Famous Bis: Frida Kahlo

By Jennie Roberson

September 12, 2019



Photo credit: natspel/bigstock

Some figures in history and art loom so large that they become icons in their own right. Frida Kahlo is one of those people — and a woman who was openly, unapologetically bi.

Kahlo was a woman of multitudes — a communist whose first major sale was to a major Hollywood movie star; a paragon of creative femininity who was deeply ambivalent about motherhood; and an artist with little formal training whose intensely personal work trailblazed multiple forms of artistic expression. And Kahlo openly pursued her bi attractions in an era where homosexuality could often be career-ending. To say she was a fascinating creature would not do her justice.

Frida drawn realistically, with flowers in her braided hair and red lipstick. She is in front of a wall with rose wallpaper.

Born in Mexico City to a German photographer and a Spanish and purépecha mother, Kahlo was one of four children. She contracted polio at the age of six — an affliction that would leave her with a lifelong limp, which she tried to conceal with long skirts. (This was aided by her colorful, traditional indigenous/Mexican peasant fashions she adopted later in her life.) While Kahlo wasn’t very close to her mother, her malady endeared her to her epileptic father, who enlisted her to help in retouching and coloring in his photographs. She also took up sketching in notebooks when she wasn’t playing sports — highly unusual for young girls at the time, but a pastime her father encouraged in order to aid her polio recovery.

As a high schooler, Kahlo was a voracious reader and outspoken student, gathering a group of peers with similar cultural and political views, nicknaming themselves the "Cachuchas". Think of that badass group of girls smoking in the bathroom, but cooler, and who put on political theatre sketches in the halls for funsies. Point of fact, the Cachuchas would go on to become intellectual influencers in Mexico. During this time, Kahlo first met painter Diego Rivera, who was working on a mural on her school campus. Kahlo would later declare to one of these confidant she would marry that man someday.

When Frida turned 18, she was grievously injured in a grisly traffic accident. A steel handrail impaled her hip in the collision, breaking her pelvis and causing damage to her spine. This left her in constant pain, and saddled her with medical problems for the rest of her life. Her surgeries would number in the dozens by the end — mostly performed by quacks — in hopes of returning Kahlo to her more abled self before the accident.

While she was convalescing over a period of months, Kahlo took up her childhood hobby of painting again. Her parents went all-in on encouraging this behavior, buying her supplies and fashioning for her not only a special easel for her bed, but a mirror on the ceiling so she could study herself. The burgeoning artist took to hand-painting her dozens of supportive medical corsets, putting all of our broken arm cast signings to shame. It was during this first year of recuperation and recovery she finished her first self-portrait — one of over 50 she would create over the course of her lifetime.

Portrait made by Frida featuring her pet monkey and black cat. Surrouned by large leaves. Her expression is serious.
Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940)

Yup, Frida Kahlo. All-time Selfie Champion.

In 1927, Kahlo joined the Communist Party and met Rivera again at a social gathering. Kahlo asked Rivera to review her work, and he encouraged her as an artist. (Always remember, folks: It costs nothing to encourage an artist.) Soon after this meeting, the pair started up a romantic relationship (even though Rivera was already married with kids at the time), marrying in 1929.

As the couple traveled across America to work on Rivera’s commissioned murals during their newlywed years, Frida sporadically continued her own work. However, she was often waylaid by illnesses, surgeries, and recuperative periods.

Early on, Kahlo’s work was often dismissed as just Rivera’s wife with a painting hobby. Despite these condescending attitudes, Kahlo was confident in her work. In fact, she often turned up her nose at most of the most influential artists of her day. As she moved among the society circles in America, Kahlo wrote to a friend of her distaste, seeing the rich throwing lavish parties while thousands in the capitalistic country went hungry. Even as her artistic works entered the cultural landscape and became heralded as great examples of surrealism, she detested the association with the artistic movement.

