Frida Kahlo – steel butterfly

I seem to be in a groove of watching artist biopics and last night ticked ‘Frida‘ off the list. The iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), is one whose self-portrait is more familiar than most (probably due to the fact she painted so many of them), her distinct appearance one most people would probably recognise as familiar at a glance and even her stand alone work (colourful, whimsical, brutal, raw) is remarkably familiar, yet I confess to having known very little about her life until last night’s film.

At once, I loved it, loved her. I witnessed her long struggle against pain (childhood polio followed by a trolly-bus accident when she was eighteen that led to years of extreme pain, long spells in a full body cast and multiple operations over her life), her solitary existence that focussed her art completely upon herself (most of her work consists of self-portraits) and her mental, physical, emotional agonies (her work has become synonymous with living out ‘the female condition’ as it has too-long been experienced). In doing so, I was able to blow the soil away from a foundation-stone of my own art and, with new wonderment and appreciation, turn it lovingly in my hand. Here was a woman who rode the back of her pain to become the artist that she was truly meant to be.

Kahlo was destined to become a doctor until her accident kept her bedridden and some paints were presented to her (she even decorated her own plaster cast); a twist of fate that set her off on a whole different track. I, too, picked up the paints that had long been ignored to escape the relentless pain that only seemed to dissolve from the forefront of my experience once I learned how to lose myself in oil on canvas. We share a largely solitary existence that consists of very few people – the true intimates and key loves of our lives –  and our paints, a degree of self-focus that cannot help but inform the art that comes out of us. Through this life and her painting, she learned to hunt down the self-attacks and love herself completely, something that has been the resounding gift of my own confinement. She famously dismissed the label ‘surrealist’ as she insisted she never painted from dreams or nightmares, only her own reality and nor do I, though my vision may sometimes (increasingly…and heading that way) seem dreamlike to others. There’s nothing like recognising shared traits in another to help crystallise your own.

Where we differ is that Kahlo never held back but poured out the deepest, darkest, often most brutal moments of her own experience onto canvas whereas I have always fought hard to rein mine in, to share only the light, pushing against that contrast. The few times I have let go and painted the darker wranglings of my soul, the resultant work has felt flawed, too exposed and like nothing I would want to inflict upon the eyes of others. She never tried to hide the extreme pain she was in whereas I seem to have made it my duty to do so; which throws up extraordinarily thought-provoking stuff for me to muse upon.

Kahlo often depicted parts of her physical self spewing open, wounded, exposed at times when she was going through emotional or physical trauma (she underwent more than one miscarriage and an enforced abortion due to being unable to carry a baby to term). One of my own most memorable, unseen, paintings of several years ago was a massive, eerily-still, pond of milky brown water striving to catch and reflect rays of rainbow light beneath overhanging trees. I worked upon it and worked upon it and yet it only became more caught up in itself, more stagnant, the light going nowhere and my frustration ever increasing all the time yet, with unprecedented obsession, I couldn’t seem to put it down and there it was, looking back at me, day after day; much too large to tuck out of sight. Then, suddenly, I was rushed to hospital with an unsuspected ectopic pregnancy that could have killed me, so far advanced had it become in a place where there was literally no room for it to thrive; leading to an emergency operation and a surprising amount of grief for an unborn child I had never even suspected was there. It was only afterwards that I realised just what I had painted, what my soul had been trying to tell me, had tried to let out through my paint, then the deeper layer of understanding this led me to; so, yes, I ‘get’ where Kahlo was coming from.

A film, of course, is just a surface tickle upon the life of an artist but this one felt well executed and I loved the way playful fantasy scenes tackled the way that the inspiration that, ultimately, birthed itself onto canvas came about within the fabric of her life and, particularly, her troubled, passionate, heart-breaking yet relentless love affair with her (two times) husband, fellow artist Diego Rivera. In her love of the vibrant, of symbology derived from nature and the ingrained non-conformity, the absolute contrarian she was, I sensed a true compatriot and, like me, she thrived best where the sun shone and the colours committed themselves fully. Lush palette, lusher-still human spirit leap out of this biopic in a way that left me hungry to explore her work even further.

Towards the end of her life, Kahlo’s health deteriorated yet when her leg was amputated, her response was “Feet, why do I need them if I have wings to fly?” A revolutionary to her soul, she forged her own path, spoke and acted freely, bowed to no one, cared not what others thought of her. Her husband described her, proudly, with these telling words:

“I recommend her to you, not as a husband but as an enthusiastic admirer of her work, acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly’s wing, loveable as a beautiful smile, and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life.”

Interesting (to me) her full name was Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón – for there was much of the Magdalene motif in her soul, I sense. Resoundingly expressive to the point of ‘wildness’; hugely strong, courageous and resilient; timeless in her woman-wisdom; birthing endless gifts to the future for all she regarded herself as barren; deeply misunderstood, especially around her sexuality, and oft misportrayed; a leap before her time yet, like a seed planted for posterity, surely the divine feminine at work.

Kahlo died at the age of 47 – the very age that I am now – declaring “I hope the exit is joyful and I hope never to return” and leaving a body of work that included 55 self-portraits. Her recognition as an artist came late and largely after her lifetime yet she never sought that celebrity, never made it her goal, which was only ever to express whatever happened to pass through her own experience. She had lived her life with nothing held back, certainly no apologies, no compromises and all in spite of her pain; exactly like she was planning to wrap it all up here and now in this one lifetime, with nothing left undone or unsaid, no ends to tie. As an artist of life, I find this this is no bad role-model to take on and run with, my own way, for many more years to come.


One of the things I find so appealing about Frida Kahlo is the unique fashion style she made her own; vibrantly colourful, massively emblematic of her roots and everything she was about, she literally adorned her own physical shortcomings and created an iconic wardrobe that continues to influence the world in the process.

For more on this and the relationship background to her art, start at Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe unlocked.

You can see much more Freda Kahlo work online.


Images above have been used on a fair use basis, to show both artist’s style and what she looked like, included at low resolution and for informational purposes only.

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