Frida Kahlo:

A Personal View of Mexican Culture

Bárbara C. Cruz

Integrating fine arts with other subjects has been shown to stimulate student receptivity to learning and interest in building a sense of community.1 Infusing arts and aesthetics into the curriculum can also result in the development of empathy2 and positive attitudes toward other racial, ethnic, and religious groups.3Arts-based lessons have also been proposed as an alternative strategy for effectively involving students and developing critical thinking skills.4 The arts and humanities have also been heralded as a crucial component of a postmodern education5 as the centerpiece of an interdisciplinary curriculum, and as a catalyst for educational reform.6 As more and more work is done in the area of multiple intelligences, interdisciplinary studies, and integrated curricula, educators have come to appreciate how the arts can enhance social studies and other core-curriculumsubjects.

In the social studies, the arts can provide a humanizing effect. The use of portraiture can be especially helpful in “softening” the social studies by reminding students that historical figures were real people,7 enabling them to “walk a mile in the shoes” of the historical figures they are studying.8 Although often viewed as a frill, involving students in art as part of the social studies can actually result in children learning concepts more fully; offering “multiple opportunities to create and express personal connections” leads to learning that is internalized and can be used in other situations.9

One collection particularly useful for the social studies is the work left by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Although she was honored with a solo art exhibition in Mexico in 1953, a year before her death, Kahlo always maintained that her art was intensely personal and was surprised to find that others would be interested in her self-portraits. The sculptor lsamu Noguchi, a friend of Kahlo’s, said that the Mexican artist was often reticent about showing her work. Noguchi thought that Kahlo considered her paintings to be a private diary, never intending for them to be on public display.10

Kahlo’s art, much of it done in a style reminiscent of folk art or “primitivism,” is intrinsically appealing and eye-catching for students. Colors are varied and vivid. Brush strokes are sure and passionate. And the inclusion of dolls, toys, and animals piques students’ interest.

On reading her biography, young learners become quickly enraptured by Kahlo’s colorful and often tragic life (see readings and Picture Books for Students, page 24). The formalist tradition of art criticism, which excludes biographical, cultural, historical, or iconographical information when discussing art, marginalizes art as a human activity and precludes teachers and students from engaging in discussion of important issues and ideas.11 Kahlo’s biography is essential for understanding her art, and even the youngest learners appreciate how her painting became an outlet and representation of her life.

For social studies educators, both Kahlo’s work and biography can provide a variety of opportunities for teaching about history, geography, and culture. They can also serve as a vehicle for discussion of women’s history, gender issues, and international perspectives. In the process, students can also learn to interpret and critique art and are motivated to reflect on their own lives and personal values.


A Brief Biography

The year of Frida Kahlo’s birth, 1907, was a turbulent time in Mexico; the Mexican Revolution would erupt just three years later. As Kahlo grew and matured, she so closely identified with her country (feeling herself to be “a true daughter of the Revolution”) that she later claimed her birth year as 1910, resulting in conflicting reports of her age.

She was born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo Calderón, although she changed the traditional German spelling of “Frieda” when the Nazis rose to power, wanting the name to look less German. Her father, Guillermo Kahlo, who was born in Germany to Hungarian Jews, immigrated to Mexico in 1891. He later met and married Matilde Calderon y Gonzalez, a mestiza, whose father was a native of Mexico and whose mother was Spanish. Together Guillermo and Matilde had three other daughters and provided a comfortable middle-class existence for their family.

Kahlo’s childhood was marked by a bout of polio at the age of six that temporarily disabled her and permanently left her with a shorter and thinner right leg. Although teased and taunted by other children, Kahlo’s father encouraged her to strengthen her leg by engaging in sports. By all accounts she was a bright and precocious child with dreams of eventually becoming a medical doctor.

Her life took a dramatic turn when she suffered a horrible streetcar accident at the age of 18 in 1925. In the collision, a steel handrail pierced Kahlo’s body, breaking many bones including her collarbone, pelvis, and some vertebrae. Narrowly escaping death, she had to remain immobile in a body cast for many months. The long convalescence proved to be a life-altering event.

