The War of Art: Frida Kahlo Explores Her Identity in Her Life’s Work
Legendary Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s life was plagued by many obstacles—one among them being mental illness—but none of them held her back from leaving her creative mark on the world. Kahlo was diagnosed with minor depression, but experienced two major depressive episodes and suicide attempts during her lifetime.
Born in 1907, Kahlo grew up during the Mexican revolution. She had an unstable home life, and allegedly suffered sexual abuse from a family member—some experts speculate her own father. She contracted Polio at age 6, and when she was 18, she was in a near-fatal bus accident that left her with a broken spine, collarbone, ribs and pelvis—and a metal pole that speared her body, damaging her reproductive system and leaving her with life-long bouts of pain—both physical and mental.
After the bus accident, Kahlo abandoned her medical studies and started to paint. At age 23, she married famed painter Diego Rivera. The marriage was troubled—with both parties engaging in extramarital affairs. Kahlo was bisexual and had relationships with women while married to Rivera, and Rivera had an affair with Kahlo’s sister that sunk her into a deep depression. Frida struggled with depression and identity issues throughout her life, and later alcoholism. After she divorced Rivera she had a major depressive episode. She remarried Rivera in 1940.
Of her 150+ paintings, 55 of them are self-portraits—Kahlo’s work often focused on her pain-wracked and broken body, self image and isolation. Her apparent dissociation and identity issues lead many researchers and historians to believe that Kahlo suffered from an array of mental illnesses—from posttraumatic stress disorder to bipolar disorder to dissociative identity disorder. Art historian Helga Prignitz-Poda characterized Kahlo as a woman with "emotional instability, chronic feelings of emptiness and fear of abandonment.”
Though the Louvre in Paris acquired some of her work in 1939, Kahlo did not receive worldwide recognition until well after her death. In the 1980s, when painting style neomexicanismo became popular, Kahlo’s work started being shown around the world, in London, Stockholm and Philadelphia. Frida Kahlo died in 1959, a week after her birthday, from a pulmonary embolism. She was 47 years old.