Frida created much of her work in the 1930s and 40s, which turned out to be an extremely eventful period for Mexican art and politics. Diego Rivera was becoming world-famous through his gigantic wall murals, taking on capitalist and imperialist history by contrasting it to the values inherent in Mexican culture and social movements. Frida’s art, on the other hand, was apparently more rooted in the private sphere, revealing key events in her life through her “shocking self-portraits”. Her artist friends called her work surreal, but to Frida herself, this unique rendering of her inner reality merely collapsed the border between inside and outside.

In 1930, she travelled to the USA for the first time with Diego Rivera. With this journey began a phase of intense artistic work, and in 1931, Frida was able to present one of her drawings for the first time at the Sixth Annual Exhibition of the Society of Women Artists in San Francisco, one of the oldest art organisations in California, which had created a dedicated space for women artists and photographers.

Interestingly, Frida’s contribution to the exhibition was a work titled ‘Frieda and Diego Rivera’. The painting plays with the couple’s unequal appearance which was the cause of a lot of attention among their circle of American artists and patrons, whenever they appeared together. In the painting, Frida, a young and naïve girl in Mexican clothes, is standing next to the expansive Diego. Her gaze, however, makes it clear: this young woman is not naïve…

Frida’s reputation as an artist grew steadily in the 1930s. In 1937, four of her works were presented in a group exhibition at the University gallery in Mexico City, followed by her first solo exhibition in 1938 at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York.

Twenty-five of her paintings were exhibited, and almost all of them were sold. Her participation at the Mexico exhibition in France in 1939 – although badly organised by Andre Breton17 – was another big success for Frida. Because of the growing recognition that she received, she was invited in 1942 to teach at La Esmeralda, the National Art Academy of Mexico. Her students proudly called themselves “Los Fridos”.

In 1946, the Ministry of Education awarded her the National Prize of Arts and Sciences.

How are we to understand her work and its continuing popularity? Frida challenged the art world through her paintings – and continues to do so today. Bearing witness to key events in her life, her art depicts her innermost self, her physical suffering, as well as the suffering caused by her relationship with Diego.

But her work is far more than self-depiction. Her magically inventive paintings appear seemingly naïve and purely aesthetic, but they are in fact referring to European art traditions, and to the modernist avant-garde.

Frida presents herself in many roles, never repeating even the smallest detail – “no stroke of her paintbrush is meaningless.”

Despite the number of self-portraits she produced, Frida’s work was always more than self-staging and self-depiction. She may have depicted suffering, physical and mental distress, but she never portrayed herself as a helpless victim, as Carlos Monsiváis so aptly puts it: “From someone who is ill, one doesn’t expect such an explosion of vitality... That was Frida’s great scandal. Not what she said or who she slept with. But rather a sick person, who refuses to resign herself to be covered with the veil of pity.”

Her admirable strength and resilience were nowhere more in evidence than at her first solo exhibition opening in Mexico, in April 1953 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Mexico City. Frida was very ill by then, her physical condition having steadily deteriorated in the 1940s, with one operation following another. Despite everything, she still attended the opening – lying in her bed, dressed in the traditional costume of Tehuana (from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec) women. Her presence also testified to the fact that in her case, art and life depended on each other, linking the work of art with the art of living.

Anita Brenner, a friend of Frida’s who was a journalist and photographer, described this incredible moment: “The room was filled with energy, all of it focused on Frida, who drew it in like oxygen. People lined up to greet her, pay her homage, but there was also a feeling they were saying goodbye.”

On left: ‘Self-portrait with Cropped Hair’ (1940); On right: ‘Self-portrait with Loose Hair’ (1947)

It was this exhibition opening – and finally the circumstances of her death – which turned Frida into a legend. Ill with pneumonia in early July 1954, Frida nevertheless took part in a demonstration against USA intervention in Guatemala. The demonstration exhausted her completely, and a few days later, on July 13, 1954, she died. Her ashes remain in Casa Azul, the house her father had built, in which she was born and in which she had lived for many years with – and apart from – Diego Rivera.

After her death, Frida Kahlo’s popularity – as an artist, a fashion model, a style icon, and a symbol of suffering, resilience and rebellion – continues unabated.

The ways in which she is repeatedly re-labelled and reinvented is unprecedented in the world of art. Each of these labels serves one of the many facets of her personality: she is an icon of Mexican popular culture, a surrealist, a classic modernist painter, a bisexual feminist, and a revolutionary.

Frida made herself the subject of her own art, not in a naïve sense, but in the context of her knowledge of both Western and Mexican art traditions. As Florian Steininger, an Austrian art historian, puts it: “Her self-portraits with an imperious stare are among the great icons of the history of figurative painting.” Through them she created the template for her archetypical image, the ‘Frida Icon’, which has mutated into a phenomenon that can be called “a Mexican saint with pop character”.

Frida Kahlo’s art and life came to have tangible benefits for women as well. As early as two years after her death, it enabled the work of other women artists to come to the fore in the male-dominated world of art.

Raquel Tibol described the first women’s art exhibition in Mexico in 1956, titled, “The Frida Kahlo Salon” as heterogeneous, but nonetheless imbued by a certain gender awareness “united by Frida’s catalytic power”.

Frida Kahlo was ‘rediscovered’ at a moment when the time was ripe for a re-assessment of the role of women artists, and the feminist movement of the 70s chose her as the icon to affirm this.

Frida’s life and art also became rich material for all kinds of critical and artistic explorations. There are countless essays by famous writers who try to get close to her. Her life and suffering has become the stuff of opera, is danced as ballet, and innumerable experimental and not so experimental theatre performances in the world all get “their Frida”. Frida herself laid these trails, staging her life as a universal piece of art. Her paintings are a fusion of myth and personal history, a weaving together of fact and fiction – allowing the viewer to pick the part she chooses, to create her very own version of Frida.

Excerpted with permission from Frida Folk, Gaby Franger, Tara Books.