Psychobiography: Frida Kahlo

Introduction

Frida Kahlo’s personality is difficult to determine and characterize in a few words. She was a Mexican artist of the 20th century; however, she is much more than just a painter. Thanks to historians, filmmakers, and admirers’ combined efforts, Frida Kahlo is known as a painter, loving wife, revolutionist, communist, and many others. These are all parts of her personality that she depicted in her self-portraits. Thus, she created an iconic image that is recognized around the globe.

According to Frida herself, there were two life-changing events: “I have suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar ran over me…The other accident is Diego” (Allmer, 2009). The former represents a horrifying car accident that happened when Frida was 18. It left her with multiple life-threatening injuries that caused great pain throughout her life. The car accident was also the reason she could not have children. The second accident is the marriage to her fellow painter-muralist Diego Rivera, which also caused her great pain due to his infidelity. Thus, Frida Kahlo’s life is pierced with physical and emotional pain which she transferred to her paintings.

Although these two events had a significant impact on the artist’s life, it is believed that there were other aspects of Frida’s psychological state that influenced her decisions and priorities before the accidents. For the purpose of this paper, Frida Kahlo’s biography will be considered within the scope of Freudian classic psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis was found by Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud. The core idea of psychoanalysis is that there are hidden motives and fears in an individual’s subconsciousness. To reveal these hidden patterns subconscious has to become conscious. A great part of psychoanalysis is its stages of development of personality, which predetermine an individual’s behavior in the future (Cloninger, 2013).

Frida Kahlo’ Life

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in Coyocoán, Mexico City, Mexico. She was born in a house that later became a museum and is known as Casa Azul. This is also the house where she died. Her mother was a religious, well-educated woman while her father was a German immigrant and a photographer. As Frida associated herself greatly with her father, he is the reason she became a painter. Her father taught her to see a perspective of a person’s face, and face is what is commonly seen in Frida’s paintings (Herrera, 2002). However, unlike her father’s models, she was her own model as she created more than 50 self-portraits. On these surrealistic self-portraits, she appears different at each stage of her life.

When Frida was 6-year-old, she contracted polio, which made her bedridden for nine months. While she recovered from the illness, she limped when she walked because the disease had damaged her right leg and foot.

In 1922, Kahlo enrolled at the renowned National Preparatory School. She was one of few female students and was known for her national colorful Mexican clothes. At that time, she befriended a group of politically conscious intellectuals. With one of them, she became romantically involved. On September 17, 1925, Kahlo and her lover took a bus when the vehicle collided with a streetcar. As a result of the collision, Kahlo was impaled by a steel handrail, which went into her hip and came out the other side. She suffered from several life-threatening injuries that fractured her spine and pelvis (Lindauer, 1999)

It was during the long recovery from a disease that Kahlo started painting her self-portraits. Frida used to say, “I am the subject I know best” (Herrera, 2002). It explained why she concentrated mainly on the self-portrait. However, according to Freud’s psychoanalysis, it was the opposite. Painting is a powerful mechanism of our subconscious (Cloninger, 2013). For Frida, her subconscious told her what to paint, and she did. Only looking at the painting, she would understand what she considered herself to be.  Painting self-portraits was Frida’s way of learning about herself.

One of her first paintings was her genealogical tree. There she is portrayed as a small girl standing in her house. She is tied to her parents and her grandparents. According to Freudian psychoanalysis theory, the mother is the key figure in a person’s subconscious (Cloninger, 2013). It is believed that although damaged physically, Frida’s main illness was psychological. She suffered from the Persephone complex that symbolized a lifelong evolving tie to her mother. In the Greek Myth about Persephone, Persephone spends half of the year with her husband Hade and another half of the year with her mother (Balsam & Fischer, 2006). With her passionate and obsessive love for her husband, Frida Kahlo retained a yearning for her mother. Although Frida tried to rebel against her mother’s morale, ethics, and religiousness by creating a tough and resilient personality, her desire to be close to her mother is still noticeable. As her mother was Mexican, Frida always wore traditional Mexican dresses and was always called a nationalist (Herrera, 2002).

