The Art and Life of Frida Kahlo


In the summer of 2020, the South Haven Center for the Arts—with the participation of local businesses, non-profits, private home owners, and volunteers—created a garden walk featuring flowers native to Frida Kahlo's beloved Mexico, accompanied by a brief history of Frida's life and how she came to be one of the most well-known artists in Mexico and worldwide.


Read on to learn some interesting Frida facts about her garden at her home in Mexico City, Casa Azul, her pets, her unique way of painting, exhibitions, her association with a Soviet revolutionary and a famous American actor, inspirations for some of her work, and how Frida adopted her unique style of dress.


We hope you enjoy this brief history of Frida Kahlo.




Frida Kahlo is considered one of the most important female artists of the 20th century. She was born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón in Mexico on July 6, 1907. Long after her death on July 13, 1954, her reputation and popularity continue to grow. Her body of work and iconic appearance—dark brow-line, floral hairpieces, and native Mexican clothing— has elevated her to an almost cult-like popularity.




Why did Frida draw in bed?


Frida Kahlo was born in Coyoacán, near Mexico City, in 1907. Her parents were Matilde Calderón, a mestiza, and Wilhelm (Guillermo) Kahlo, a German-immigrant photographer. At the age of six, Frida contracted polio and, thus, became her father's favorite. He suffered from epilepsy and understood how hard it was to be disabled. Polio left Frida with a shorter and weaker right leg, and she was taunted and bullied at school. Her father encouraged her drawing and a special easel was built to allow her to draw while lying in bed.


What happened to Frida’s dream of becoming a doctor?

Frida was eighteen in 1925 when her life changed dramatically and her dream of becoming a doctor was destroyed. She was on a bus that collided with a streetcar and the results were catastrophic. Recovery from many broken bones and severe internal injuries, compounded by three displaced vertebrae, kept her confined to bed and encased in plaster casts for months. Supportive corsets became a necessity and sometimes she painted herself in cage-like devices that appeared tortuous. She turned to art for solace and self-expression.



Why did Frida paint so many portraits of herself?

Frida Kahlo painted many self-portraits. Why? During her recovery from polio at age six and after her terrible bus accident at age eighteen, Frida spent long periods of time in bed and alone. A mirror attached above her bed allowed her to see her own face and a bit of her garden. She explained her early reclusive nature and apparent self-absorption by saying that she was the person she knew best. Several self-portraits show her in the cage-like devices she needed for recovery, while she seemed to resent them and resist their restrictions. After recovering some mobility, Frida attended art classes where she first encountered her future husband, Diego Rivera.



Why did Frida’s parents referred to Diego and Frida as "an elephant and a dove?"

Frida Kahlo was just fifteen when she first encountered the famous artist Diego Rivera while he was painting a mural at her school. Six years later they were introduced at a party. He critiqued her artwork and encouraged her to pursue a career as an artist. They began a relationship in 1928 and were married in 1929. She had just turned twenty-two and he was twenty years older than she. He was tall and overweight and not a handsome man, and she was short and delicate in health and physique. Her mother called it a wedding of "an elephant and a dove."



What did Frida think of the United States?

After marrying, Frida and Diego traveled to the United States where Rivera had commissions in California, Detroit, and New York City. Frida was essentially unknown and stood in his shadow. Rivera's fame brought them into contact with wealthy, important, and often-pretentious people wherever they went. While Frida enjoyed the elevated status given to Diego, she saw and was appalled by the great divide among the American people in the post-Depression era. Her views of this disparity are boldly and clearly revealed in Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, painted in 1932. There is no doubt she preferred and longed for all her homeland meant to her.



How was Frida's first solo exhibition in New York City born?


Frida's fame continued to grow, and her personal style and subject matter varied greatly. She painted some subjects realistically, but they often held deeper meanings related to her personal feelings and physical challenges. Symbolism, and some said Surrealism, were seen in her work. This aspect attracted the attention of Surrealist writer and poet André Breton, and he arranged for Frida to have her first solo exhibition in New York in 1938 at the Museum of Modern Art. It was a success, whereas her 1929 Paris exhibition was less so. However, her fame escalated when the Louvre Museum bought one of her paintings for its collection.



Which Frida portrait did the Louvre purchase?

The Louvre Museum purchased Frida Kahlo's 1938 self-portrait The Frame, at her 1939 solo exhibition in Paris. She sold nothing else, but this one purchase rocketed her to greater fame. It was the first work by a 20th century Mexican artist to be purchased by a museum of great international importance. The Frame was categorized as "naïve art"—art crafted by a person who lacked a formal, classical art education. It is a reverse glass painting of her face and head framed by bright flowers and two birds. The setting is reminiscent of the floral decorations and the roof lines of the pleasure boats on Lake Xochimilco near her home in Mexico.



What did Frida's garden offer during the worst times of her life?

The garden at Casa Azul abounded in green and flowering plants. Frida found solace and continuity in this lush space, and it provided her with a calming oasis in the midst of failing health and personal unhappiness. She surrounded herself with the plants she loved, and the dogs, birds, and monkeys that were her pets. Perhaps they were for her the children she was never able to have. She frequently depicted leaves, roots, flowers, fruits, animals, birds, and butterflies in her artwork. Some of her favorite plants were sunflowers, calla lilies, marigolds, cactus, and philodendron.



Why did the garden at Casa Azul have a pyramid in it?

The pyramids in Mexico symbolize the various indigenous people who inhabited the land long before Cortez reached its shores. Frida and Diego found much to admire in these pre-Columbian cultures, and Diego's murals are greatly influenced by them. Rivera was an avid collector of artifacts and Frida shared his passion. The pyramid in Frida and Diego’s garden was built to show their high regard for those early cultures, and served as a perfect place to display pieces from their vast collection. Many cacti and succulents found places of honor on their pyramid.



Besides art, what did Frida and Diego have in common?


Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, were active politically. They first met in 1928 at a Mexican Communist Party gathering. Mexico had long been ruled by Spain, followed by a series of dictators. The wealthy and privileged exploited the native population to keep power in their own hands. Frida and Diego vehemently opposed this, and believed the common people should hold the reins of government. During the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), many turned their eyes to similar struggles in other countries.



Why is Russian revolutionary Leo Trotsky part of a history of Frida Kahlo?

Frida was an adolescent during the years of the Mexican Revolution, but she was a fervent believer in its goals to end the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and establish a constitutional republic. Complete peace was not achieved and many struggles for power continued. Frida and Diego paid a lot of attention to Russia and the similarities between both countries. They admired Leon Trotsky, a Soviet revolutionary, and supported his doctrines. He was a follower of Lenin and was exiled when Stalin took control. In 1936, Frida and Diego persuaded the president of Mexico, Lázaro Cárdenas, to offer Trotsky asylum in Mexico. The Trotsky’s became house guests at Casa Azul.



Why did Frida land in jail three years later?

Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, hosted the Russian exile Leon Trotsky and his wife at Casa Azul. They offered their home and friendship until the arrangement became unacceptable to Rivera. It is a fact that neither Frida nor Diego practiced fidelity in their marriage, and it is thought Frida and Trotsky had a brief liaison. The Trotsky’s chose a nearby house that was fortified and guarded. Trotsky's fears of assassination were justified when he was killed by a member of his household in 1940. Diego was out of town, but Frida was arrested, questioned, and jailed for two days before she was exonerated.


Why did Frida and Diego build a Mexican cactus fence?

Frida and Diego sometimes felt that Casa Azul was not large enough for their needs. As a muralist, Rivera's works were often grand in scale. In the fashionable neighborhood of San Ángel, they built two tall houses very close together, but not touching, connected at the top by a narrow bridge. As a way of showing their love for all things Mexican, they created a Mexican cactus fence outside their home. It was, and still is, a common type of fencing around houses and fields in the countryside. As you remember, cactus and other succulent plants were abundant in Frida’s garden at Casa Azul.



Who made the first significant purchase of Frida's work?

During her early years of marriage to Rivera, Frida was often viewed in a patronizing way, and her "little paintings" were not considered of great interest or value. She made her first significant sale in 1938 when the American film star Edward G. Robinson bought four of her paintings for $200 apiece. She sold half of the twenty-five pieces she offered at that first solo exhibition in New York City. In 2006, her 1943 painting titled Roots sold at auction for $5.6 million, and in 2016, her 1939 painting Two Nudes in the Forest sold for $8 million. Frida loved the spotlight, and shortly before her death, her first solo exhibition was held in Mexico. Her doctors told her she couldn't go, but she had herself carried into the exhibition on a four-poster bed and stayed for the entire opening.



Why do butterflies often appear in Frida's work?


It is well known that Frida painted many self-portraits. Of the approximately 143 pieces of work she created, 55 of them show her alone or as the central figure. An easel was devised so that the young Frida could draw and paint while in bed recovering from polio. Later, a mirror was attached to the canopy above her, and she spent many hours focused on her own face. As Frida noted, she was the subject matter she knew best. As a mature woman, an admirer gave her a framed collection of butterflies, and they often appear in her work. Beautiful in their own right, in ancient cultures they symbolized resurrection. Frida created a kind of resurrection of herself, a persona that appeared strong and bold while being physically weak and troubled.



Why did Frida have so many pets?


Due to the injuries she suffered in a bus accident at age eighteen, Frida was told she would never bear children. When this became evident, she surrounded herself with animals of many kinds, particularly birds, monkeys, and dogs. Perhaps their playfulness and company amused her, or they became lovable substitutes for children. Like pets and service animals today, they offered her unconditional affection and she frequently painted herself with them. She owned several dogs, among which was an ancient and rare breed called a Xoloitzcuintli—Xolo for short. It is a hairless dog of considerable intelligence and can be seen represented at major dog shows today.



How was interest in Frida reborn long after her death?

When Frida died in 1954, her husband locked away many of her most personal belongings (including her favorite Revlon lipstick and eyebrow pencil). When they were found over fifty years later, a whole new generation of women was intrigued by the life she led. A powerful surge of feminism had occurred in the 1970s, and Frida’s life epitomized many aspects of it. She may have been challenged and endured suffering, but she lived her life in a bold and seemingly self-confident manner. She, like her butterflies, were reborn when items like her letters, photos, and a diary of her last ten years were revealed. Her spirit resonated with many, especially women, and interest in her life and work ballooned.



Why did Frida paint a portrait of Luther Burbank?

Luther Burbank (1849–1926) was a renowned American botanist and horticulturist. He was famous for growing unusual hybrid fruits and vegetables for the betterment of all. Frida loved plants for many reasons: their beauty and color, their symbolic meanings and their lush offerings that not only nourished the body but also glorified the abundance of her beloved Mexico. In 1931, during a trip to San Francisco, Frida painted Portrait of Luther Burbank, which depicts him as half-man, half-tree. She often included plants, roots, and vines in her artwork, and incorporated them into the body of her main subject. Please return to this museum when it is open to learn about Liberty Hyde Bailey, South Haven's own premier horticulturist.


How was Frida-mania born?


The SHCA hopes you have learned a great deal about Frida Kahlo and her life and art. She was born at Casa Azul in 1907 and died there in 1954. She suffered from polio and traumatic injuries that troubled her throughout her life. She adopted the clothing of the Tehuana women because the style concealed her physical imperfections, and symbolized the strength of that matriarchal society. Frida celebrated Mexico and had great respect for its indigenous people. She was the one who knew herself best, and her paintings reflected every emotional and physical aspect of her life. When her diary and personal possessions that her husband Diego Rivera locked away after her death were discovered in 2004, there was an explosion of interest in her art and life, and Fridamania was born.


Take a walk with Frida Kahlo!


Many thanks to Carol Trittshuch for researching and writing about Frida, to Paola Gracida for creating the line drawings, and to Jennifer Sistrunk for incorporating Paola's drawings into her own creative graphic designs.


Frida Kahlo's Garden Walk was sponsored by the South Haven Area Community Foundation, Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs, National Endowment for the Arts, Edward Jones Office of Paul Hix, local businesses and non-profits, and private donations.

​Thanks to this generous support, the South Haven Center for the Arts was able to create this outdoor exhibition. Thank you to our funders and sponsors, and to our volunteers who tended the downtown planters throughout a gorgeous summer in South Haven!

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