Emilee RussellFeminist Wednesday University Ambassador
A few times in a generation there are women who are far, far ahead of their time. Their work reflects thoughts and ideas and philosophies that are so advanced that it takes people completely by surprise. These women cannot go without inspiring others because they are thought-provoking and create positive change wherever they go. Such women stand out for decades to come because their personalities are original and their messages are timeless. Frida Kahlo is a perfect example of a strong, influential woman who impacted generations of artists and feminists alike.
Around the time I was first discovering feminism and how it fit into my own life, I went on vacation to Puerto Vallarta for New Year’s Eve. As I was browsing local flea markets and souvenir shops, I came across a journal with a photo of Kahlo on the front. It was a well-known portrait of her calmly smiling and leaned up against a blue wall with big red flowers woven into her thick braids. I recognized her from posters in my high school’s art classroom and vaguely recalled that she was married to the artist Diego Rivera, . I was immediately drawn to the notebook and used it to record my thoughts, writing and art. Whenever I glimpsed the smiling profile of Kahlo, I was inspired to express myself truly and genuinely through my art.
It’s clear to anyone who has ever seen any of Kahlo’s work that she is a remarkable painter and incredibly talented, but she spent much of her life overshadowed by her husband’s fame. Rivera painted famous murals and other works during the Mexican Revolution. Their marriage was a very tumultuous one and they separated and reunited more than once. Both Kahlo and Rivera had affairs and he even took up with her younger sister. They caused each other a lot of grief and heartache but they influenced each other’s art and pushed one another creatively. They were both Communists and close friends of Leon Trotsky, a Marxist revolutionary. Kahlo and Rivera’s union was undoubtedly a complicated partnership but all in all, they were the original power couple.
Kahlo grew up outside of Mexico City and was just three years old when the Mexican Revolution began. When she was 18, she was in a bus accident that left her with injuries to her collar bone, pelvis, foot and leg that would affect her for the rest of her life. In several of her pieces featuring herself, such as “Broken Column and Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick”, she is depicted wearing braces around her torso and chest. She was also pierced in the abdomen with a metal rail that left her unable to have children. She had several miscarriages and the loss and pain she felt from these experiences is evident in her work; especially in her painting “Henry Ford Hospital”, an illustration of her time in a Detroit hospital after a miscarriage. In several of her paintings, like “The Wounded Deer and The Two Fridas”, she paints herself in vulnerable positions--shot by arrows and bleeding to death. It’s easy to identify with Kahlo when you view her work because it’s so honest and because it really feels like she’s revealing her deepest thoughts in her paintings.
One of the things Kahlo is instantly recognizable for is her trademark black unibrow. She lived during a time when traditional Mexican culture was being influenced by European tastes and facial hair on women was considered distasteful and unsightly. Long before the Riot Grrl movement, Kahlo was bucking tradition by ditching the razor. Kahlo defied trends by refusing to tame her eyebrows and by wearing colorful traditional Mexican dresses despite the growing influence of European fashion.
I’ve felt a special connection to Kahlo for a long time and like to think of her as a kind of guardian angel of my own artwork. Her work and her life is a reminder to me to be genuine in my art and to live authentically. I’ve always thought that Kahlo must have been a woman who knew herself very well in order to make such brilliant and soul-baring works and it makes me strive to make my own artwork a heartfelt reflection of myself. I have a big, oval-shaped necklace with the “Me and My Parrots” self-portrait of Kahlo on it. She has a powerful, assured look on her face. I wear it when I need a reminder of how much power and potential I have. I wear it when I want to feel more confident and sure of myself. She is my good luck charm.
Kahlo didn’t have an easy life. She was confronted with heartbreak, disappointment and a host of health problems but somehow she authentically transformed all the struggle and pain in her life into incredible art that would thrill and transfix people for decades to come. Kahlo is without a doubt one of the most well-known, recognizable women in art. Though overshadowed for many years by her husband’s fame, she became a respected and acclaimed artist in her own right. She continues to inspire women in art to put heart into their craft. Kahlo was such a powerful force that even over 50 years after her death, she continues to influence art, fashion and feminism in a big way.