A life of suffering, love and passion – Frida Kahlo’s art now on view in Budapest
Monobrow, moustache, slicked back buns, colourful traditional Mexican clothing – Frida Kahlo is unforgettable. This wonderful woman, who so deliberately shunned popular fashion and beauty norms, is today a style muse and a feminist icon. But from beginning to end, life was far from kind to Frida Kahlo. Her 47 years were filled with a myriad of tragedies, from a near fatal accident to three miscarriages, depicted in her heart-wrenching art with unsparing sincerity. But even amid life’s mishaps, Frida Kahlo saw hope and lived with a fierce dedication to her passions: love and art, making her an inspiration to many. Although nobody would want to endure all she had to, many would still love to be a little bit like Frida Kahlo. This might explain the long queues outside the Hungarian National Gallery for an astonishing new exhibition, filled with highly personal art that tells of a life of suffering and everlasting passion.
The exhibition – opened on the 111th anniversary of Kahlo’s birth – is exquisitely executed, its vivid walls coloured with hues characteristic of Mexican culture and quiet music filling the spaces. Photo and video installations are enhanced with quotes from Frida’s diaries and detailed descriptions about each artwork, in English and Hungarian. At the very beginning, the exhibition immediately introduces you to one of her masterpieces, a dramatic and unsettling painting, The Broken Column, that speaks of her lifelong suffering. As Frida Kahlo’s work is so incredibly personal, viewing her paintings almost feels like intruding in her life, so there is much to know about her before you begin a journey into the depths of her soul.
She was born in 1907, into the most turbulent times of the 20th century in Mexico. Only three years later, a revolution broke out which strengthened Mexicanidad, a countrywide feeling of patriotism and nationalism, something that remained important to Frida throughout her whole life. At the age of six, she contracted polio, which left her right leg and foot forever deformed, and which resulted in her preference for long and more concealing skirts later in life.
When she was only 18, she suffered a near fatal accident. After boarding a bus with her then boyfriend, Gómez Arias, a streetcar collided with the vehicle and a steel handrail impaled her through the hip. Her spine and pelvis were fractured in several places, which left her in great pain and bedridden for a long time, scarring both her body and soul for life. Gómez Arias later described how Frida was found: the collision had unfastened her clothes and she was nude. Another passenger had been carrying a packet of powdered gold, which split, its glittering contents fluttering over Frida’s bleeding body. When people saw her, they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold decorating her red, bloody body, they thought she must be a dancer. With these surreals scenes, Frida Kahlo’s adult life began.
Frida originally aspired to be a physician, but health issues derailed her. Instead, she became increasingly interested in painting. Her mother ordered a special easel which enabled her to paint from bed. At this tender age she met her destiny, Diego Rivera, at the time Mexico’s most prominent painter – and 23 years her senior. She sought professional help in painting, but the two soon started a romantic relationship, which Frida’s mother was strongly against. Rivera was twice divorced, an atheist, a Communist, a notorious womaniser and noticeably bigger than Frida’s fragile figure. “Like a marriage between a dove and an elephant,” she would comment. From then on, forever, Frida was bound to Diego in a roller coaster of passion, love and pain. As she herself said:
“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst”.
Frida Kahlo never received formal training, she taught herself. She simply painted her own reality with unsparing sincerity, stripped of anything superfluous. This is why she became best known for her self-portraits. As she put it: “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best”.
The exhibition presents Frida’s oeuvre in five rooms and an extra section. The first focuses on her search for an artistic voice at an early age. Here you find the milestones in her life on a timeline and can peek into the times when she started spreading her wings as a painter. Her first models were friends, family and neighbours – including Gómez Arias – whose portraits helped her perfect technical precision.
“Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?”
Pain and ordeal
The next room focuses on Frida’s tragedies. Her polio left her with a deformed foot, and her broken pelvis from the accident resulted in many operations. She lived with constant fatigue and spinal pain. Her dream was to have children with Diego Rivera, but her damaged pelvis could not carry a baby and she lost three. Painting helped her overcome her emotional anguish and work through trauma. This room is intimately personal. Her painting entitled The Bus subtly tells of her accident, while much bolder artworks, Frida and the Miscarriage and Without Hope, present raw, palpable pain.
Frida and Mexico
The third space focuses on the relationship between Frida and Mexico. Frida was born into stormy times, before the outbreak of a revolution that made ‘Mexicans discover Mexico’. Intellectuals and artists started to value the indigenous culture that had existed before the Spanish conquest and national sentiment was renewed. This highly influenced Frida, who identified with her ancient Mexican roots. When the fashion trend was to look French, Frida wore clothes with colourful Mexican patterns, which not only emphasised her strong personality but also hid her pain-wrecked body. She and Diego loved ancient cultures and Mexican folk art. She often included her favourite objects in her paintings, figures, masks and ceramics.
Viva la Vida
The next section expresses a love of life despite so much pain, the paintings a celebration of coexisting with nature. Although these works are not widely known, Frida painted many still lives. Plants symbolise renewal and fertility, and refer to the circle of life, while her favourite animals are also often depicted with her in her work. These pieces are all a bit surreal, but present the richness of nature.
Frida and Diego… and others
The next, very significant section presents the stormy, passionate but contradictory relationship of Frida and Diego. The pair married in 1939, when Frida was only 22, and divorced ten years later, only to remarry the following year. Frida adored Diego with her whole existence and doted on him like a child. But as much as Diego loved Frida back, he could not restrain his passions and repeatedly cheated on her. One that broke Frida the most was an affair between Diego and Frida’s favourite sister, Christina. The painting depicting her tangible pain, A Few Small Nips, captures this feeling with raw and personal reality. It’s worth contemplating. Frida never left Diego, as he was her one and only soulmate, which she beautifully expressed in Diego and I.
She could only liberate herself from pain when brimming with life, so after realising that she needed to give more freedom to Diego, she had her own affairs. One of her greatest lovers was Hungarian photographer, Nickolas Muray, probably the third most important man in Frida’s life after her father and Diego. Their relationship lasted eight years and their correspondence shows evidence of passion, profound trust, mutual respect and genuine love. Perhaps the most special of these letters, the first one written in Hungarian by Frida, is on display here.
Frida in popular culture
Before you reach exit, an extra room touches on Frida’s legacy in popular culture and shows how many millions Kahlo has inspired. Her life and art are an exceptional story of suffering and passion, which made her a popular icon of female self-expression. Her transformation into a role model ran parallel with the strengthening of feminist movements that celebrated her as a forerunner. Her courageous and non-conformist personality, her political activism and body-centric art made her an example to follow, encouraging artists from Amy Winehouse to Beyoncé. Enduring more than 35 operations, three miscarriages and an undying love for an unfaithful husband, living a life full of suffering with so much passion and positivity, are what have made Frida Kahlo a role model for many generations to come.
The exhibition is on view until November 4th at the Hungarian National Gallery. Admission is 3,200 forints. More details
- 1014 Budapest, Szent György tér 2.
- Ticket desk: until 17:00