In my last blog I started to look at the life of Frida Kahlo, the great Mexican surrealist painter and had reached a point where Frida was born on July 6th 1907 and was living in Coyocoán, the small town on the outskirts of Mexico City with her father Guillermo and her mother Matilde. They lived at La Casa Azul, the house the father had built for the family and in which Frida was born. Today I am carrying on with her life story and taking a look at two men who had a great effect on her life, her father and her first true love.
Frida’s father had arrived in Mexico in 1891 aged nineteen and had managed to get some work at a jewellery store in Mexico City. He had married in 1895 but was widowed three years later. He married for the second time in 1898. His second wife, Matilde, was his co-worker. Matilde was a devout catholic and was the oldest of twelve children. Matilde’s father was a photographer and it was through him that Guillermo took up photography and in 1901 he opened up a photography studio and made photography his full time profession. He received a number of government commissions and his business thrived until 1910 when the Mexican Revolution began and the government fell. For the duration of the turmoil, which lasted ten years, Guillermo and his family struggled to survive financially and it was not until the late 1920’s that his photographic work was once again appreciated and money from commissions started to roll back in. Frida often spoke of the relationship between her mother and father. She said that her mother did not love her father and she said her mother had told her that she only married Guillermo because he was German and he reminded her of a previous young German lover, Luis Bauer, who had committed suicide in her presence. Frida recounted how her mother secretly grieved her whole life for her first love and the manner of his death was to haunt her all her life.
It is believed that her mother’s fanatical and obsessive piety may have hampered the likelihood of a close mother-daughter relationship. Frrida was close to her father. It was through her father’s love of photography, painting and other creative interests that would later influence his daughter and it was this shared interest that probably made Frida become closer to her father than her mother. Later, Frida wrote in her diary that her father was the only one who understood all her problems. Her father who suffered from epileptic fits all his life was also prone to bouts of depression and his daughter described him as “a kind of fearful mystery”. Throughout her life, Frida kept a photograph of him pinned to the headboard of her bed. In a diary entry she wrote about her father and her relationship with him:
“My childhood was marvelous because, although my father was a sick man [he had epilepsy], he was an immense example to me of tenderness, of work (photographer and also painter)….”
In 1951, ten years after his death, Frida completed a painting of her father simply entitled Portrait of My Father. It is an oil on masonite work and is housed in the Museo Frida Kahlo in Mexico City.
Under the portrait are the words:
“…I painted my father Wilhelm Kahlo, of Hungarian-German origin, artist-photographer by profession, in character generous, intelligent and fine, valiant because he suffered for sixty years with epilepsy, but never gave up working and fought against Hitler, with adoration. His daughter Frida Kahlo…”
Guillermo died of a heart attack in 1941. Frida then aged thirty-four, was devastated and at the time she wrote:
“…The death of my father was something terrible for me. I think that it’s owing to this that I became much less well and I grew rather thin again. You remember how handsome he was and how good?…”
Around the age of 6, Frida contracted polio, which caused her to be bedridden for nine months. Although she did recover from the illness, she limped when she walked because the disease had damaged her right leg and foot. In order to help her recover, her father encouraged her to play soccer, go swimming, and even wrestle, which were highly unusual pastimes for a young girl of her age. Her right leg was slightly withered and later in life, being conscious of this she would hide her legs under long flowing colourful skirts or trousers.
It was a time of violent turmoil in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution which had started in 1910 and was to last for ten years. The young Frida witnessed the violence of the street fighting throughout that period. She was a great supporter of the Mexican Revolution and would, later in life, give the date of her birth as July 7th 1910 to coincide with the start of the revolutionary struggle or maybe she was just reducing her age by three years !!!. Frida attended classes at a German elementary school, Colegio Aleman in Mexico City and had to put up with taunts from her classmates about her pronounced limp. In 1922, aged fifteen, having completed her primary education, she was enrolled in one of the top schools of the country, the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, where she studied natural sciences and it was hoped that eventually she would achieve good enough grades to go on to study medicine. The decision to send Frida to this type of educational establishment was solely made by her father who wanted the best education money could buy for his daughter. Frida’s mother was vehemently opposed to the decision on the basis that the school, which was a one hour bus ride from home, was too far to travel each day and she saw no point in her daughter receiving such an education as she had already taught her daughter to cook and sew. It should be remembered that Frida’s mother was one of twelve children and because of the size of the family received no formal education and probably saw no need for her daughters to receive a high standard of teaching.
At this point in her life Frida still had no wish to become a professional artist as she still had her heart set on becoming a doctor. She was one of only a few girls to attend this school and she was known for her high spirits and the colourful way in which she dressed. While at school, Kahlo hung out with a group of politically and intellectually like-minded students and becomes a member of their group known as “Los Cachuchas“, a socialist-nationalist political group. The leader of this group was a law student, Alejandro Gómez Arias, who later became Frida’s boyfriend and lover. He was to be her first true and enduring love. The couple were almost inseparable. During the next few years, Frida helped her father in his photography studio and it is during these times that he teaches her how to use a camera and how to develop, retouch and colour photographs. Frida is taken on as a paid apprentice by the commercial printmaker Fernando Fernandez who was a close friend of Guillermo Kahlo and it was he who taught Frida to draw and how to copy prints by the Swedish Impressionist Anders Zorn
The year 1925 saw Frida in her final school year and plans had been drawn up for her to attend a medical school but Frida’s life was about to take a tragic twist as on September 17th, a rainy day, whilst the eighteen year old Frida and Alejandro were taking a bus journey home from school, the bus they were riding in was in collision with a trolley car. Alejandro was lucky not to be seriously injured but Frida sustained major injuries including a broken spinal column, broken collarbone, ribs and pelvis and multiple fractures to her right leg and was almost left for dead had Alejandro not persuaded the doctors at the Red Cross Hospital, where they had been taken, to attend his badly injured girlfriend. Subsequently her life was saved but she was hospitalised in the Mexican capital for several weeks. From there she returned home to rest and recuperate and was confined to bed for several months. It was during this convalescent period, with encouragement from her father, who was besides being a photographer, an amateur painter, that Frida started to take an interest in painting.
While recovering from the accident, Frida wrote numerous letters to Alejandro. She would talk about the pain she was in and how she was becoming depressed and wondered what would happen to her in the future. In one letter to him she wrote:
”…what is going to happen in 30 years how am I going to be when I am 30…”
In 1926, her relationship with Alejandro was beginning to hit problems as he had heard rumours that Frida had been unfaithful prior to the accident. Frida denied that she had been unfaithful to him and in a desperate attempt to salvage their relationship she painted a self-portrait, entitled Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress and gave it to him as a gift. In some ways the painting was to be a substitute for her as she still could not physically be with him and the couple had drifted apart. She sent it to Alejandro in late September. On the reverse side of the painting she inscribed a dedication:
“…For Alex. Frida Kahlo, at the age of 17, September 1926 – Coyoacan -Heute ist Immer Noch…” (Today still goes on).
One cannot help but notice the elongated neck and fingers which leads us to believe that Frida was aware of the European Mannerist style of art.
The following year Alejandro, funded by his parents went on a tour of Europe with his uncle. His parents had never liked Frida and believed by sending him abroad it would finally end his relationship with her. Before he left for Europe he gave the painting back to Frida for her to keep safe. They wrote to each other whilst he was on tour and eight months later he returned to Mexico but the long separation had been the death knell to their relationship and it was soon over.
In 1928 Frida Kahlo completed a portrait of Alejandro, entitled Portrait of Alejandro Gomez Arias and in the top right of the painting are the words:
“…Alex, with affection I painted your portrait, that he is one of my comrades forever, Frida Kahlo, 30 years later…”
This painting disappeared and was thought to have been lost but it resurfaced in 1994. However what is interesting about this work was whilst being exhibited at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City in 2007 it was seen by Rachel Tibol, a well known Mexican art critic and author of several Kahlo books. She was unequivocal in stating that the painting she was looking at was a fake! Its authenticity is currently being investigated.