Frida Kahlo: activist for the feminist cause

In a patriarchal society in which inequalities between men and women persist, it is important to talk about pioneers of feminism who have fought for emancipation and for the rights of women. The talented Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter, is one of those who made the cause of women’s rights a personal affair. She established herself as a true icon of feminism, desiring to defend “this silent and submissive mass”. Her intrepid character and striking and revolutionary works, as well as her nonconformism, have made her into the legend that she is today. The beautiful Mexican woman with a ruined body and broken heart, the “daughter of the Mexican revolution” as she liked to call herself, transformed the world from Mexico. Here is a look back at this strong and independent woman, and at her tragic life.

A dramatic existence: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…

Frida Kahlo claimed to be born in 1910, a date symbolic of the beginning of the Mexican revolution, but in reality she was born in 1907 on the outskirts of Mexico City. She spent her childhood and most of her life in the “Casa de Azul” (the blue house in Spanish), which is now a museum dedicated to her, and which keeps many of Kahlo’s works and personal objects hidden within its walls.

As a young child, Kahlo was forced to overcome complicated challenges. In fact, at the age of only six, she fell victim to polio, an infectious disease that can cause paralysis. Before long, her right leg began to deform and stop growing. These physical anomalies led her to be mocked by her classmates, who called her “crippled”. This period, although upsetting, helped her to grow in maturity, and she learned to turn this weakness into strength.

From an early age, the Mexican decided she did not want to follow the same path as the other women in her country; that is to say, one dictated by misogyny. Kahlo dreamed of travelling, independence and freedom. She wished to study and to come to know love, pleasure and happiness. At the age of sixteen, she was already interested in politics, and had no plans to embark on the same journey as her father Wilhelm Kahlo, a great painter and photographer of German origin. Art was still, at this time, totally foreign to her. 

An accident: a turning point in her life…

Kahlo was young, beautiful, and had a promising future ahead of her. She would study hard and would become a woman. But at 18 years old came her coup de grâce, a turning point in her young life. She would take the bus to return from lessons; one day, the driver lost control of the engine and veered off the road, colliding with a tramway. The result was catastrophic: many people died in the accident. Kahlo did not die, but suffered serious injuries from being pierced by part of the bus. She had a perforated abdomen, a fractured leg, a broken foot; her pelvis, ribs and spine were all broken. In short, her body was mutilated. She was forced to remain in hospital for several months in a plaster cast. Her reproductive organs were also affected; she would learn years later that she could not have children.

Only her mental strength would help her to overcome this trauma and these immense physical and moral challenges. She decided to fight against herself, against her own body. For this, she took refuge in painting, depicting on canvas things as she saw them. Across her self-portraits, she focused on herself and made herself the true subject of her art. Painting helped her to get back on her feet and forget the suffering that consumed her.

1928 marked the beginning of her involvement in politics, when she joined the Mexican Communist Party. She wanted to change the order of things, overturn social codes and reduce inequalities; she wished to partake in the revolution to transform the world into one without classes, and where oppressed groups would live in better conditions. The “daughter of the revolution” launched herself into a fight for the rights of women and against the machismo which was so common in Mexico and everywhere else at this time. The man was considered dominant, while the women was reduced to the role of the housewife. Kahlo could not stand these inequalities, and refused to submit to these degrading stereotypes.

Diego Rivera: a relationship regulated by passion and by suffering.

Not long after this, she met Diego Rivera, a communist painter whose frescoes had brought him popularity (they can now be seen in San Francisco, for example). Kahlo was impressed by his work, and Rivera was captivated by this unique and talented woman. They shared the same love of art and for communism. It was love at first sight, and they decided to marry. Kahlo’s mother was unimpressed, calling this marriage “a union between a dove and an elephant”.

The pair were passionately in love, but before long, Rivera’s infidelity began to complicate their relationship. He had an affair with Kahlo’s sister, as well as other women. But these adulteries encouraged his wife to do the same: being bisexual, she had male and female lovers, such as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and the Parisian actress Josephine Baker. Despite these unhealthy goings-on, the lovers could not bring themselves to leave each other; if anything, their passion for each other became stronger. Indeed, after this difficult period they divorced in 1939, before remarrying a year later as they couldn’t bear to be apart any longer.

Kahlo’s inability to have children due to her accident added itself to a series of psychological pains that she had to face. Her repeated miscarriages had terrible mental health implications. She was desperate, and felt alone and abandoned by everyone. This period would become for her one of the most painful in her life, and it would take a long time for her to accept it and move forward.

The 1950s: the descent into hell.

From 1946 onwards her state of health, which had been stable, begun to get progressively worse. Her pain became unbearable, and she had to have multiple operations on her spine. The result was regrettable: she was forced to spend no less than nine months in her hospital bed. No longer being able to be in control of her own body put her in a difficult situation. However, she continued to paint, even assisting with her photographer friend Lola Alvarez Bravo’s exhibition from her hospital bed.