Frida, Diego, and Anson Goodyear all sitting together looking at the camera. It is in black and white.
Wikimedia/Rivera, Kahlo, and Anson Goodyear

Frida eventually found success through her first few exhibits and sales — including her first sale to Hollywood legend Edward G. Robinson. Yes, the star most famous for playing gangsters had a great eye for art, and helped get Kahlo’s career going. Luckily, posterity has come to smile on Kahlo and appreciate her work — she became the first Mexican artist whose works were purchased by and featured in the Louvre. Take that, Detroit newspapers.

Kahlo’s work evolved over time, including not only iconography from Mexican and indigenous culture, but also existentialist interpretations alluding to her inner turmoil. While she had little formal training, Kahlo often created self-portraits incorporating her views on gender, politics, and femininity, among many other issues. Her singular, cathartic style, full of personal and cultural symbolism, always combatting pre-conceived notions of ideas in her life, is instantly recognizable.

While Rivera and Kahlo's love for one another was true, their marriage was not a conventional one. Rivera was a compulsive cheater, often having affairs with friends and models alike. Kahlo was deeply hurt by these trysts (especially by one between Rivera and her sister, Cristina) and incorporated her heartbreak into her paintings. She also had extramarital couplings of her own, unafraid of exhibiting her same-sex attractions. Her crushes and lovers, rumored and otherwise, include but are not limited to:

These conquests even included Kahlo having affairs with people after Rivera had his way with them.

There are all kinds of salacious morsels out there about Frida’s affairs, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least include an excerpt about her attractions in one of her letters. Her love letters to Diego Rivera are lush and steamy, but Kahlo’s wit was always on display, as in this excerpt written to a friend

O'Keeffe was in the hospital for three months, she went to 
Bermuda for a rest. She didn’t made [sic] love to me that 
time, I think on account of her weakness. 
Too bad.

Kahlo and Rivera separated multiple times, keeping houses adjacent to each other connected by a bridge on the roof for clandestine visits. The pair divorced and remarried in the same year, staying together until Kahlo’s death. Kahlo had multiple failed pregnancies — one aborted, the other a failed abortion-turned-miscarriage due to her condition. These traumatic experiences were reflected in her work, along with themes of identity and gender expression.

Due to her declining health, Kahlo moved back to her family home, Casa Azul. Even in her final years, Frida remained active as much as possible, teaching devotees at home and even showing up to political protests. In 1954, a week after her 47th birthday, she was found dead in her bed by her nurse. Medical reports indicate a pulmonary embolism, but speculation due to the amount of medication she took has led to rumors of death by suicide, due to prior bouts of depression and a previous, similar episode.

Frida's house, with large colorful doors and bright turquoise blue in color.

While Rivera had no qualms with Kahlo’s same-sex affairs while she was alive, after her death and during arrangements to turn her house into a museum he tried to lock away evidence of these romances. Casa Azul ended up becoming a museum dedicated to her life and work, and is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Mexico City.

Interest in Kahlo’s paintings and dramatic life story has only grown since her death, boosted by the 1970s momentum from newly emerging waves of feminism, the Chicano Movement, and growing interest in LGBT history. Much of her work is heralded as fantastic illustrations of symbolism, creative femininity, and use of iconography through a personal lens.

Her self-portraits have become so iconic she has even appeared on postage stamps in the US — not even her own home country. Her life and viewpoint have enjoyed several creative interpretations, from an opera to an Oscar-winning biopic, produced by and starring Salma Hayek. Her aesthetic, image, and paintings have even inspired (and often been appropriated by) fashion houses and multiple kitsch markets — something the ardent communist would have despised.

Frida sitting at a cafe, writing on a paper with pen.There are only men around her.

Ultimately, this column is a very truncated list of much of Kahlo’s life — I didn’t even get to her pet spider monkey! Consider this spot a jumping-off point for a delicious deep dive into a fascinating bi artist’s life. I would highly encourage anyone who is not more familiar with her work to do more research on the subject.

Kahlo lived more in her short time here than many of us do in one lifetime — her paintings are more than worthy of further study.

Portrait made by Frida featuring her pet monkey and black cat. Surrouned by large leaves. Her expression is serious.
Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940),