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International Women's Month Highlight: Frida Kahlo

In the first entry of our International Women's Month blog series, we will look into the life of Frida Kahlo, one of Mexico's most influential female artists and an icon for the indomitable spirit of women.

Born on July 6, 1907, Kahlo spent most of her childhood and adult life at her family home of La Casa Azul in Coyocoan, Mexico City, which has since opened to the public as the Frida Kahlo Museum.

Kahlo had poor health from a very young age. She contracted polio at age 6 and carried a limp for the rest of her life. Her father encouraged her to play sports to help her recover, and she played soccer, swam and even wrestled, which was unusual for a girl at the time.

At age 18, Kahlo had a promising academic future and was headed for medical school, but a bus accident derailed her plans and left her with lifelong pain and medical and psychological problems. 

During her recovery, she returned to her childhood love for painting as a means to pass the time and alleviate her pain. She painted her first self portrait during this time.

"I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best," she said.

Kahlo's interest in politics and art led her to join the Mexican Communist Party in 1927. There, she met fellow artist Diego Rivera, and the two began a tumultuous marriage in 1929.

The couple moved a lot because of Rivera's work and spent the late '20's and early '30's traveling throughout Mexico and the United States. During that time, Kahlo began adding more surrealist elements to her artwork.

In 1938 she drew the attention of French surrealist painter André Breton. She said she never considered herself a surrealist until Breton told her she was one.

"Really I do not know whether my paintings are surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself," she said.

Breton arranged for Kahlo's first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1938. The following year, Breton invited Kahlo to exhibit her works in Paris, and the Louvre purchased her painting, The Frame, making her the first Mexican artist to be featured in the museum.

During the '40s, Kahlo's personal and professional life was fraught with difficulties. She and Rivera had divorced and remarried but maintained separate lives and homes. Her father died in 1941, and during that same year, she received a commission from the Mexican government that she was unable to complete.

Kahlo often expressed her chronic health issues through her art. In 1944, she painted one of her most famous portraits, The Broken Column, which depicts her split down the middle with her spine shattered like a column. She wears a surgical brace and has nails all through her body, which symbolize her constant state of pain.

Despite personal setbacks and her declining health, Kahlo continued to participate in exhibitions throughout the United States and Mexico. She taught at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado and was a founding member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana. 

In the '50's Kahlo had developed gangrene in her right foot and was bedridden for nine months. Despite her illness and limited mobility, she showed up to her first solo exhibition in Mexico in 1953. She passed away the following year from a pulmonary embolism at age 47.

Kahlo's work resurfaced in the '70's and by the early '90s, she had become an icon for the Chicano and feminist movements. Her work often employed themes of identity, gender, class and race in Mexican society, and she is still regarded as a standard bearer for women's inner strength amid adversity.

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