In 1953, she had another setback: her right leg had to be amputated due to gangrene. This operation put an end to her physical suffering, but her struggles felt more present than ever. The loss of her leg plunged her into a deep depression. She wrote in her journal that the amputation of her leg almost made her lose her mind. She had a permanent desire to kill herself, with only her husband preventing her doing so as she imagined he would miss her. She said she had never suffered so much in her life.

From her wheelchair, she continued to fight for what she believed in. She never ceased to spread messages of equality and to depict taboo subjects (sex, desire, infertility) in her paintings. Weakened by pneumonia, Kahlo passed away in 1954, but the last words she wrote in her aroused suspicions among those around her: “I joyfully await the exit – and I hope never to return.” It was suspected that she committed suicide, which would have allowed her to put an end to her pain.

She remains a woman brimming with life and a flamboyant model of strength and independence, who fought for her convictions until her list birth. Her final painting bears witness to this: she inscribed “viva la vida” among the vibrant colours which illuminate the work. These vivid colours may be seen as paradoxical when compared with the struggles which occupied her existence. Through this message of optimism, Kahlo demonstrates that whatever difficulties someone experiences, life is still worth living.

Frida Kahlo: an icon of feminism

Throughout her life, Frida Kahlo was the embodiment of a true icon of feminism. She opposed the inflexibility of Mexican society, which was resistant to the emancipation of women. She constructed her myth alone, with the help of her strong personality and uncompromising character.

Kahlo was an atheist in very Catholic Mexico, and it was from here that she begun her originality and opposition to the norm. She called herself bisexual in a society attached to old-fashioned values, against what she could call “deviance”.

The political situation in Mexico had a great influence on her work. Revolution was taking place between 1910 and 1920. The country emerged from this period weakened in every domain: economic, social and political. From 1920 to 1924, the situation in Mexico began to stabilise, but inequalities persisted. After this period, distinction based on gender came back in full force. Women, who had contributed during this hostile period and succeeded in breaking into the political sphere, were reduced to their former role as housewives. This was the return of enslavement, to domestic tasks, to the absence of rights. They had no access to political life or education. At a young age, Kahlo refused to submit to this, and took up the fight against gender stereotypes.

Her preferred weapon: painting. Through her art, she was able to raise awareness, provoke and express herself freely. Each of her paintings allowed her to talk about taboo subjects, which nobody had dared to talk about before that point. From sex to abortion, miscarriages and even depression, her paintings illustrate the experiences forming the life of a woman. They allowed her to shine a light on the suffering of women and the trials they may face, that the men at the time had difficulty understanding. Kahlo placed no limits on herself; she even depicted genitalia. Many would criticise her work and would view it is a mark of vulgarity and indecency. André Breton, avant-gardist and surrealist, declared that “her art is a ribbon around a bomb”.

One thing which allows us to pick the Mexican artist out of a crowd is her monobrow and small moustache. She didn’t hide them, quite the opposite; she used them to make an impression in this world where women are subjugated and victims of social pressures. They had to look like an imposed ideal and for this reason, any sign of masculinity was unwelcome. Kahlo showed that her hair did not prevent her beauty, she that embodies elegance and femininity. The Mexican wanted to liberate herself from the standard of the perfect woman, which had to fulfil many criteria. She disturbed people with her nonconformist values. In certain family photos, she is seen wearing an outfit otherwise reserved for men. Rivera, in one of his paintings, had even depicted her with a cigarette in her mouth and bottle of Tequila in hand. A woman with a weakness for alcoholic drinks was more than looked down upon, but Kahlo liked this and did not hide it: “I drank to drown my sorrows, but the damned things learned how to swim.”

The cause of feminism and her combat in favour of minorities were not the only battles that Kahlo undertook. “Mexicanidad” (“mexicanness”), the acceptance of her roots and of her identity as a Mexican woman, was also on this already exhaustive list. After the long years of revolution and economic, political and social chaos in Mexico, it was necessary to reconstruct the country and make sure that the residents were proud of their roots. This is why, in 1942, she became a member of the “Seminario de Cultura Mexicana”, an organisation created by the Minister of Cultural Affairs. The organisation aimed to encourage the spread of Mexican culture by way of exhibitions and other cultural meetings which would represent the country’s tradition.

Frida Kahlo, through her masterful and striking works, her commitment to the cause of the rights of women and minorities, through the courage she showed during a life of challenges, is today firmly rooted among the numerous women who have fought for equality. The painful trials she was forced to face gave her the strength to face any difficulty. Her provocative paintings became a symbol of open-mindedness and freedom. Until her last breath, Kahlo, through painting the most meaningful phases of her life, was aware of being the spokesperson for all the women who were denied the right to express themselves.

Imane Rachati

Translated by Jenny Frost