Hands on History: Who was Frida Kahlo?


By Shani Asokan

When we learn about the great artists of history, often we learn about the same handful of male painters and sculptors from Europe in the Middle Ages. However, our history is full of amazing artists who have certainly left their mark on this world. 

One such artist is Frida Kahlo, a Mexican painter, known for her portraits, self-portraits and paintings inspired by nature and Mexican popular culture. Today, we’re going to learn all about her and her contribution to the world of art.

Early years

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon was born in July 1907 to a German Father and a Mestiza (a person with European and Indigenous American heritage) mother in Mexico City. 

Unfortunately, Frida’s childhood wasn’t a very happy one. When Frida was six years old, she contracted polio, a disease that left her with a disability. The illness forced her to be isolated from everyone for months, and begin school later than everyone else her age. In school she was severely bullied, and she had trouble making friends. 

Frida was close to her father, and spent a lot of her time learning about literature, nature and philosophy from him. 

In 1922, Frida was accepted to attend the elite National Preparatory School, where she studied natural sciences. She was among the first women to attend the institution, and she performed immensely well, developing an acute interest in Mexican culture, political activism and social justice.

A tragic accident

In 1925, Frida was on her way home from school when the bus she riding in was hit by a street car. Frida was severely injured in the accident. Among other injuries, her spine was broken in three places and she had to spend several months recovering in hospital and at home.

Though she did not know it at the time, this would be the end of Frida’s dreams of becoming a physician. The accident would cause her pain and illness for the rest of her life. In 1928, after having finished her latest bout of bedrest, Frida met Diego Rivera, an artist 20 years her senior. They were married in 1929.

Between the years 1929 and 1934 the couple travelled extensively. Upon her return to Mexico, Frida once again faced serious health problems. By 1939, Frida and Diego were divorced, and she moved back to her childhood home as her health continued to worsen. It was at this time that Frida turned to art. 

Though she had been painting a little since 1932, it was at this time that she began to work on larger canvases. Unable to channel her emotions or interests any other way, she used her painting to express herself, from chronicling her own life experiences to expressing her interests in social justice and culture.

By 1940, three exhibitions featured her work. She continued to paint despite her failing health. Much of her famous paintings today are from this time in her life.

Last years and death

By 1950, Frida was in and out of hospital. Still, she dedicated her remaining years to political activism, as much as her illnesses permitted. During this time, she also continued to draw and paint from her bed. However, like many other artists, though she was well-known, Frida gained much of her fame after she was long gone from this world. Frida Kahlo passed away in 1954, leaving behind an extensive legacy that we have only skimmed in this article. If you’re curious, I highly encourage you to read more about her!