Seeking to overcome her boredom at remaining prone in bed, her parents installed an overhead mirror, fashioned a special easel, and provided the young woman with paints and brushes. To relieve the tedium of being bed-ridden, she began to paint. Because she could not leave her room, she painted what was available to her: portraits of her family and of herself. As she recuperated, she discovered a love for painting and abandoned her plans of becoming a physician.

By this time, Mexico was enjoying an especially fertile period with respect to the arts. The education minister, José Vasconcelos, believed citizens would gain a better appreciation of their rich history if it was displayed on public walls. This resulted in commissioning large areas of public buildings to artists such as José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera, who would later be known as Los Tres Grandes (The Three Greats) of the muralist movement. The artists not only depicted Mexico’s history and cultures, but also included political messages of justice, equality, and social welfare.

 Sharing a passion for art, liberal political causes, and all things Mexican, Kahlo developed a friendship with Diego Rivera. The friendship soon evolved into a romance and Kahlo wed the much older and well-established Rivera in 1929. Almost from its inception, their relationship was tumultuous, marked by intense jealousy, extramarital affairs, and later a divorce and a remarriage.

Another recurring source of anguish for Kahlo was her ailing health. Over the course of her life, Kahlo had 35 operations as a result of the streetcar accident. Recuperation entailed wearing uncomfortable corsets made of steel, leather, and plaster and an ongoing barrage of medicines. In 1950, when four of her right toes turned black and her back pain became unbearable, she was hospitalized for a year. In 1953, her right leg developed gangrene and had to be amputated. When Kahlo died a year later at the age of 47, the official cause of death was pulmonary embolism. Her ashes, kept in a Pre-Columbian vase in the shape of a headless woman, are kept in Casa Azul (Blue House), her childhood home. The house, in Coyoacán, a suburb of Mexico City, is now the Frida Kahlo Museum and is visited by 300 tourists each day.


Kahlo’s Self-Portraits

When Frida Kahlo died in 1954 she could not have possibly known how influential and important her art work would one day be considered. Although her work has been declared national patrimony by the Mexican government, Kahlo’s paintings were not well known in the United States or Europe until the late 1970s. Interest in Kahlo’s work increased when it was “found” by the Women’s Rights Movement that focused attention on women’s issues and achievement. Chicano muralists also helped popularize her by including her image and artistic influence in their murals.

Kahlo completed almost 150 paintings during her lifetime, 66 of them intensely personal and symbolic self-portraits. Her mercurial relationship with her husband and his suggestion that she create a painting for each year of her life resulted in a rich, introspective collection that continues to move each successive generation of art aficionados.

Interpretations and critiques of Kahlo’s work abound, much of it contradictory. When French surrealist painter and poet André Breton saw her work, he pronounced her a Surrealist because of the fantastic and sometimes bizarre imagery in her paintings. But Kahlo rejected the label, saying “I never painted dreams, I painted my own reality.”12 Breton later remarked that Kahlo’s art was so powerful that it was like “a ribbon around a bomb.”13

Much of Kahlo’s work is shrouded in sorrow. In addition to her distressful marriage, she confided to friends that not being able to have children was one of her greatest regrets (her uterus was left scarred by the 1925 accident). The artist’s many pets and international collection of dolls seemed to be substitutes for children. She also housed a coterie of domestic and wild animals in Casa Azul. The inclusion of her beloved monkeys, parrots, and deer in her self-portraits underscore their importance in her life.

Kahlo’s childhood bout with polio and the 1925 accident resulted in a lifetime of bodily pain. Her physical suffering along with her natural interest in medicine and the human body is evidenced in many of her paintings. The human heart, veins, and other body parts and organs are drawn accurately and in detail. Her constant physical discomfort is depicted in pieces such as The Broken Column (1944) and The Wounded Deer (1946). At her 1953 solo exhibition in Mexico, a Time reporter commented that the overall feeling of the show was that it was “a painful autobiography set down with brush and paint.”14



But aside from her personal tragedies, Kahlo also embraced life, actively seeking opportunities for celebration. She was fiercely proud of her Mexican heritage and took delight in her collection of clothing and jewelry representing states throughout Mexico. Casa Azul became a picturesque repository for the many pieces of folk and popular art she and her husband amassed during their travels. She also cultivated a reputation as a gracious and fun-loving hostess, throwing lavish dinner parties and the annual Christmas posada.