 

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Frida’s attachment to her father does not demonstrate a replacement of her mother’s figure but rather an addition to the mother-daughter bond (Balsam&Fischer, 2006). Frida’s father was her mother’s love object. Thus, Frida associating herself with her mother treated her father the same way. She took professionally after him. She wore man’s costumes; she also drank as the men and smoked. This brings us to the complexity of Frida Kahlo and her gender identity, which is shown in her paintings in the form of paradox and contradictions.

According to Freud, female development goes through inborn masculinity stages and then to hard-won femininity and sexuality (Cloninger, 2013). This is what we can see in Frida. These stages seem to be present as she is still masculine in her character’s toughness, political involvement, sexual engagement with women, etc. However, she can also be very feminine, which is seen in her dresses, her image as a sex object to her admirers, multiple lovers, devotion to her husband, etc.

In 1929 Frida married Diego Rivera against her mother’s will.  This again shows how important it was for Frida to rebel against her mother. However, Frida’s marriage did not weaken her yearning for her mother. On the contrary, during Frida’s marriage to Rivera, Frida wanted to identify with her mother the most by delivering her children. Unfortunately, due to multiple injuries gained in a car accident, Frida had numerous miscarriages and could not give birth (Herrera, 2002). As well as her distant mother, Frida’s motherhood was also distant and unreachable.

Frida and Rivera’s marriage was not a traditional union. The couple lived together, maintaining their freedom, including freedom of sexual relationships. Diego had multiple affairs as well as an affair with Kahlo’s sister. Frida, heartbroken by Rivera’s infidelity and her miscarriages, was involved with communist leader Trotsky who gained asylum in Mexico and briefly lived in Casa Azul with the couple (Allmer, 1999).

Another lover of Frida was surrealist prodigy Andre Breton. He saw the potential of Frida as a surrealist painter, although she never called her a surrealist. Frida’s self-portraits with time became more and more bold and obscure. Her health began to deteriorate; she had to go through many surgeries again and sought a cure from her pain. However, she continued to work on her paintings and was also politically active despite her immobility.

In 1953 Frida finally received her solo exhibition, which she was advised to skip by doctors. However, Frida would not allow an illness to stay in her way. She was brought to the exhibition hall on an ambulance and stayed in bed installed in the hall during the opening.

In 1954 her right leg was amputated which led to even more severe depression for Frida. She died just a week after her 47th birthday July 13, 1954. The reason for her death was a pulmonary embolism. However, there are some speculations about a possible suicide.

Conclusion

Frida Kahlo is one of the most famous artists of Mexican culture. She mostly painted self-portraits, where she depicted herself in different stages of her life and various physical, emotional, social, and political circumstances. Frida’s self-portraits were her way of recognizing herself and defying who she is as a personality.

According to classic Freudian psychoanalysis, Frida’s Persephone’s complex is what defines her. Persephone’s complex is a daughter’s tie to maternal figure as a sexual object, usually overcome in early childhood. However, if it is not, a person might experience difficulties in an attachment to the opposite sex in the future. This is what we see in Frida’s life. Although she was almost obsessed with her husband Diego Rivera, the two led very separate lives and both were involved in numerous affairs. Frida was involved both with men and women, which is another representation of the unresolved perception of her mother’s figure as a sex object.

In identifying herself with her mother, Frida was trying to become a mother herself. However, due to her poor physical health, she could not have children, which made her depressed and frustrated. As well as she could not reach her mother’s love, she could not be a mother herself.

Frida Kahlo’s bibliography is full of contradictions and paradoxes; however, many of them can be explained with Freudian psychoanalysis and his stage development theory.

 

References

Allmer, P. (2009). Angels of anarchy: Women artists and surrealism. Prestel.

Balsam, R., & Fischer, R. (Eds.). (2006). Psychoanalytic inquiery: Mothers and daughters II (1st ed., Vol. 26). Routledge.

Cloninger, S. (2013). Theories of personality: Understanding persons (6th ed.). Pearson.

Herrera, H. (2002). Frida: A biography of Frida Kahlo (Reprint ed., p. 528). New York: HarperCollins.

Lindauer, M. (1999). Devouring Frida the art history and popular celebrity of Frida Kahlo. University Press of New England.