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Muse of the Month

Isabelle Molinari examines one of the most unique artists of the 20th century


Image(s): Vogue

My muse is… Frida Khalo de Rivera (Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón)

She is… a famous Mexican painter who is very well known for her surreal self-portraits. She was born in Mexico on July 6, 1907 and died on July 13, 1954. While her life was not long, it was a rollercoaster. In childhood, she was affiliated with polio and, as a young adult, she was involved in a serious bus accident. The accident derailed her plans to study medicine following her time at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. While she could no longer pursue medicine due to various crippling injuries, her time in the city was far from for nought. While there, she had come to know Diego Rivera. Their connection would be rekindled as they met again when Kahlo joined the Mexican Communist Party. Diego would motivate her to paint much more, and they were married in 1929. During her marriage to Rivera, she would become increasingly traditional and her art, more folk-based. The couple travelled to the US for Diego’s career, and it was here that Kahlo suffered even more, with several miscarriages and the death of her mother weighing heavily on her. Back in Mexico, their home became a hotspot for artists and political figures. Rivera, while an incredible artist, was not an exceptional husband, and strayed often. This led to their divorce in 1939. They reconciled and lived together again, but Kahlo’s health was deteriorating. This did not stop her from pursuing art, but rather inspired many of her pieces, like Self-Portrait with Portrait of Dr, Farill (1951). In 1954, she died in her childhood home, which has since become a museum dedicated to her life and success.

I first learned about her when… my AP Spanish teacher had us all watch Frida. While not what one would expect to watch in high school Spanish, this film explores the complexities of a woman who is internationally renowned, and articulates beautifully how tragedy can be turned into power.

I am obsessed because… she refused to obey the status quo. Her artwork defied all sorts of rules and she did not allow anyone to tell her that it should be different. Those who did were ignored and pushed away. Even when she did lose herself, in her time married to Diego, a part of her continued to fight for a way out and she expressed that through her art.

My favorite work by her is… This is a tough one, but I would have to go with Shibboleth (2007). Installed in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, it consists of a 167 metre-long fissure running along the ground, marking the first time any artist has physically altered the space. While simple in design and execution, its ambiguity in meaning lends to several different interpretations. The crack could represent a blow to the very foundations of the museum or the art establishment, or internal divisions within her homeland as a byproduct of the conflict. Or it could take on a more postcolonial reading, representing a history of racism and the racial wealth gap between the Global North and the Global South. When the show came to a close, the flooring was restored, but a mark remains, which I thought was just brilliant and further heightened the work’s effect.

Image(s): NY Times

My favourite work by her is... The Two Fridas (1939). This painting was unusual for a number of reasons, most notably its graphic nature and the canvas’ unusual size. Kahlo used this work to show how she felt torn by the different parts of herself, and how this was exacerbated by her marriage to Rivera. Not only do I think this is a boss way to shame your ex, but I think it was incredibly brave. Kahlo’s independence was not appreciated by many at the time, and this painting screamed independence and anti-tradition values.

Some work by her you have to check out is.... Henry Ford Hospital (1932) and Frieda and Diego Rivera (1931). Henry Ford Hospital explores a lot of Kahlo’s struggles with health and tragedy, while Frieda and Diego Rivera exemplifies her marriage and the ways in which she felt dwarfed and stunted. I would be remiss, however, if I did not also recommend a look at one of her iconic self-portraits, my favourite of which is Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940). I always find myself smiling at the seemingly unnecessary, over-complicated name, as it is just another example of how Kahlo did not follow the norms that society set out for her. Her life has given many lessons that are valuable, but I think the most valuable is that there is always a way for you to be yourself, whether it be in your clothes, your art, or even your unibrow.

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