Although Kahlo’s art was usually overshadowed by the huge, public works of her famous husband, Rivera was her most enthusiastic supporter and fan. Although theirs was a troubled relationship, their mutual love is evidenced in many of Kahlo’s pieces and several of Rivera’s murals.


Instructional Strategies, Primary Grades

Children are quite able in discerning and creating expressions of emotion in drawings.15 Even very young children are adept at detecting the full range of human emotion, sympathetically mimicking feelings when viewing plays, art, or listening to music. The next step, creating their own expressions of emotion, occurs naturally and easily. Students can actively respond to viewing art and subsequently draw and write their interpretations as well as construct meanings significant to their own interests and concerns, making the connection to the topic much more personal.16

Many of Kahlo’s self-portraits are a perfect medium to guide students in examining and interpreting visual art. Slides or overhead transparencies can be made of selected pieces painted by the artist. Teachers technologically inclined can create a PowerPoint presentation. Full-color reproductions of her art can be viewed on computer through the Internet (see web site addresses below). More simply, teachers could use large, coffee table-sized books of Kahlo’s art, especially with small groups of students. Paintings I have found particularly accessible for young learners include Self-Portrait in Velvet Dress (1926), Las Dos Fridas (1939), Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace (1946), The Wounded Deer (1946) and Diego in My Thoughts (1947). Viewing the art while simultaneously hearing Kahlo’s biography brings life to Kahlo’s extraordinary story. Maps and photographs of Mexican culture can also enhance the lesson.

The role of animals and pets can also be discussed and can be of particular interest to young learners. Self-Portrait with Monkey (1938 and 1940), Fulang Chang and I (1937) and Self-Portrait with Bonito (1941) all depict the significance of Kahlo’s pets in her life. Many children can relate to the special bond between humans and animals by reflecting on their own family pets.

Students can be encouraged to note the use of color, Kahlo’s signature inscriptions, expressions of emotions, and the use of stylized frames. It is also helpful to review Using Portraits: A Teacher’s Guide by Susan Morris, who provides practical suggestions for the study of portraits such as analyzing clothing, facial expressions, poses and gestures, backgrounds, props, colors, and other elements.

After reflecting on their own lives, interests, and hobbies, students can then create their own self-portrait in the style of Frida Kahlo, concurrently applying what they have learned about the artist as well as themselves. After being given direction and time to reflect and plan their creation, children can produce poignant, breathtaking self portraits.

I make a variety of art media available to the children (for example, markers, crayons, and colored pencils). I also distribute a blank sheet of paper with a frame border, which I encourage students to embellish, using colors that enhance their self-portraits and hold personal meaning for them. Teachers may also opt to have students paint their self-portraits on an easel (more authentically recreating the process) or make other modifications.


Instructional Strategies, Upper Elementary

In addition to the self-portrait activity and discussion described above, students in upper elementary grades and beyond can learn about chronology and timelines through Kahlo’s biography. My strategy is to create a blank time line featuring some of the most important dates (by year) in Kahlo’s life. As Kahlo’s biography is related and her art viewed, students fill in the timeline, noting major events and major works. In addition to viewing the pieces noted in the self-portrait activity, other works that are more appropriate for older students include My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (1936), Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937), My Dress Hangs There (1932), and On the Border (1932).

After completing the timeline of Kahlo’s biography, students then create their own timeline by starting with the year of their birth and ending with the present year. One variation would be to project into the future and have students predict their careers and life events. Another would be to have students create “three-dimensional timelines” in the Native American tradition17 by stringing beads (which represent important events in an individua#146;s life) together to tell a life story in chronological order.18


Caveats and Considerations

Not all of Kahlo’s works are appropriate for young learners. Some of the images in her work are graphically violent (for example, A Few Small Nips, 1933), anatomically explicit (for example, My Birth, 1932), or might be too distressful (for example, Henry Ford Hospital, 1932). I simply omit these from my presentation; they are not necessary in order to appreciate Kahlo’s talent and scope as an artist or to understand the development of her life.

