In honor of Frida Kahlo’s birthday, here are 5 things you should know about the Mexican artist

Written by Leah AsmelashNadeem Muaddi, CNN

Frida Kahlo’s image has become so ubiquitous — printed on everything from Barbie dolls to shoes — that it’s easy to lose sight of how radical she once was. On the occasion of her 112th birthday, here’s a look at what made the Mexican artist a force to reckon with.

She was extremely proud of her Mexican heritage

Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacán, Mexico to a German father and a Spanish indigenous mother.

Although she was considered a “mestiza” — a person of mixed European and indigenous ancestry — she closely identified with her indigenous heritage and loved the Mexican people.

When Kahlo was only three years old, the Mexican Revolution erupted. She grew up in the political chaos that led to end of a nearly 30-year dictatorship and establishment of a constitutional republic.

That turbulent time helped shape Kahlo’s world view. By the age of 16, she had joined a local chapter of the socialist party. In her 20’s, she became a member of the Mexican Communist Party.

For years, Kahlo even claimed she was born in 1910 so that she would be perceived as a daughter of the revolution, according to Frida Kahlo Foundation.

She remained a vocal leftist and supporter of the Mexican people throughout her life.

She started painting after a life-threatening accident

Kahlo was plagued by a series of debilitating health issues, but she never let them stop her from living life to the fullest.

As a child, she battled a serious case of polio that left her with several disabilities. The disease caused her right leg to be thinner than the left, which she disguised with long skirts, according to Frida Kahlo Foundation.

In her teens, she was severely injured when a bus collided with a trolley, causing a metal handrail to break off and pierce her pelvis, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Her spine, legs and feet were also fractured in the accident.

A visitor looks at the painting "The Broken Column" by Frida Kahlo at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin.

A visitor looks at the painting “The Broken Column” by Frida Kahlo at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin. Credit: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

As a result of the crash, Kahlo was beset with chronic pain and wore a plaster corset throughout her life.

Bedridden and bored, Kahlo took up painting with watercolors to pass the time. In fact, her mother had a special easel made so that she could paint while laying on her back, according to Frida Kahlo Corporation.

She would go on to paint “The Broken Column,” which depicted her plaster corset.

She married a famous Mexican painter

Kahlo met acclaimed Mexican painter Diego Rivera when she asked him to critique her work. Rivera was 20 years older than her but their relationship quickly progressed into a romantic affair. They later married in 1929.

Their marriages — they married twice — were rocked by fiery temperaments and extramarital affairs, according to the Frida Kahlo Foundation.

Frida Kahlo pets a monkey clinging to the jacket of her husband, Diego Rivera.

Frida Kahlo pets a monkey clinging to the jacket of her husband, Diego Rivera. Credit: Wallace Marly/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The ups and downs of their relationship became the subject of multiple works by Kahlo.

In “Self Portrait with Cropped Hair,” which she painted months after their divorce, Kahlo depicts herself seated solemnly in a man’s suit, holding long locks of her recently chopped off hair. The oversized suit is similar to the ones Rivera wore, and he was known to admire her long hair, which Kahlo painted scattered across the floor.

Frida Kahlo's 1942 "Self Portrait with Cropped Hair."

Frida Kahlo’s 1942 “Self Portrait with Cropped Hair.” Credit: David Goldman/AP

Rivera, a dedicated Marxist and supporter of the Mexican Revolution, is beloved for his murals, which often attacked the ruling class and told stories of working class people.

She rejected the label of surrealist

Kahlo is renowned for her self portraits, but that’s not all she painted.

She tackled still life subject matters, such as “Cactus Fruits” and “Window Display in a Street in Detroit

Kahlo also painted strange and dark scenes. “What the Water Gave Me” depicts figures and landscapes floating in a bathtub.

She often drew inspiration from painful personal experiences, including her stormy marriage, miscarriages and medical procedures. Many of her self-portraits depicted physical and psychological wounds, according to Frida Kahlo Foundation.

Her paintings also incorporated themes of female empowerment and strength of will.

Contemporaries, including famed surrealist André Breton, described Kahlo’s work as surrealism. But it was a label she flatly rejected.

“They thought I was a Surrealist but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality,” Kahlo has said of her critics, according to the Museum of Modern Art.

She used fashion to make a political statement

Kahlo purposefully mixed Western fashion with traditional indigenous clothing to make a political statement about cultural identity, nationalism and feminism.
Frida Kahlo poses for a portrait, circa 1940.

Frida Kahlo poses for a portrait, circa 1940. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“(Frida Kahlo) created her distinctive style as a blend of traditional Mexican and European fashion, combined with the fundamental effects of her disabilities and her political beliefs: Kahlo as a bohemian artist, a Tehuana, a hybrid persona,” said Circe Henestrosa, co-curator of “Frida: Making Her Self Up,” a 2018 exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Her anti-colonial style included modern dresses adorned with Mayan-influenced patterns, rebozo scarves and traditional necklaces, among other accessories.

In time, Kahlo became just as famous for her unique look as she was for her impressive body of work.

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