Artist Frida Kahlo painted 143 pieces before her death. (Photo: Getty)
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo left a vast legacy of artwork after her untimely death at age 47 in 1954, but perhaps what defined her the most as a visionary artist was her confidence in using herself as a personal muse. (Of her 143 paintings, 55 were self-portraits.) Her self-portraits — oftentimes depicting her strong almost-unibrow, faint mustache, bold lipsticks, and flower crowns — spanned the spectrum of the human experience, from the suffering of miscarriages to the lavishness of Mexican folk culture. She was the master of selfies before selfies were instantaneous creations overpopulating our iPhone camera rolls — her paintings were remarkable because of her honesty and strong convictions. Kahlo once said, “I paint myself because I am often so alone, and because I am the subject I know best.”
As an educated Mexican woman fully aware of colonial history, Kahlo rejected Western society’s normative standards of femininity — her pre-Cara Delevingne eyebrows and faint mustache challenged preconceptions of ideal beauty and invited criticism. She didn’t pluck her eyebrows; instead, she groomed them with special tools and even penciled them to make them darker. Kahlo’s signature flower crowns were deemed unfashionable and provincial at the time but have since become so iconic that the New York Botanical Garden currently has a Frida Kahlo exhibition. Flowers symbolize fertility and fecundity, a bold and wishful statement from a woman who was never able to give birth due to injuries she sustained from a bus accident as a teen.
Artist Frida Kahlo wore long, bright skirts to hide the fact that one leg was thinner than the other due to contracting polio as a child. (Photo: Getty)
Her paintings invited criticism and alarm — especially from male critics who questioned her very “female” emotionality — but her radical point of view and shock value didn’t come from displays of bloodshed, like the works of her male contemporaries. She merely painted about the experience of women, particularly in indigenous Mexican life, and that’s what made her so intimidating to the male-dominated art world of her day. To dare to be a woman who painted the pains and pleasures of womanhood was bold, brave, and oppositional to the male gaze, and it is no surprise that legions of women, young and old, honor her today with bushy eyebrows, flower crowns, and challenges to the status quo.