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I first became aware of Frida Kahlo, as I suspect many people did, through Salma Hayek’s portrayal of her in the self titled movie Frida released in 2002. The imagery and music captivated me as did Frida’s complex multi faceted character. She lived in chaotic circumstances among an evolving cast of troubled figures, political activists and social nonconformists.

Much has been written about her life and art  and I confess a general awareness of  these. We are a sum of our parts, as they say, and it is these parts that I find interesting. Before she was the world’s Frida, who was she? What were the underpinnings of her rebellious and provocative personality? How did nature and nurture equip her to fight through the pain to produce the body of art work that still captivates audiences today?

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Magdelena Carmen Frida Kahlo Calderón was born in a town south-west of Mexico City on July 6, 1907 to Karl Wilhelm Kahlo and Matilde Calderón y Gonzalez.  Frida’s father immigrated from Baden Germany with empty pockets and unable to converse in Spanish. His father, one of a long line of jewelers, had remarried following his wife’s death. Also, Wilhelm’s university education was derailed by a serious fall that resulted in a series of epileptic seizures. The culmination of these events strained the relationship between he and his father, hence the desire for a fresh start far from home.

Wilhelm soon changed his name to Guillermo and married a young Mexican woman. She sadly died giving birth to their second daughter. He later met Matilde Calderon at La Perla, a Mexico City jewelers where they both worked. Matilde was raised in a strict Catholic household, strongly rooted in Mexico’s history. Her grandfather had been a Spanish general. As the eldest of twelve children, she grew caring for her younger siblings. In the absence of maternal affection, she would be ill equipped to show love to her own future children.

Frida Kahlo at age 4 (Photo: Guillermo Kahlo)
Frida Kahlo at age 4 (Photo: Guillermo Kahlo)

Matilde married Guillermo and convinced him to follow along in her father’s photographer footsteps. She rejected the two daughters from Guillermo’s first marriage; the youngest was raised in a convent. She and her husband went on to have four daughters of which Frida was the youngest. The death of a son, at one years old, devastated Matilde. Baby Frida was put in the charge of a wet nurse. Matilde sank into a pattern of depression and illness that made it necessary for their two oldest daughters, Matita and Adriana, to care for Frida and her other young sister, Cristina.

At the age of six, Frida contracted polio, and for a lifetime suffered shooting pain through muscles in her right leg. She was bed ridden for nine months and received around the clock care. During this time of isolation, Frida developed an inner world, an escape of the imagination that would form the basis of her art

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Frida Kahlo, age 12 (Photo: Guillermo Kahlo)

Guillermo devised an exercise program to help her regain strength. This was a novel approach for the time made even more forward thinking because of the traditionally male activities that it included: roller skating, biking, rowing, and wrestling. Frida’s leg remained thin, a fact she disguised with her attire,  and she walked with a limp. She developed a tough attitude to conceal her hurt feelings from other children’s mockery. “Frida pata de palo”, they called her, “peg leg Frida”.

Next week’s post, Frida Kahlo: Part 2, will continue to explore the ill fated youth of this extraordinary woman.

Lead Photo: by Mario Salmi

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