Ever true to herself and her art, the iconoclastic Mexican painter wrote, “Yes, it's true I'm here, and I'm just as strange as you.”

Frida Kahlo, Mexico’s greatest female artist, lived her truth by putting every messy and agonizing bit of her life in her work. 

Kahlo contracted polio at age 6, which shrunk her right leg and rendered it thin and weak. She wore long skirts forever after to disguise it and tried to overcome its weakness by competing in sports. Despite her efforts, Kahlo was left with a lifelong limp.

She was able to recover somewhat from polio, and enrolled in Mexico City’s renowned National Preparatory School. But in 1922, a bus crash changed her life forever.

Kahlo has just taken a seat aboard a Mexico City bus when a streetcar slammed into the bus, snapping it in half and impaling Kahlo with a long tube of metal through her hipbone. Onlookers were sure she would succumb to her injuries.

Kahlo had broken her spine and pelvis, and was in the hospital for weeks. She spent months immobilized by a full body cast. Her doctors believed that she would never walk again, and warned that she would likely experience discomfort for the rest of her life. 

But, like all the pain she experienced in her life, Kahlo endured and channeled it into passion. Her mother rigged an easel that could be used from a prone position and had a mirror hung above the bed so that Kahlo could use herself as a model. In that hospital bed, Kahlo became a painter.

Kahlo drew herself over and over again. She had thick black eyebrows that grew together and a mustache on her upper lip. Despite strict cultural ideas of feminine beauty, Kahlo kept her facial hair lush and full; she said that her favorite part of her appearance was her eyebrows.

After being released from the hospital, Kahlo defied her doctors’ prognosis and taught herself to walk again. Even during her grueling physical therapy, she never stopped  painting. Her work “The Broken Column” depicted her spinal column crumbling and her flesh pierced by nails, giving life to the constant state of torment in which she lived. 

Fifty-five of Kahlo’s 143 paintings were self portraiture with surrealist overtones. Her distinctive style incorporated elements of Catholicism, Mexican heritage, as well as folk art. She has been called “the queen of the selfie,” but it wasn’t narcissism that drove her to sketch herself over and over again. She said, “I paint self portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

Kahlo was not destined to be alone for long. She met her husband while she was a student, the renowned Mexican artist Diego Rivera. He was larger than life and all the students were fascinated by him, but none more than Kahlo. She told her friends that she would one day marry him.

When she worked up the courage, Kahlo gathered together some of her paintings and sought Diego out. Did she have any talent? He assured her that she did.

Kahlo and Diego were married in 1929, when the bride was only 22 and the groom was 42. Their age difference was the least of the coipleo problems; theirs was a tempestuous relationship with screaming fights, tearful reunions, infidelity, walkouts, lockouts, miscarriages, and threats of divorce and suicide. They even maintained separate homes and studio spaces in adjacent buildings, one pink and the other blue, connected by a bridge.

Kahlo had long wanted children and when she finally became pregnant, she learned that her injuries would not allow her to carry a baby to term. She had two miscarriages and an abortion before she stopped trying to get pregnant. These events inspired the controversial and graphic painting “Henry Ford Hospital,” which depicts Kahlo’s hemorrhage and the fetus she mourned.

Throughout their marriage, Rivera had a series of affairs, including one with Kahlo’s sister. She retaliated by having numerous dalliances herself, including with Leon Trotsky (the Russian founder of the Communist Party), Josephine Baker (the French-American dancer and activist), and Isamu Noguchi (an American sculptor). 

Kahlo and Rivera’s divorce in 1940 (though they soon remarried) spurred her to produce one of her most famous pieces, “The Two Kahlos.” In it, a modern and a traditional Kahlo sit side-by-side with the latter’s chest torn open, her heart cut and bleeding.

To express her anger at the divorce, Kahlo chopped off the long black hair that Rivera so loved to see adorned with flowers. Because he preferred it when she wore the traditional Tehuana costume of embroidered blouse and skirt, she took to wearing men’s oversized suits. She painted herself in her new garb in “Self-portrait With Cropped Hair” in which she holds the scissors. Later biographers wrote that she wanted to show her independence and that she was done relying on men.

Kahlo and Rivera stayed married until her death in 1954, but Kahlo continued to act and paint in defiance of norms and expectations.

Frida Kahlo painted her shoes, which were custom designed for her legs.

In 1949, Kahlo had seven operations on her spine and spent nine months is the hospital. Over her lifetime, Kahlo’s spine, leg and foot would be operated on 30 times. Yet, true to form, medical issues wouldn’t suppress her drive. 

In 1953, the first exhibition of her art was mounted in her native Mexico. She attended the opening in a four-poster bed. Her right leg had been amputated below the knee. The next year, she caught pneumonia and, against doctor’s orders, joined a Communist march in protest of the United States’ subversion of the Guatemalan government. At the time, she was confined to a wheelchair.

Kahlo remained fiercely true to herself throughout her life. She was unabashedly artistic, an outspoken Communist, non-conforming to gender norms, and openly bisexual during a time when the orientation had no name.

She also celebrated indiegenous Mexican culture, and put her country’s pre-colonial heritage on a pedestal for the world to adore. While, today, Kahlo is adored as a feminist, intersectional icon for these convictions and more, she often felt odd and isolated.

Paints at Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo's home.

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do,” the influential artist wrote in her diary. “I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

Today, Kahlo’s image and trademark Tehuana costumes have come to represent Mexican femininity, and influenced everyone from musicians to clothing designers. The Museo Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo is a must-see in Mexico, and Kahlo was the subject of a recent and highly acclaimed exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.