National Geographic's book In Praise of Difficult Women by Karen Karbo profiles women throughout the world who have pushed societal norms and boundaries in areas spanning the gambit from politics, art, media, books, and more.
Legendary artist Frida Kahlo spent most of 1950 in a hospital bed in Mexico City, recovering from a series of spinal surgeries. Her recuperation involved bed rest, during which her torso was immobilized in a heavy plaster cast. In a telling contemporary photograph of the painter and future global feminist icon, she is propped up against her pillows, embellishing the front of her latest plaster corset with the aid of a hand mirror and a tiny brush. Her pointy nails are lacquered with dark polish. Her center-parted hair is pulled back neatly. A pile of satin ribbons and flowers adorns the crown of her head. She sports dangly earrings, chunky rings on every finger, and a pair of bracelets.
Regardless of the degree to which she was suffering, Frida Kahlo always enjoyed the spectacle of herself. She was a playful exhibitionist, a fervid and erotic provocateur dispatching updates from the land of female suffering. It was part of what made her difficult: She forced people to look at her, to share her feelings, when they would prefer to look away.
Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón was born in Coyoacán, a tidy suburb of Mexico City, in July 1907. Until the day Frida (she dropped the “e” in 1922) was hit by a streetcar—literally, at the age of 18—nothing in her upper-middle-class background would disclose her future: that she would one day become Mexico’s most celebrated painter, a sexy international art megastar and pop icon who would produce unnerving masterpieces that would hang in the world’s major museums. Or that she would “enjoy” a passionate, tumultuous marriage to Mexico’s most famous muralist and womanizer, Diego Rivera. Frida and Diego married for the first time in 1929, divorced in 1939, remarried in 1940, and remained wed until Frida’s untimely death in 1954, at the age of 47. Years after both artists were dead, a travel squib appeared in the New York Times, which included the sentence: “Though they created some of Mexico’s most fascinating art, it’s the bizarre Beauty-and-the-Beast dynamic that has captivated the world and enshrouded both figures in intrigue.”
It’s often said that girls who grow up to be women at ease with themselves had loving, nurturing relationships with their fathers. To be appreciated and accepted by the first man in our lives gives us confidence to march that self out into the world, to feel that we will not be shunned for being both a woman and a complex human being. Frida’s father, German-born Guillermo Kahlo, was one such dad. Among his five daughters, Frida—high-spirited, clever, and entertaining—was his favorite. Frida would steal fruit from a nearby orchard in lieu of attending catechism class, or sneak up on her sisters when they were using the chamber pot and shove them off. But these high jinks ended when she contracted polio at age six. Learn about the final push to end polio.
Frida was confined to her bed for nine months—an eternity for an active six-year-old. Her father tended to her with care, and when she was finally given the go-ahead to return to school, Guillermo prescribed sports. Frida excelled in soccer, swimming, roller-skating, and boxing. She grew stronger, but her right leg remained puny and withered. She was ostracized at school for her “peg leg.” To help compensate for her loneliness, her father, who believed her to be the most like him of all his daughters (smart, artistic, strong-willed—practically a son!), gave her books from his library and taught her how to take and develop photographs.
Frida’s relationship with her mother, Matilde, was fraught—as is generally the case with clever daughters poised to escape the limited existence of an older generation who played by the rules. Beautiful, pious, and illiterate, Matilde had dutifully married a man with “prospects,” managed the household, and kept the babies and delicious meals coming. Frida dared to hope for a bigger life.
When she was 15, Frida was enrolled in the prestigious Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, where she focused on biology with the hope of one day becoming a doctor. Still shy about her smaller right leg, she wore extra pairs of socks to help disguise it. But she seemed to have more or less recovered. She was bright, engaged in her studies, and a star of the Cachuchas, an elite club of brainiacs and mischief makers. She had a popular boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias.
On September 17, 1925, Frida and Alex were riding home from school on the bus when it was T-boned by a streetcar. She was impaled by a handrail that entered her just above her left hip and exited through her vagina. Her back and pelvis were each broken in three places. Her collarbone was broken. Her withered, polio-afflicted leg was fractured, her smaller foot dislocated and mangled. Someone at the scene thought it was a good idea to pull out the handrail before the ambulance arrived. Frida’s screams, and the sounds of bones cracking, were louder than the approaching sirens.
Alex, who suffered only minor wounds, recalled it this way: “Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her, they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer.”
I never thought of painting until 1926, when I was in bed on account of an automobile accident. I was bored as hell in bed... so I decided to do something.
For a month, Frida lay in a plaster body cast. No one expected her to survive. When she was released from the hospital, the treatment was bed rest—at first, months of bed rest. Then, two solid years of bed rest. Gone was Alex the boyfriend, gone were Frida’s dreams of becoming a doctor. The medical bills piled up, and her father mortgaged the house to pay them. Her life of chronic pain began. The next year, a new set of doctors examined her spine and realized the first set of doctors had failed to see that several vertebrae had healed incorrectly. This would become a running theme, new doctors shaking their heads at the ineptitude of previous doctors. The solution: another plaster body cast and more bed rest. Read how the mind can heal the body.
“I never thought of painting until 1926, when I was in bed on account of an automobile accident,” she wrote to gallery owner Julien Levy before her 1938 show. “I was bored as hell in bed . . . so I decided to do something. I stoled [sic] from my father some oil paints, and my mother ordered for me a special easel because I couldn’t sit down [the letter was written in English; she meant sit up], and I started to paint.”
Frida’s letter was crafty, disingenuous. After the accident, flat on her back in bed, painting presented itself as one of the only activities available to her. She pretended not to care about the quality of her work, but in 1927, once she was up and around, she sought the professional opinion of the celebrated artist Diego Rivera. As popular lore and the 2002 biopic Frida would have it, she cornered the artist one day while he was atop a ladder working on a mural; she demanded he come down, have a look, and tell her straight out whether she was good enough. “Look, I have not come to flirt or anything, even if you are a woman-chaser,” she told him. “I have come to show you my painting. If you are interested in it, tell me so; if not, likewise.” (More likely, Frida met Diego at a party hosted by photographer and activist Tina Modotti. But the story of tracking him down and challenging him from her place beneath the ladder better suited her sense of self-drama.)
Rivera and Frida were both members of the Mexican Communist Party, and Rivera was captivated by Frida’s bohemian élan. She was one of those tiny women who could drink men twice her size under the table. She lived on a diet of candy, cigarettes, and a daily bottle of brandy. When this diet (and, presumably, casual dental hygiene) caused her teeth to rot in early middle age, she promptly ordered two sets of dentures: one solid gold, another studded with diamonds. As anyone who’s ever purchased a Frida tote bag, postcard, coffee mug, or T-shirt knows, she was proud of her unibrow and her mustache, which she kept neat with a small comb reserved for that purpose.
On a sweltering August day in 1929, Frida and Diego were married, to the consternation of her family and friends. Frida was a somewhat sheltered 22—she had spent three of those years bedridden—and Rivera was a 43-year-old man of the world, an established artist whose murals celebrating the 1910 Mexican revolution had made him famous. He came equipped with two ex-wives and three daughters; when he and Frida first fell in love, he was still married to wife number two.
People are rarely surprised when a beautiful woman marries an average-looking man. Even so, people were mystified by Frida’s adoration of and devotion to Diego Rivera. I’m reluctant to objectify Diego in the same way men routinely objectify women, but despite some fairly extensive research I’ve been unable to find a single photograph of the great muralist in which he isn’t completely repulsive. “Twenty-one years older, 200 pounds heavier, and, at more than six feet, nearly 12 inches taller than she, Rivera was gargantuan in both scale and appetites,” wrote Amy Fine Collins in Vanity Fair. “As irresistible as he was ugly, Rivera was described by Frida as ‘a boy frog standing on his hind legs.’”
(It’s safe to say that of all the traits men possess that are catnip to women—sense of humor, great hair, nice shoulders, lead guitar player in a band—“boy frog standing on his hind legs” rarely makes the average woman’s must-have list.)
