Frida Kahlo: Mexican Modernist

“Frida Kahlo: A Mexican Modernist, Dreaming beyond the paintbrush”

I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration-Frida Kahlo”.

 One of my most favorite artists as well as the one of the branches of the Modern Art movement will have the opportunity to present itself together beyond the dreams of humanity and beyond the paintbrush of this amazing artist. The Surrealism movement is fascinating because it attempts to figure out what dreams are and express the inner mind’s perspective of life without the frame that one has when awake, without the limitations of this “frame” Surrealists express this and Frida Kahlo is one of those artists that can inspire and enlighten anyone’s heart with beauty and sadness all at once. It is always a privilege to write about her and rediscover new things about her as my perspective sees her thru a different lens that exposes her talent and creativity; thru another light every time.

My approach to both of these topics; the Surrealism and as well as depicting the process of expression and interpretation of Frida Kahlo will be broken down in different categories to analyze and understand each category in detail without loosing the passion and creativity from both aspects. The thesis statement for this research will be fulfill by the end of this research by allowing the viewer to understand why Surrealism was important to the evolvement of the Modern Art movement, this era was concerned on the outer mind experience and this was enhanced by the use of drugs, sexuality and other forms of pleasure. This transformation is psychological and extremely physical as well. There had to be a sort of pain to discover and explore their inner minds and spirits and the question is why? What was taking place during this time that made them want to explore beyond the paintbrush, beyond the films and beyond their duty of being part of a society. And Frida Kahlo fits perfectly in this frame of transformation as well, how she was exposed to the world and the experiences that she had to endure also took her to want to discover beyond this reality. She expressed in many times and forms that she painted what she felt. She painted whatever went thru her mind as well as mentioning that she painted herself because she was often alone and that is all that she saw. Therefore, she had to endure in many stages the reality of her pain and life and wanting to understand what was going on beyond the surface, beyond the paintbrush and beyond the pain.

Both Frida and Surrealism’s intent is successful because it teaches the viewer about what they were trying to express as well as giving one the notion and initiative of self discovery. It leaves the viewer with a bitter taste of reality, of how disturbing life can be within their surroundings but as the painting is done or after the film or performance is over; it inserts a relief, an optimistic hope and thought that one still has the ability to dream and explore while resting from the harsh or tiring awakening reality. That there are no limitations, oppression, exploitation, abuse or physical pain in their dreams; there are no limitations, anything is possible in the Surreal World.

To begin this surreal journey, one must begin with the movement that allow it to evolve and it is the Modern movement that led many to go beyond the traditional standards of what art should be represented as. Now, one must present her in the light of both modern movements, not only the Western Modernism was taking effect during those times but there was a great impact for the Mexican Modernism as well.

To begin with, the main reasons as to why people were beginning to transition from traditional painting norms and regulations, was because of the new transformation of their cities. The new urban industrialization and evolvement of new technologies as well as a separation between classes of people such as the rich and the poor created a tension and disconnection between its people. All of these elements as well as the burst of the depression all became the motive for these new modernist artists to express themselves they way they did.

For Western Modernist; there was a desperate need to find an identity, to make itself a new beginning, their interest began to change into what art and beauty was therefore they turned into the interest of nature, the natural lights and shades and colors that it brings into the canvas. It was no longer needed to use a line to define a shape or color but to feel the tones of color, to feel a glazed, foggy grays and purples or feel the sun rays feel up an entire train station with its lights along with the steam coming out of those trains, making it a majestic experience, it did not matter if it did not depict the subject matter in its ideal perception, but the atmosphere is what matter to the artists, the realism, the truth to depict how life really is in an everyday life. As opposed as to the idealistic approach to life and beauty presented before. I brought in an overview of the Modernism roots to set the foundation of the research on Frida and especially it is important to provide the reaction to modernism in Mexico itself during this times.

According to Brettell, the widespread movement had a profound, and prolonged effect on the world of art. “Its global reach was insured by the chaos that resulted from the global depression and increasing warmongering of the 1930s.”(Brettell, pg.47) And some of the countries that were strongly influenced by the Western Modernist theory were also being practice in Mexico.

Therefore one must ask, what were the causes in Mexico to also take into theory the modernist movement? And who were the artists that lead the revolution of these new styles? And who were the artists that kept on evolving and growing into other styles as well. There was not only a presence of Mexican Modernism in Mexico itself, but its presence was also observed in Los Angeles California, the amazing works by Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco were just a few of the leading Mexican Modernists in the United States at the time. At the time of beginning of the Mexican Modernism along the same time the Western Modernism movement was on the rise was around the mid 1800’s. But although this movement was becoming global as referred by Brettell, Mexico kept their own belief to find its own identity thru their ancestry arts and history.  One of the forerunners for the modernists were Dr. Atl who is at times referred to as the St. John the Baptist of Mexican art.

“Dr. Atl knew that the practice of the arts of Mexico in his times were counterfeit, and he was early inspired to believe that production of the genuine article depended not upon fresh importations of arts and artists from Europe, but on the deferred rediscovery of the contemporary native scene.”(Helm, page 2)

I believe that the burst of events during the Mexican Revolution and the fall of the dictator Porfirio Diaz, the Mexican people had to find itself, a new fresh identity that will be empowering to them and it was found thru the revolutionary scenes and native rediscovery, not only was the Mexican Revolution going to take its place in history but there was also the birth of an artistic revolution, one of the main causes of this outburst was due to the resistance of the Porfirian legacy, his ideology of the culture he wanted for Mexico to undertake was the practices of Europe and the Unites States, they considered indigenous people to be obstacles of this new adoption of culture and in 1920, artists and painters resisted against the Porfirian legacy and it became known as the period of the Mexican Renaissance.

“Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jose Clemente Orozco and Frida Kahlo painted while the first social revolution in the Americas, the Mexican Revolution was unfolding. They engaged with the Revolution’s radical goals-land reforms for peasants, labour conquests for workers, the emancipation of indigenous people, and the struggle for greater independence from the United States.” (White, page 12).  Understanding this is essential to the research because it allows one to view the direction in which this new art revolution was leading to. After the foundation and remarkable growth of the Mexican Muralist Movement, the next evolution came into action with the birth of the Mexicanismo (Mexicanism). The minister of Public Education, Jose Vascolcelos was what made the renaissance possible for Mexico.  According to White, he called all intellectuals to sign a pact of alliance with the revolution. “Cultural nationalism was to be harnessed to the task of making better citizens. (White, page 18). This is where he commissioned Rivera and Siqueiros to paint the walls  of important buildings and one of them was the National Preparatory School in Mexico City in 1921. It was an important movement in which the Mexican artists were emerging into their surroundings such comparison to the growth of the Realism objective in the Western art world. Within the Mexicanismo various artists embraces this perspective and among them as Helm stated that “of the two most distinguished women painters in Mexico, Maria Izquierdo and Frida Kahlo, the former is the more deliberated and objectively devoted to mexicanismo Frida Kahlo was a city girl and Marian Izquierdo grew up in the provinces”. (Helm, page 143).

Finally, to introduce Frida Kahlo’s presence is the midst of all these movements taking place from the break of the Mexican Revolution to the outbreak of new movements emerging not only in Europe or the United States but also having an impact in her life as well. Mexico during the 1920’s was a world filled with philosophy, intellect and filled with an explosion of art and poetry and all of these strong energies were in part going to be a strong influence and passion on Frida as well.

Frida Kahlo’s life has a strong impact as to how her future was going to be from her early childhood. She was born in July 6, 1907 as Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon, she was the third daughter of Guillermo and Matilde Kahlo in Coyoacan, Mexico, her and her sister Christina were mainly raised by their older sisters because their mother Matilde was often sick. It appears that from an early age she was already experiencing the effects of pain and illnesses from her mother.

In 1910, when the Mexican Revolution broke out, there were many events in which created the uprising of guerillas armies and it is noted in history that some of these guerilleros would be fed and healed in her house. It is written in her diary in which she remembers some of the events that took place during that time.

“I remember that I was 4 years old and when the tragic 10 days took place. I witness with my own eyes Zapata’s peasants’ battle against the Carrancistas. My situation was really clear. My mother opened the windows on Allende Street. She gave access to the Zapatistas, seeing to it that the wounded and hungry jumped from the windows of my house into my living room, She cured them and gave them thick tortillas, the only food that could be obtained at the time in Coyoacan in those days.” (Frida Kahlo).

Frida Kahlo changed her year of birth to the same year as of the Revolution because she wanted to be born when this event happened as well. She wanted to be a part of this birth in her country. . She lived most of her life in the Blue house in Coyoacan; house that belonged to her parents but soon had become her own destiny in which she would spend the rest of her life until her very last days. As she grew older, she suffered many illnesses; at the age of 6 she suffered from polio, which caused for one of her legs to appear thinner than the other leg.

It was typical for young ladies like Frida Kahlo to often get taught on how to paint or use photography or learn any skills from their family members, I this case her father was the artist of the family and taught her many valuable things that she would later use in her career. But she was not the only woman that had been taught by her father, Artemisia Gentileschi, Marietta Robusti, (Tintoretto’s daughter) and Angelica Kaufman.   But as she went into her teenage years, a drastic accident, which involved a trolley car that plowed into ta flimsy wooden bus and it transformed Frida’s life. (Helm, page 47)  this horrific accident occurred in September 17, 1925 right after the anniversary celebration for the Mexican Independence from Spain.  Although after this tragedy, painting for Frida was the main remedy of her battle for life. As it is stated my Helm, “it was also very much a part of self-creation: in her art, as in her life, a theatrical self-representation was a means to control her world.” (Helm, page 75) She turned her paint into canvas self portraits and it was almost as theatrical as stated by Helm, it was a form of dramatization of her pain that became the central point of her image, specially portrayed in her art. But as the time went by and as she was able to do things on her own she still kept paining but did not return to her studies. “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”  She also stated, “I was born a bitch. I was born a painter” (Frida Kahlo).

She did go meet Diego Rivera for guidance as to making profit from her paintings to help her family’s income and he assured he would go to her home in Coyoacan if she kept painting and left behind her best works. After he visited her at the Blue House, they automatically became comrades and influenced each other and gave each other pain and love and unconditional support from there on.  Although, they were both their own individuals in regards to their art world, the love was unconditional from the beginning all the way until their very last days. It was an agonizing and sorrowful relationship, both Diego and Frida’s and most of the paint was reflected in her works of art. One of the images that best describes the agony and pain of her love life is found in “Las Dos Fridas” The Two Fridas, 1939, Oil on canvas, 67″ x 67″, Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City. Which are two full length self portraits in it, and according to Frida, one of the them is the Frida that Diego had loved in it she hold a miniature portrait of Diego, as her bloodline of veins moves over to the other Frida, side in which the other Frida holds a pair of scissors and her heart is exposed to show it being damaged and broken by the pain she is enduring with the divorce with Diego. This is one of the works that has many elements of the Surrealist style and although she claimed to not being aware of the movement that began in Europe, it was strongly suggested to her that she was part of that style as well.

Which bring to the next topic of one of my favorite movements; the Surrealism movement style; which originates in Paris, France but took over the styles in Madrid Spain because they were bored with Cubism. There were many sectors in which the surrealism kept on reshaping itself, from German Surrealism, French and Spanish Surrealism and it also influenced and created the Mexican Surrealism as well; the interest rise more on the pathological psychology and poetry as well as freedom of self discovery and expression derived from illusions, thoughts and dreams.  Some of the artists from Mexico that was of the first to begin this style were Moreno Villa, Carlos Orozco Romero, and Guillermo Meza, but the first connection of Mexican and European Surrealism was made by Moreno Villa mainly because he had graduated from 3 universities in Europe, therefore he had to had come back home with some influences. Frida on the other hand excluded herself from the Mexican Surrealist School of painting. She always wanted to claim herself and independently exponent of the school. (Helm page 166)

“Really I do not know whether my paintings are surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself,” Frida once wrote. “Since my subjects have always been my sensations, my states of mind and the profound reactions that life has been producing in me, I have frequently objectified all this in figures of myself, which were the most sincere and real thing that I could do in order to express what I felt inside and outside of myself.”  (Frida Kahlo)

But there is fact many attributes of her poetic and sadistic style of painting that are similar to those of the Surrealist painters at the time, as noted on the works of Brettell, Surrealism took pale in 1924 where Andre Brento (1896-1966) issued the first Surrealist Manifesto, and it was not for the visual artists but mainly for writers. “He called a poetic unconscious, of the mental world outside the control of reason and social organization”. (Brettell page 44).

The Surrealism lead to the unconscious, h, dreams, nightmares and drugs elements that were all part of a unconscious need for recovery from the everyday life of pain, sorrow and mishaps and this directly implies the life and works of Frida Kahlo because she used her paintings as form of releasing the inner thoughts of her unconscious to provide a sort of hope and self identity through her paintings and this was not done for others, but for her own personal healing and growth. She was strongly influenced by the social freedom that Trotsky and Rivera portrayed in their own beliefs.

This is one of the strong elements that did eventually tied Frida Kahlo with the Surrealism Movement.  Her agonizing pain portrayed the unconscious, not only was her art work a cry for help or to be heard of her pain that was not only physical but also emotional in regards to Diego’s love. Her love letters, her diaries, her paintings all reflected her need for life, her passion for all things around her and her endless love to paint to express her self.

In conclusion, the Surrealism movement is fascinating because it attempts to figure out what dreams are and express the inner mind’s perspective of life without the frame that one has when awake, without the limitations of this “frame” Surrealists express this and Frida Kahlo is one of those artists that can inspire and enlighten anyone’s heart with beauty and sadness all at once. It is always a privilege to write about her and rediscover new things about her as my perspective sees her thru a different lens that exposes her talent and creativity; thru another light every time.

“I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you.”- Frida Kahlo.


  1. Brettell, R. Richard,” Modern Art 1851–1929, Capitalism and Representation”

Oxford University Press, New York. 1999.

  1. Hayden, Herresa, “Frida, A biography of Frida Kahlo”  Perennial Library, Harper & Row, Publishers. New York. 1983.
  2. Helm, MacKinley. “Modern Mexican Painters”. Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, New York. Harper & Row Publishers, Incorporated. 1941.
  3. Kahlo, Frida,” Quotations of the Authors”
  4. Kettenmann, Andrea, :Frida Kahlo 1907-1954, Pain And Passion” Taschen. 2002.
  5. Tibol, Raquel. “Frida by Frida” Selection of letters and texts forwarded and notes. Published by Editorial RM, S.A. de C.V., Mexico. 2003.
  6. White, Anthony, “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernists” The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection. National Gallery of Australia. 2001.

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