After reading one of Kahlo’s biographies (see Background for Teachers; many consider Hayden Herrera’s to be the definitive one), you will find that some topics in her personal life may also be inappropriate for your students. For example, both Kahlo and Rivera engaged in extramarital affairs. While I mention that they had relationships outside their marriage that caused each other a lot of pain, there is no need for details or extended discussions about those liaisons.

Both the self-portrait activity and the personal time lines can be highly evocative and introspective. Students may opt to reveal aspects of their personal histories that are disturbing or emotional. These instances, of course, must be handled with great sensitivity and discretion. But they can also elicit some excellent discussions about the importance of finding healthy outlets for difficult or painful emotions and situations. Kahlo’s life, for example, is a testament to therapy through physical exercise, artistic expression, and reflective writing.

I believe it is worth learning about the bittersweet story and significant accomplishments of this great Mexican artist. She is now considered a major force in modern art. In 1976, Kahlo’s image was used to represent the “International Year of the Woman.” Two years later many Americans learned of Kahlo’s work for the first time through an impressive show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Today, Kahlo’s art sells for more than any other Latin American artist or woman painter. When a Kahlo painting sold for an unprecedented $5.1 million at Sotheby’s in 2000, it not only set a record for Latin American art, but also a world record for a work by a woman artist. One of the most avid collectors is the pop singer Madonna, who has lent pieces for various exhibitions.

There have been several plays and films produced on Kahlo’s art and life. Hollywood has been interested in the Mexican artist for some time and there are now plans for a movie for adults starring Salma Hayek in the lead role. After the film is released in 2002, Kahlo will likely become even more well known to audiences in the United States.

 There are many lessons to be learned from Frida Kahlo’s art and life. As LuisMartín Lozano, director of the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City observes, “It was her attitude before life that appeals to people, that of an indefatigable fighter who struggled against physical problems, the shadow of her famous husband, the social restrictions of womanhood.”19 Frida Kahlo will continue to be a hero and icon for Latinas and women of all cultures for generations to come. For young learners, Kahlo’s life and work provide a wonderful opportunity for teachers to integrate art into the social studies curriculum in a meaningful and engaging way.



1. J. Romero, lntegrating Visual and Performing Art info Social Studies (California, 1996), ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED424129.

2. N. Toll, lntegrating Holocaust Art and Aesthetics into the Curriculum (University of Pennsylvania: doctoral dissertation, 2000).

3. C. A. Silveira, An Exemplary Multicultural Unit of Art Instruction for Use in Elementary Education Designed to Help Mexican-American Students Develop More Positive Attitudes Toward Different Racial, Ethnic, Cultural, and Religious Groups (Texas Tech University: doctoral dissertation, 1995).

4. D. W. Selwyn, Using the Arts to Teach Content in Secondary Social Studies Classrooms (Seattle University: doctoral dissertation, 1991).

5. D. R. Walling (Ed.), Under Construction: The Role of the Arts and Humanities in Postmodern Schooling (Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1997).

6. D. L. Bach and C. Leffler, “Arts Education as a Catalyst to Reform: Interdisciplinary Learning,” Perspectives on Education Reform: Arts Education as Catalyst (Santa Monica, CA: Getty Center for Education in the Arts, 1993): 36-37.

7. R. F. Allen, “What Happened to Pocahontas? Using Portraits to Teach History,” Georgia Social Science Journal 23, no. 1 (1992): 41-47.

8. D. Selwyn, Arts and Humanities in the Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1993): 8.

9. R. McKay, “Essential Ways of Knowing: Drama and the Visual Arts in Social Studies,” Canadian Social Studies 31, no. 3 (1997): 116.

10. M. Drucker, Frida Kahlo: Torment and Triumph in her Life and Art (New York: Bantam Books, 1991): 89.

11. Jennifer Pazienza, “Edgar Degas —-Misogynist, Voyeur or Feminist: What Do We Tell the Kids?” Canadian Social Studies 31, Summer (1997): 181-I 85.