There was a window of time during the first years of their marriage when Frida, more or less recovered from her accident, happily and with fervor performed the role of exemplary wife. She devoted herself to cooking for her husband, fussed over his clothes and comfort, gave him his nightly bath in which she floated bath toys for his amusement. Her 1949 painting “The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and Señor Xólotl,” in which she cradles a naked Diego in her lap while she is in turn cradled by Aztec Earth Mother Cihuacoatl, pretty much sums up the way she viewed their marriage: Her husband was a giant baby.
In 1930, Frida traveled with Rivera to San Francisco, where he’d been commissioned to paint a mural for the San Francisco Stock Exchange Luncheon Club. This required him to seek out a female model that would represent the essence of California womanhood. He was put in touch with international tennis star Helen Wills. She was the real deal, having won 31 Grand Slam titles and two Olympic gold medals. In the name of making a “study” of Wills for the mural, Rivera disappeared with her for a few days.
Frida wept at Diego’s endless extracurricular canoodling, which he had no intention of giving up despite the anguish he caused. He would explain patiently that for him monogamy was simply out of the question, and that he viewed sexual intercourse as essential and uncomplicated as taking a piss. Frida would howl in fury, hurling the occasional ceramic plate against a brightly painted wall, then lock Rivera out of her bedroom. He would retaliate by throwing himself into his latest mural commission, and maybe take on another mistress or two. Sometimes, upon discovering the identity of the new mistress, Frida would enjoy a little spicy revenge by seducing the woman. Then they would have another argument in which Frida hurled another ceramic plate, and so on and so forth.
Frida’s hot temper was the most generic aspect of her difficult nature, handily reinforcing the stereotype of females as prone to hysteria. A teary, pissed-off woman slouched on the sofa eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s is exhausting and irritating, but acceptable—in part, because a weeping woman doesn’t have to be taken seriously.
Consider this: A recent study of jury dynamics conducted by the journal Law and Human Behavior found that although an angry man can influence the feelings and opinions of his fellow jurors, the same is not true for women. In fact, the angrier a woman gets, the more jurors were convinced their own opinions were correct. The more furiously a woman juror behaved, the less anyone listened to her. Translated into the domestic realm, this means that husbands don’t actually mind the type of behavior Frida often displayed. It turns their woman into someone they don’t have to take seriously, and it also allows them to do something they rather enjoy, which is to throw up their hands, go to their local bar, order a stiff drink, and complain with other men about the impossibility of women.
But Frida had other, less predictable traits. She could be sly and misleading. A now infamous 1933 profile in the Detroit News, headlined “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art,” was written during the couple’s sojourn in Detroit that year (Diego was painting “Detroit Industry,” a celebration of the city’s workers). The accompanying black-and-white photo shows Frida at the easel, her head turned toward the camera at an angle that mirrors exactly the one in the self-portrait she’s painting. She wears an apron tied around her waist, as if she’s come straight from the kitchen. Regarding hubby Diego, her quote reads: “He does well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist.”
She was being facetious—something that was lost on the writer, who wasn’t prepared for Frida’s wit. But the joke contains the beating heart of her ambition. Frida may have started painting to amuse herself during her convalescence, but by the early 1930s she was determined to make her mark. During her time dabbling in Detroit, she painted two pictures that would one day be considered masterpieces: “Henry Ford Hospital” and “My Birth.” The latter depicts a woman, presumably Frida, giving birth to herself. The picture is startling, even today. The figure on the bed is covered by a white sheet from the waist up. Her legs are splayed open, and a full-grown female head bearing the distinctive unibrow protrudes from her vagina. Pop icon Madonna currently owns the painting. In an interview in Vanity Fair, Madonna said, “If somebody doesn’t like this painting, then I know they can’t be my friend.”
In the summer of 1938, at the age of 31, Frida made her first sale. The actor Edward G. Robinson was also an art collector, and while he was in Mexico City he purchased four little pictures, for $200 apiece. French artist André Breton also discovered her work, and heralded it as surrealist. Her paintings, he enthused, were like “a ribbon around a bomb.
”You might imagine that after laboring in the shadow of her husband for almost a solid decade, Frida would be thrilled and even grateful to be tapped for inclusion in a big-deal art movement that included powerhouse painters Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and René Magritte. But she wasn’t much interested. She found the French to be insufferable, cold, and bourgeois. And anyway, she was her own movement.
In the fall of that year, Frida traveled to New York for her first solo exhibition, at the Julien Levy Gallery. Clare Boothe Luce, wife of Time magazine magnate Henry Luce, was enjoying a moment with her hit Broadway play The Women and attended the opening. Frida was notoriously charming, even among the capitalist gringos she disparaged. She and Clare hit it off, and by the end of the evening Clare had commissioned Frida to paint a portrait. The subject was the late Dorothy Hale, a depressed young socialite and friend of Clare’s who had lived beyond her means in an upper-floor apartment at the newly opened Hampshire House on Central Park South. Key details that will become important: On the night before she died, Dorothy threw herself a farewell cocktail party. After the last guest left, she put on her favorite black velvet dress and a corsage of tiny yellow roses. Then, at 5:15 a.m. or thereabouts, she threw herself out the window. Hear from an 18-year-old suicide survivor.
Clare and Frida had both known Dorothy and agreed that the situation was tragic. Clare also felt guilty. Her relationship with Dorothy had been complicated by money; Clare would loan her rent money, and Dorothy would spend it on a cocktail dress. Dorothy was that annoying friend. At some point Clare had cut Dorothy off. And now she was dead. To help assuage her guilt, and as a kind gesture, Clare intended to give Frida’s beautiful portrait of Dorothy to Dorothy’s bereaved mother, as a remembrance.
Time-out for a thought experiment: You are Frida, perpetually strapped for cash. Your marriage is shakier than usual. You also have an ongoing cavalcade of medical problems. You are beginning to gain an audience for your paintings, and the only way you can or want to earn some extra money is by selling them. Clare Boothe Luce is rich and powerful, and if she’s happy with the picture she has commissioned, she will tell her rich and powerful friends, who then might also commission a picture from you. You know this is how it works. It’s the golden rule: He who has the gold, rules.
What do you do? Do you give Clare Boothe Luce what you know she wants—a pleasant, decorative picture to present to her friend Dorothy’s grieving mother? Or do you respect your own talent and vision and give her the shocking “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale,” as well as a near heart attack?
Unlike Frida, I have been permanently scarred by the number one rule drilled into my head at every retail and fast-food job of my youth: Customer satisfaction is our number one goal. In other words, like many women (like you?) I was conditioned to please from a young age. I would have been delirious with joy to have received a commission from someone like Clare Boothe Luce. Keeping in mind that I was painting the portrait for Dorothy’s poor mother, I would have made Dorothy look even prettier than she had been in real life. My goal would have been to make everyone weep with joy, including the spirit of Dorothy herself.
But then, I’m not difficult. Frida was.
In the center of the painting, behind what appears to be a feathery layer of cirrus clouds, the cream-colored Hampshire House rises up with its many small windows and mansard roof. In the background, a tiny figure plummets past the upper stories. In the middle ground there is another, larger falling woman, clearly Dorothy Hale, her arms extended, her skirt billowing around her knees. In the foreground, resting on the brown earth is Dorothy in her black velvet dress and yellow corsage, her neck clearly broken. The banner running along the bottom of the painting says, In the city of New York on the 21st day of the month of October, 1938, at six o’clock in the morning, Mrs. DOROTHY HALE committed suicide by throwing herself out of a very high window of the Hampshire House building. In her memory [a strip of missing words] this retablo, executed by FRIDA KAHLO. Blood flows from beneath Dorothy’s head and dribbles onto the banner and frame.
Horrified does not begin to describe the reaction of Clare Boothe Luce. “I will always remember the shock I had when I pulled the painting out of the crate,” she wrote later. “I felt really physically sick. What was I going to do with this gruesome painting of the smashed corpse of my friend, and her blood dripping down all over the frame?”
Clare Boothe Luce’s first impulse was to cut up “The Suicide of Dorothy Hale” with a pair of shears. But at the last minute she called an illustrator friend who did covers for the New Yorker. Intrigued, he rushed over and took it off her hands.
Currently the picture hangs in the Phoenix Art Museum and is routinely cited as one of Frida Kahlo’s masterpieces.
Frida may have been thrilled to receive a commission, but her gratitude didn’t poison her vision. Frida obeyed her own heaving feelings, always, and could only paint what they dictated. If people were alarmed, so much the better. She wasn’t about to make an exception, thinking, “I’ll hold off doing my wacky Frida thing just this once.” Nope. Frida expressed what was in her heart with every brushstroke, and what was in Frida’s heart that fall of 1938 was despair. Her marriage was over. The final straw had been Diego’s latest affair. Of all the women available to Diego in Mexico City—and according to historians, that would have been all the women in Mexico City, so charming and irresistible was he—his choice for an extramarital affair was Frida’s sister, Cristina.
In 1939, Frida and Diego Rivera were divorced. Perhaps they would have remained forever estranged, if not for the assassination of exiled Russian communist leader Leon Trotsky.
Several years earlier, while Frida and Diego were still relatively happy, Trotsky and his wife arrived in Mexico City to live with them, having been expelled from the Soviet Union. The short version of the Trotskys’ time with the Riveras: tequila, tequila, tequila;Trotsky and Rivera argue politics; Trotsky and Frida have a fling, sending Madame Trotsky into an understandable depression; Trotsky escapes several assassination attempts by Stalinist operatives dispatched from the Soviet Union, only to be murdered on August 20, 1940, by a demented local man with an ice ax. Frida and Diego, now living separately, were both suspects! Rivera fled to San Francisco, while Frida was taken into custody for questioning. She was released after a few days, and also left for San Francisco to consult Dr. Leo Eloesser about some kind of chronic fungal infection; Eloesser had treated her for various maladies in 1930, and had become a trusted friend.
So devoted was Frida to “doctorcito,” as she liked to call him, that she painted two pictures for him: “Portrait of Dr. Leo Eloesser” (1931), a somewhat straightforward and inexpert rendering of the good doctor standing with his elbow on a high table in front of a sailboat (Frida was never as good painting other people) and “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Dr. Eloesser” (1940), which displays her trademark nightmarish razzle-dazzle. She captures herself in her favorite three-quarter angle, looking straight at the view from beneath her infamous unibrow. Dangling from her one visible ear is a golden earring of an open palm. A choker of thorns digs into her neck, drawing a few drops of blood.
In San Francisco Frida and Diego got back together. Perhaps the calamity of being persons of interest in Trotsky’s homicide reunited them. Or maybe the romance of the City by the Bay was just impossible to resist. In any case, they remarried in 1940 at a small civil ceremony. Trying to parse the logic behind their reconciliation is above my pay grade.
During Friego 2.0, Frida painted most of her masterpieces.
Inspiration is mysterious in its complexity. What fires up any given artist is as unique as a fingerprint. Frida seemed to require a carefully titrated mixture of despair at Diego’s disappearing acts, loneliness, and active engagement with her own broken body. To date, her complete medical history remains unknown. She is said to have had 30 surgeries over the course of her lifetime, most of them attempts to repair the damage from the bus accident she’d suffered at 18. She saw a round of doctors, most of whom contradicted each other. Mexican doctors once declared she had “a tuberculosis in the bones” and wanted to operate; Dr. Eloesser disagreed. In 1944 her chronic back pain worsened (treatment: steel corset prescribed to reduce “irritation of the nerves” that she wore for five months). Read how modern medicine reaches the public.
In the first part of 1946, she sought out a “high-up doctor of Gringolandia” to perform a complicated surgery in which four vertebrae were fused using bone from her pelvis. The operation was performed in June. Her recovery was a success, but eventually she suffered again from shooting pains. A new doctor in Mexico examined her and claimed the New York doctor had performed the fusion on the wrong vertebrae. But there’s another version of this story: The fusion was a success and Frida made a full recovery. Then one night Diego didn’t come home, and in a fit of rage and frustration, she either opened her own incisions or else threw herself on the ground and compromised the barely knitted bones.
