The life and politics of Frida Kahlo

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Frida Kahlo’s popularity has surged in recent years. Last year, the Art Gallery of NSW held an exhibition simply titled ‘Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’. This exhibition no doubt contributed to the gallery’s highest July attendance in history, with 205,000 visitors.

This latest wave of “Fridamania” is no doubt associated with the global resurgence in feminist ideas. Today, a growing number of young women are identifying as feminists and exploring politics for the first time.

The evidence of this can be seen in the “Million Women” marches, which were the largest protests in US history, and also in International Women’s Day this year, which The Guardian described as the most politically charged in memory.

This new wave of feminism is consciously more inclusive of women of colour, women with disabilities and LGBTI women. It’s not just feminist ideas that are becoming more popular however. We are also seeing a resurgence in socialist ideas, with openly socialist candidates such as Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Mélenchon drawing crowds of hundreds of thousands.

Frida was both a feminist and a socialist. She was a trailblazer not just for women, but for LGBTI people and people with disabilities. After a tram accident changed the course of her life, she struggled with and embraced her multiple identities, which can be seen in her self-portraits, making up the bulk of her work.

Frida’s identity as a whole was mostly influenced by the fact that she was a socialist. In that sense, it’s fitting that she has come to such prominence in this post-GFC world where socialism is being discussed more and more. Frida’s socialism is often omitted by those wishing to exploit her iconic status, but there’s no denying that she was a dedicated to a world free of exploitation until her death.

Frida’s paintings reflected the idea that the personal is political. Artwork such as hers was mostly unheard of in her time, especially by a woman. Her paintings showed her frustration at the unjustness of the world and the pressures placed upon her simply because she was a woman.

Her paintings feature themes surrounding femininity and what it means to be a woman, including graphic depictions of miscarriage and suicide. We can also see themes such as the dominating character of US imperialism, Spanish colonisation of Mexico and the consequent struggles of the indigenous people.

It’s clear through looking at her artwork that she was a deeply political person. In fact, Frida often told people that she was born in 1910, the year of the Mexican Revolution, to reflect her idea that she was a child of the revolution.

Frida joined the Mexican Communist Party when she was in her 20s but left when her husband Diego Rivera, also a famous artist, was expelled. After the expulsion, Frida and Diego went to the US, and it was here that they began associating with the Left Opposition headed by Leon Trotsky.

Frida was an active part of the movement in the US. In letters that she wrote during this time she said: “I’ve learnt so much here and I’m more and more convinced it’s only through communism that we can become human.” When they returned to Mexico, Frida & Diego hosted Trotsky and his wife Natalia who were on the run from Stalinist forces intent on killing them. Sadly, it was in Mexico in 1940 that Trotsky was indeed assassinated.

The political highlight of Frida’s life was her participation in the Left Opposition which broke from the Stalinist Third International, and sought to create a new international organisation of the working class. Unfortunately, along with some others Frida ended up succumbing to the pressures of Stalinism and realigning with them later in life.

Despite her faults, her determination to build a better world free from oppression never wavered. In 1954 Kahlo went to a Communist march to protest the US subversion of the left-wing Guatemalan government. Not long after this, she died. Her coffin was covered with a flag of the hammer and sickle upon a star.

It has been over 50 years since Frida died, but her socialist feminism is as important today as it was when she was alive. There is no doubt that it is only through the transformation of society that we will eliminate all inequalities and lay the basis for the genuine liberation of all women.

By Kat Galea