The Jewish Mexicana
Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) was the painter who depicted excruciating pain. She also claimed she was Jewish. Known as La Mexicana–the quintessential Mexican woman, she led a tempestuous, controversial life, both as an artist and as the wife of the renowned mural painter Diego Rivera. Her paintings, replete with symbolism and surrealism, reveal stark portrayals of personal suffering and unhappiness. Forty paintings on view now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art provide a dazzling panorama of her work. Using brilliant color and often subject matter indigenous to the various cultures of Mexico, her autobiographical and self-portraits in particular dominate her oeuvre. “I paint myself, because I am often alone, and I am the subject I know best,” she declared when recovering in bed from her tragic bus accident that left her in a full body cast.
Stricken with polio at the age of six, her right leg grew thinner than her left leg; she wore long skirts to hide the deformity. It is also said that she suffered from spina bifida. At the age of 18 she was riding on a bus in Mexico City when it collided with a trolley car. Frida was seriously injured, suffering a broken spinal column, collar bone, ribs and pelvis. There were also fractures to her right leg, a dislocated shoulder, and a crushed and dislocated right foot. An iron handrail pierced her abdomen and uterus, making it impossible for her to bear children. Eventually, she regained her ability to walk, but she was plagued by extreme pain for the rest of her life. She was often bedridden for months at a time; she underwent 35 operations on her back and legs during her short life of 47 years.
Frida was born at La Casa Azul, her parents’ charming orange and blue stucco house in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán. Her father, Carl Wilhelm Kahlo (1872-1941), had emigrated to Mexico from Germany at age 19. He was the son of Jakob Heinrich Kahlo and Henriett Kaufman. Arriving in Mexico to become a photographer, he immediately changed his first name from Wilhelm to Guillermo, its Spanish equivalent. It has been widely accepted that both his parents were Jewish, which would unequivocally establish Guillermo as a Jew. In the Jewish religion, however, a newborn child is automatically Jewish if the mother is Jewish. It has always been assumed that Henriett was a Jew. Present scholarship; however, questions whether Wilhelm Kahlo really was Jewish. One scholar insists that he came from Hungarian-German Lutheran parentage.
The painting My Grandparents, My Parents and I (Mis Abuelos, Mis Padres y yo–arból genealógico), painted in 1936, is Frida’s attempt to chronicle her ancestry. This painting was the focus of the 2003 exhibition Intimate Family Picture at The Jewish Museum in New York. Kahlo was never a practicing Jew, said guest curator Gannit Ankori, of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But she was “interested in her Jewish roots and viewed them as part of her ‘genealogical identity."
Frida explained the painting in her own words: “Me in the middle of this house when I was about two years old. The whole house is in perspective, as I remember it. On top of the house in the clouds are my father and mother when they were married (portraits taken from photos). The ribbon about me and my mother’s waist becomes an umbilical cord and I become a fetus. On the right, the paternal grandparents, on the left the maternal grandparents. A ribbon circles all the group–symbolic of the family relation. The German grandparents are symbolized by the sea, the Mexican by the earth.” Frida Kahlo, Coyoacán, May 27, 1939.
Although it remains unclear whether there were Jews on Frida’s paternal side, it is certain that Frida’s mother Matilde Calderón was a devout Catholic, of indigenous Mexican and Spanish descent, which made her a mestiza. Matilde’s parents were Mexican; her grandfather Antonio Calderón was a professional photographer, who greatly influenced Guillermo, even giving him his first camera. Frida was one of four girls born to Matilde and Guillermo. She also had two half sisters; Guillermo’s first wife had died in childbirth.
Gannit Ankori raises the issue that Kahlo’s genealogy establishes her “hybrid and multicultural identity.” A multitude of influences pervaded the persona of Frida Kahlo. She jokingly said she was born in 1910, the year of the Mexican Revolution. Rejecting her German roots, she became an ardent Communist sympathizer, even having an affair with Trotsky, whom she and Rivera sheltered in Mexico, when he sought refuge from the Stalin regime.
Frida Kahlo’s paintings are based upon her life experiences and her inner personal emotion. She said, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” Many of her paintings, especially the self-portraits, include the monkey, the Mexican symbol for lust.But she also incorporates Christian and Jewish themes. Several of her paintings are shocking, even painful to look at. Highlighting her broken spinal column and a bloody hospital miscarriage, The Two Fridas expresses the dichotomy of her complex personality. But always she depicts herself with her signature unibrow, her eyebrows grown together over the bridge of her nose.
Frida Kahlo had her gangrenous right leg amputated at the knee in 1953. Just a few days before she died on July 14, 1954, sadly she wrote: “I hope the exit is joyful—and I hope never to return.”
The Frida Kahlo exhibit next travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where it will be on view throughout the summer.
- Ginger Levit