purchase price was 4,000 Pesos (approximately $1,000) plus an additional 36 Pesos for the frame. That was the highest price ever paid for a painting by Frida during her lifetime. The Frida Kahlo Museum in Coyoacan, Mexico, has a reproduction of this painting on display.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera remarried in 1940. The second marriage is similar to the first. They still live in separate houses and have separate lives. During their marriage, both of them had affairs with other people.

In 1941, Kahlo was commissioned by the Mexican government to paint five portraits of prominent Mexican women, but she was unable to complete the project. That year, she lost her beloved father and continued to suffer from chronic health problems. Despite her challenges, her work grew in popularity and was included in several group shows around this time.

Why Frida Kahlo had a unibrow and a mustache?

Frida Kahlo's personal and artistic style included a unibrow. She wore a unibrow and a mustache to make a point about male and female beauty standards. Her husband, Diego Rivera, encouraged her, and she depicted herself with these features in her paintings.

Kahlo's unibrow has become shorthand for “I won’t curb my self-expression to meet your expectations of how a woman should look.” That shock of dark hair on her brow is a statement rejecting stereotypes about what is and isn’t attractive.

Kahlo last days

Since 1950, her health has deteriorated. She was diagnosed with gangrene in her right foot that year. She was bedridden for the next nine months, requiring hospitalization and several surgeries. Frida Kahlo, on the other hand, persisted in her work and painting. She had a solo exhibition in Mexico in the year 1953.

Despite her limited mobility at the time, she attended the exhibition's opening ceremony. She arrived by ambulance, welcomed the attendees, and celebrated the ceremony in a bed provided by the gallery. She had to undergo another surgery a few months later. To stop the gangrene, a portion of her right leg was amputated.

She is deeply depressed in addition to her poor physical condition. She even had suicidal tendencies. During that year, Frida Kahlo was out and about and in and out of hospitals. Despite her health problems, she has remained active in the political movement.

On July 2, she attended a protest against the US-backed overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. This will be her final public appearance. Frida Kahlo died at her beloved Bule House about a week after her 47th birthday. She was publicly reported to have died of a pulmonary embolism, but there is speculation that she committed suicide.

Frida Kahlo Blue House Photograph
Frida Kahlo Blue House Photograph

Frida Kahlo's fame has grown since her death. Her Blue House was turned into a museum in 1958. The feminist movement revived interest in her work and life in the 1970s, as she was viewed as an icon of female creativity.

Hayden Herrera's biography of Frida Kahlo, A Biography of Frida Kahlo, was published in 1983, bringing more attention to this great artist. Frida, a film starring Alma Hayek as Frida Kahlo and Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera, was released in 2002. This film received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Makeup and Original Score.

This is the end of Frida Kahlo’s life journey but not an end to her beautiful and live lasting paints.


bottom of page