12. As quoted in M. Zamora, Frida Kahlo: The Brush of Anguish (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1990): 114.

13. As quoted in H. Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (NY: Harper & Row, 1983): 214.

14. “Art,” Time (April 27, 1953): 90.

15. A. S. Winston et. al., “Children’s Sensitivity to Expression in Drawings,” Visual Arts Research 21, no. 1 (1995): 1-14.

16. N. Toll, 2000.

17. “Self portrait by Cristina Yelvington, age 5, Montessori Children’s House of Tampa Palms, Tampa, Florida.”

18. T. Lindquist, “Create 3-D Timelines Inspired by a Native American Art,” Instructor 107, no. 3 (1990): 106-107.

19. C. Kraul, “Hollywood Film May Spark a New Craze for All Things Frida,” Los Angeles Times (April 22, 2001): 3A.


Readings and Picture Books for Students

Cruz, Bárbara C. Frida Kahlo: Portrait of a Mexican Painter. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1996.

Drucker, Malka. Frida Kahlo: Torment and Triumph in Her Life and Art. New York: Bantam, 1991.

Frazier, Nancy. Frida Kahlo: Mysterious Painter. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 1992.

Garza, Hedda. Hispanics of Achievement: Frida Kahlo. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.

Jones, Jane Anderson. The Arts: Frida Kahlo. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke, 1993.

Sills, Leslie. Inspirations: Stories About Women Artists. Niles,IL: Albert Whitman, 1989.

Turner, Robyn Montana. Portraits of Women Artists for Children: Frida Kahlo. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1993.

Zamora, Martha. Frida Kahlo: The Brush of Anguish. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1990.

Background for Teachers

Grimberg, Salomon. Frida Kahlo. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1997.

Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.

Kahlo, Frida. The Diary of Frida Kahlo. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.

Lowe, Sarah M. Frida Kahlo. New York: Universe Publishing, 1991.

Paniatowska, Elena and Carla Stellweg. Frida Kahlo: The Camera Seduced. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1992.

Rivera, Guadalupe and Marie-Pierre Colle. Frida’s Fiestas. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1994.


Instructional Resources

Barrett, Terry and Clark, Gilbert (Eds). Lessons for Teaching Art Criticism. Indiana, 1995 (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED392658).

Erickson, Mary and Clark, Gilbert (Eds). Lessons about Art in History and History in Art. Indiana, 1992 (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED348297).

Hatcher, Barbara and Sunal, Cynthia. “Using Art to Study the Past,” Social Studies 74, no. 3 (1983): 112-117.

Hutchens, Dorothy. “Hooking Primary Children on Social Studies!” Social Studies Review 32, no. 3 (1993): 32-37.

McDaniel, Susan V. “How to Fit in Fine Art,” Learning 79, no. 3 (1990): 66-67.

Morris, Susan. Using Portraits: A Teacher’s Guide. England, 1992 (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED40631 8).

Pazienza, Jennifer. “Edgar Degas —-Misogynist, Voyeur or Feminist: What Do We Tell the Kids?” Canadian Social Studies 31, Summer (1997): 181-I 85.

Sartorius, Tara Cady. “Embroidered Emotions,” Arts and Activities 128, no. 4 (2000): 22-24.

Willis, George and William H. Schubert (Eds.). Reflections from the Heart of Educational Inquiry: Understanding Curriculum and Teaching through the Arts. NY: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Web Sites

The Artchive
Hosted by Artchive, an on-line repository of world art.

Artcylcopedia: Frida Kahlo
Artcyclopedia, which is a fine search engine in the arts.

Las Mujeres
Hosted by Las Mujeres, a site dedicated to notable Latin American women.

National Museum of Women in the Arts
Hosted by National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.

Virtual Forum of Mexican Culture
Hosted by the Arts and History Virtual Forum.

Welcome to the World of Frida Kahlo
Hosted by an American artist.

Bárbara C. Cruz is an associate professor of Social Science Education at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida.