Writing by Amanda Attanayake // Illustration by Freya Bennett
When you say “Frida Kahlo”, a few things come to mind: the iconic brow, the bold clothing and the hypnotic paintings. But digging a little deeper, I find myself engrossed in her approach to life, and her way of thinking. Frida Kahlo was more than a painter, wife or political activist. She set an example for the way we look at ourselves and deal with our experiences.
Of mixed German and Mexican heritage, Frida Kahlo grew up in Mexico with her parents and three sisters. Overcoming polio during childhood, Kahlo began painting during her recovery from severe injuries due to a road accident. She painted her first self-portrait during this time, setting the tone for her later art: self-exploration. After marrying mural artist Diego Rivera, Kahlo waded further into the world of painting. Desperately wanting children but suffering the pain of two miscarriages, she began to incorporate more surrealist elements into her artwork, for instance in the painting Henry Ford Hospital (1932). That said, she rejected the surrealist label, saying “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” She didn’t hide behind the label of imagination. Though the paintings we look at appear dreamlike, they represent the world, unapologetically, as Frida Kahlo saw it. And that seems extremely pertinent to me today. Such emphasis is placed on what other people think or feel about us and our reality that we don’t know how we feel about it. Forgetting how we are supposed to react, what do our experiences make us feel, really?
This focus on self is an ongoing theme in Frida Kahlo’s work. Of her 143 paintings, 55 are self- portraits. This is not proof of her vanity- or is it? Does it even matter? To me, there is something extremely powerful and brave about a person willing to explore themselves in such an exposing, raw form. They are not simply paintings; they are expressions of pain, loss, self and love. And it’s through such a deep study of the parts of ourselves largely ignored that Kahlo could truly say “I am the person I know best.” We are often tied up with getting to know other people that we can forget there is a lot to learn about ourselves. We are not fixed personalities; we constantly change and evolve. So, it’s refreshing and empowering that a woman such as Frida Kahlo was fearless enough to get to know herself, in her own way. I haven’t yet plucked up the courage to embark on this journey yet, but she did, and to me, she could hold more knowledge than all of the books in the world.
There are many things I love about Frida Kahlo. She was a woman, liberated sexually and politically, in the 30’s 40’s and 50’s. Kahlo wasn’t held back by convention or expectation; she simply did what she wanted. That’s particularly striking to me. I always think about how I would love to paint, or sculpt- express something truly me- but I never get around to it. I have limited time and even less talent. But seeing someone be so freed by art stirs something in me. It makes we want to try and see what I discover. Sure, I’ll never be as talented as Frida Kahlo, but maybe I can learn something about me, as Frida Kahlo did herself.[share]