7 Things you didn’t know about Frida Kahlo

Anna Walker

To coincide with the new V&A exhibition, "Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up", we reveal some surprising facts you might not have known about the iconic artist.

1. She once hoped to become a doctor


A young Frida. Image via Huffington Post

In her teenage years, Frida Kahlo's ambition was to become a doctor, but at 18 she was involved in a bus crash that would change her life forever.

Her spine was shattered in three places, her pelvis and shoulder were dislocated, her right leg had 11 fractures, and she had been impaled by a metal rod. Her then-boyfriend Alex Gómez Arias recalled that when the rod was pulled from her body, "Frida screamed so loud that when the ambulance from the Red Cross arrived, her screaming was louder than the siren."

"Frida found herself destined to live as a patient, not a healer"

Frida would live with severe pain for the rest of her life, and suffer numerous miscarriages as a result of her injuries. She found herself destined to live as a patient, not a healer. It was in her many hours of recovery that she found her gift for art, and her calling as a painter. 

Despite being forced to abandon her childhood dream, Frida’s interest in biology never waned, although it became a more macabre interest with age. She was known to keep a house full of exotic plants, including watermelon flowers and cacti, and she kept a foetus that a doctor had sent her as a gift in her bedroom.


The Broken Column, 1944, Frida Kahlo. Image via Wiki

Her body as a site of pain and suffering became a theme throughout Frida's work and featured more and more heavily as she aged. She dissected herself in works such as The Broken Column and Henry Ford Hospital, where her body is portrayed almost like an illustration from an ancient medical textbook.

Never without a sense of humour, looking back on the accident that would influence the rest of her life, Frida said: “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the bus, the other was Diego [her husband]. Diego was by far the worst.”

 

2. She had a taste for exotic pets


Self-Portrait With Monkeys, 1943, Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo loved the spider monkeys that she kept as pets so much, that they feature in eight separate self-portraits, curled around her neck, playing with the pendant of her necklace or perched on her forearm.

Monkeys had a strong symbolism within the Mexican culture of the day. In Aztec religions, they were gods of fertility and were intimately connected to art and dance.


Image via Pinterest

Among Frida’s menagerie were spider monkeys named Fulang Chang (a gift from her husband, muralist Diego Rivera) and Caimito de Guayabal. She also kept an Amazon parrot named Bonito, a fawn named Granizo, Gertrudis Caca Blanca the eagle, parakeets, hens, sparrows, macaws and a pack of hairless Mexican dogs, her favourite of which was dubbed Mr Xoloti.

 

3. She had a short-lived affair with Leon Trotsky

A devoted communist for much of her life, upon hearing of his exile from the Soviet Union, Frida Kahlo campaigned to bring revolutionary Leon Trotsky to Mexico. When he arrived aboard an oil tanker in January 1937, he and his wife Natalya immediately moved in with Frida and Diego.

The pair quickly began an affair—speaking English together in front of their spouses who had little grasp of the language. So close were the couple while they lived together, that when Trotsky was assassinated in 1940, Frida was held by police for two days, suspected of involvement in the murder.

4. But she also had affairs with women


The liaison as portrayed in the biopic, Frida

Frida was bisexual, and amongst the many extramarital affairs she enjoyed with men, was a romantic tryst with the dancer Josephine Baker.

Frida was divorced from her husband Diego Rivera for just one year before the pair remarried, but in that time she travelled to Paris for a special exhibition of her work. There she allegedly met Josephine Baker in a nightclub after one of Baker’s performances, and the pair began a brief but passionate relationship.


Josephine Baker (right) and Frida. Image via Owlcation

Frida’s other rumored female lovers included the artist Georgia O’Keefe and Mexican movie star Dolores del Río.

 

5. She didn’t much care for the world beyond Mexico


Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives 

As both her own fame and that of her husband increased, the couple began to travel further afield, exhibiting their work or undertaking commissions.

The more she saw of the world, however, the more Frida was dissatisfied with it. Of the people of San Francisco, she said, “I don't like the gringos at all. They're very boring, and they've all got faces like unbaked rolls.”


Image via Gisèle Freund

Despite her enjoyable liaison with Josephine Baker, she didn’t think much of her time in Paris either, noting that “[Parisians] are so damn 'intellectual' and rotten that I can't stand them anymore...I [would] rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than have anything to do with those artistic b*****s of Paris.”

"Parisians are so damn 'intellectual' and rotten that I can't stand them anymore"

Frida referred to the US—a capitalist stronghold her communist principles couldn’t stomach—as “Gringolandia” and explained her disdain for the country thus: “The most important thing for everyone in Gringolandia is to have ambition and become 'somebody,' and frankly, I don't have the least ambition to become anybody.”

 

6. She turned her disabilities into art


Prosthetic leg with leather boot. Appliquéd silk with embroidered Chinese motifs. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums

After Frida’s death, her husband locked away her possessions and clothes in a bathroom in the home they shared in Mexico City, and demanded the room not be opened again until 15 years after his death.

Usually on display at the house, which is now a museum, these belongings can currently be seen at the V&A’s exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up. Among them is a beautifully designed prosthetic leg, which Frida created after her Polio ravaged leg was amputated following a bout of gangrene.

 

7. She once arrived at an exhibition in an ambulance


Image via Gisèle Freund

In 1953, the first solo exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s work was opened at the Galeria de Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico City. Frida's suffering was so great at the time, it looked unlikely she would be able to attend.

Never one to accept defeat lightly, Frida arranged for her ornate four poster bed—the same one she painted in—to be sent ahead of her. She followed in an ambulance, as though it were a private chauffeur, and was stretchered into the gallery where her bed was waiting for her.

It was to be the only solo exhibition of Frida's work in her lifetime. She died a year later, aged just 47.

 

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 16 June – 14 November 2018. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland.