Frida Kahlo, a renowned Mexican artist, began painting in 1925 during her recovery from a near-fatal bus accident that left her with lifelong physical ordeals. Over the next three decades, she produced a consistent and arresting body of work, meticulously executed and mostly portraying herself. Through her art, Kahlo simultaneously explored, questioned, and staged her self and identity while evoking fraught episodes from her life, including her ongoing struggle with physical pain and the emotional distress caused by her turbulent relationship with Diego Rivera.
Kahlo’s personal subject matter and the intimate scale of her paintings stood in sharp contrast to her acclaimed contemporaries, the Mexican Muralists. Launched after the Mexican Revolution, the Muralist movement aimed to produce monumental public murals that mined the country’s national history and identity. Kahlo, an avowed Communist, expressed her desire to paint “something useful for the Communist revolutionary movement,” yet her art remained “very far from work that could serve the Party.” However, she participated in her peers’ exaltation of Mexico’s indigenous culture, avidly collecting Mexican popular art and often making use of its motifs and techniques. Kahlo carefully crafted a flamboyant Mexican persona for herself, wearing colorful folk dresses and pre-Columbian jewelry, in a performative display of her identity.
Kahlo’s early recognition was prompted by André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, who enthusiastically embraced her art as self-made Surrealism and included her work in his 1940 International Exhibition of Surrealism in Mexico City. However, Kahlo resisted the association, stating, “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” Kahlo’s art had an uncanny quality akin to Surrealism’s tenets, but her paintings portrayed her own life and experiences, exploring her identity in a deeply personal way.