In Frida Kahlo: Part I, I set out to build a picture of her life before her artistic success. I wondered how nature and nurture worked together to form this determined artist. Her first years were undoubtedly tumultuous, coping with her mother’s of affection, her sisters being sent away, and the affects of polio in her right leg.

Frida spent a lot of time in Guillermo Kahlo’s photography studio, learning about his craft. The meticulous brushstrokes she used to retouch and colour his photographs would later show in her own work. She developed a love of nature, often seen in her paintings, during photography expeditions with her father. Frida recounted that she learned to help him when he succumbed to epileptic seizures on such outings. One can’t help thinking that the experience must have been traumatizing for a little girl and particularly in the early 1900s with the laymen’s limited access to medical information.

Frida enjoyed shocking people with her fashion sense — German school girl attire, severe hairstyles, or traditional Mexican costume. She poses in in male attire with school friends. (Photo: Guillermo Kahlo, 1925)

Matilde, her mother, schooled Frida in embroidery, sewing, cooking and housekeeping in addition to forced Catholic practices. This was a steep contrast the offerings of her father’s library full of Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Frida was one of the first girls to attend Mexico’s top schools,  Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. She passed the entrance exams with impressive scores and an intent to study anatomy, biology and botany in preparation for medical school. The influences of these studies are evidenced in her paintings. Mexico was undergoing a rebirth and so was Frida. She became involved in a student group called Cachuchas; their focus was intellectual and political. Meanwhile, Matilde opposed Frida’s moving away for an education.  Girls attending university was unheard of at the time and Frida was only 14 years old. Also, her mother disliked the co-ed school; 35 girls and 2000 boys.

Guillermo was the first official photographer of Mexico’s “national cultural patrimony” but when the dictator Diaz fell from power, the flow of commissioned work dissolved and the family fell on financial hard times. Frida helped by working odd jobs in a sawmill, a pharmacy and a factory. She also worked for family friend and respected print maker, Fernando Fernandez. He taught her to draw, and subsequently, was the first to recognize her artistic talent.

Frida Kahlo lies in hospital bed painting a collage on her plaster corset Photo: Juan Guzmán, 1951
Frida Kahlo lies in hospital bed painting a collage on her plaster corset (Photo: Juan Guzmán, 1951)

On December 17, 1925, Frida’s life took a fateful turn when the bus she was riding was struck by a tram. The wooden bus was crushed upon impact and Frida received devastating injuries: “fracture of third and fourth lumbar vertebrae, triple fracture to pelvis, approximately eleven fractures to right leg, dislocation of left shoulder, stomach wound due to metal rod entering left side an exiting by the vagina … acute peritonitis. Cystitis.” (consultation notes by Dr. Henriette Begun, 1946)

Matilde did not visit Frida over the duration of her hospital stay. It took her father three weeks to visit, his shock and grief was too great. Her sister, Matita, was the only family member to visit her in the hospital. Frida would later tell her artist husband, Diego Rivera, that she could live with infidelity, but never without loyalty. Perhaps this was the beginning of that need.

Frida Kahlo endured 22 surgeries over the course of her life. This photo was taken in 1940.

Frida Kahlo inspires me. She painted courageous and self revealing works of art through her physical and emotional suffering. She applied her pain to the canvas to tell her story. Her creativity distracted her from her situation. I will remember her persistence the next time a migraine strikes. The after effects can set me back creatively as they last for a few weeks. I find this derailment frustrating, but after researching this woman, I’ll call on my inner Frida. Also, the importance of forming a back story of family history for the characters I develop is further affirmed. We are the bits and pieces of the people, environment, and experiences that encounter as we journey through life. This context makes our story, and our characters’ stories, all the more gripping.

 Lead photo: by Nickolas Murray

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