Frida’s bone grafts developed infections, requiring exquisitely painful injections. Her circulation suffered so much from inactivity and a terrible diet that one day she woke up to find that the tips of the toes on her right foot were black. Eventually, they were amputated, followed by her leg, amputated below the knee in 1953, a year before she died.
Diego’s love for Frida seemed directly related to her invalidism. The worse his wife’s pain—the more she suffered—the less Diego philandered. He would sit beside her bed and read poetry aloud, or hold her as she fell asleep. When the pain became manageable (often with the aid of heavy-duty meds to which she would eventually become addicted), he would go back to work, become distracted by a new lover, and leave her alone. Again.
Then, she would paint. Some of Frida’s most arresting work—her certifiable masterpieces—come from this period. “The Broken Column” (1944) shows her naked form split jaggedly in half, her skin pierced with nails. Inside her open body, crumbling steel replaced her spine, her torso held together by the white straps that run under and above her pretty breasts. In “The Wounded Deer” (1946) her face, in its standard three-quarters angle, has been placed atop a wounded deer running in the forest. Antlers extend from either side of her head, and nine arrows pierce the deer’s body. Her anguish at being force-fed what was essentially baby food is on display in “Without Hope” (1945). She lies in a four-poster bed in what appears to be a postapocalyptic landscape; a wooden frame looms over her, holding a funnel overflowing with fish heads, a strangled chicken, some kind of offal, and a skull. She gazes at the viewer with her classic stare, tears on her cheeks, the end of the funnel pressed between her lips.
The degree to which Frida helped facilitate her own misery will forever remain a mystery. Her questionable medical care is inferior only in retrospect. Her doctors were for the most part top-notch, practicing the most up-to-date methods of the time. But regardless of how she came by her suffering, Frida wasn’t about to do it in silence. She wasn’t interested so much in communicating her situation as expressing it. This is how it feels to be in this broken female body. This is how it feels to be alone and without my beloved. This is how it feels to be me. I dare you to look—and once you look, I’m going to make sure you cannot look away.
The degree to which Frida helped facilitate her own misery will forever remain a mystery.
“I recommend her to you, not as a husband but as an enthusiastic admirer of her work,” Diego once wrote to Picasso. “Acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly’s wing, lovable as a beautiful smile, and profound and cruel as the bitterness of life.” Follow Picasso's journey from prodigy to icon.
When Frida died in 1954 at the age of 47, she was known primarily as Diego Rivera’s exotic little wife. The rise of feminism in the late 1970s brought with it the question “Hey, where are all the women artists? Where are all the women of color?” and the answer was the rediscovery of Frida Kahlo. Discover six women scientists who were snubbed due to sexism.
In 2016, Frida’s 1939 painting “Two Nudes in the Forest (the Earth Itself)” sold at Christie’s for a record eight million dollars—the most expensive Latin American art piece sold at auction to date. A small, somber oil on metal, the painting depicts one naked Frida resting her head in the lap of another naked Frida, amid the thick vines and heavily veined leaves of a voluptuous jungle that existed only in her mind.
Fifty-five of Frida Kahlo’s 143 pictures are self-portraits. Many of them depict the woes of living in a human female body, including the mess of female reproduction and its sometime failures. Metal hospital beds, bloody instruments, a snarl of internal organs she seems to be vomiting in despair. A delicate, anatomically correct image of her own heart beating inside her chest, her naked body splayed open, giving birth to her mustachioed adult self. The female nude, so beloved of fine artists, had never been nude like this.
Then as now, it’s a well-known truism that men are uncomfortable when women cry. One can only imagine how squirmy they must have been—how squirmy they are—in the presence of Frida’s pictures. But Frida was a woman comfortable among the chaos of her feelings. She never denied them, never dialed them down. It made her strong. Or, in the view of some—difficult.