As a child, Frida Kahlo used to dress as a boy. It was a defiant, unorthodox response to the school bullies who taunted her because of her withered right leg. Kahlo’s androgynous look continued into adolescence—she’s seen in family photos as a teenager, posing coolly with her siblings, sporting one of her father’s elegant three-piece suits. Her early gender ambiguity was, as it turned out, typical of the artist’s maverick approach to life.

When she was the victim of a near-fatal bus crash at the age of 18, she suffered a fractured lumbar and was immobilized, forced to be bed-ridden and to wear a surgical corset for a long period of convalescence. It was then that she started to paint, and a mirror was fixed above her bed so that she could depict her own reflection.

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best,” said the artist. And the self-portraits that depict, in searing detail, Kahlo’s suffering from the injuries and, later, her miscarriages, are now celebrated. But just as enduring is her status as a universal icon—of fashion, feminism and self-invention. She has become an unconventional, counter-cultural heroine, adored for her bravery, her rebellious spirit, her flamboyant style and approach to life, as well as for her art.

As curator Circe Henestrosa puts it: “Clothes became part of her armour, to deflect, conceal and distract from her injuries.” And it’s the construction of Kahlo’s identity around “her politics, ethnicity and disability” (to quote Henestrosa), that has made her such a beloved figure today. The complexities of Kahlo’s troubles, and the manner in which she overcame them, have made her an inspirational figure for many. It’s the unique combination of physical fragility matched by inner-strength that really resonates with her admirers.

“As a woman, an artist, an icon, Kahlo has achieved a rare, almost universal, acclaim,” Henestrosa adds. Through her self-portraits and her love of traditional Mexican style, Kahlo “dealt with her life… her political views, her health struggles, her accident, and her turbulent marriage. I think Kahlo’s powerful style is as integral to her myth as her paintings.”

Her persona was inherently political—the traditional Tehuana dress she adopted comes from Oaxaca, a matriarchal society in Mexico—and she was, of course, also quintessentially bohemian. In her personal life, she pushed boundaries and ignored taboos. She lived and loved to the full. Her lovers included Leon Trotsky, dancer Josephine Baker and sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Her marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera was turbulent but long-lasting.

Kahlo’s final exhibition during her life was in 1953 in Mexico. She was brought to the event in an ambulance, with her four-poster bed following on the back of a truck. In a final, bold, flamboyant statement, the bed was positioned in the middle of the gallery so that Kahlo could lie there as the exhibition opening took place around her. She died a year later but her influence did not end there, and continues to be felt more than half a century on, says Henestrosa: “Frida Kahlo is unique, rebellious and contradictory. A cult figure [who] continues to be appropriated by feminists, artists, fashion designers and popular culture. In a society often obsessed with tearing down the walls of the private self, Kahlo is the very embodiment of the ethos du jour.

“During Kahlo’s lifetime she was sometimes viewed as ‘exotic’ or patronized, ‘othered’, but today her intersectional, and complex, self-constructed identity is better understood and is inspiring. She was a Mexican, female artist who was disabled, looking for a place as a female artist in a highly male-dominated environment in Mexico City. Aren’t we fighting as women for the same today? How much more relevant and refreshing for our times can she be?”


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