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Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

4.5 11
by Hayden Herrera

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Hailed by readers and critics across the country, this engrossing biography of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo reveals a woman of extreme magnetism and originality, an artist whose sensual vibrancy came straight from her own experiences: her childhood near Mexico City during the Mexican Revolution; a devastating accident at age eighteen that left her crippled and


Hailed by readers and critics across the country, this engrossing biography of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo reveals a woman of extreme magnetism and originality, an artist whose sensual vibrancy came straight from her own experiences: her childhood near Mexico City during the Mexican Revolution; a devastating accident at age eighteen that left her crippled and unable to bear children; her tempestuous marriage to muralist Diego Rivera and intermittent love affairs with men as diverse as Isamu Noguchi and Leon Trotsky; her association with the Communist Party; her absorption in Mexican folklore and culture; and her dramatic love of spectacle.

Here is the tumultuous life of an extraordinary twentieth-century woman — with illustrations as rich and haunting as her legend.

Editorial Reviews

Ms. magazine
"A haunting, highly vivid biography."
Ms. Magazine
"A haunting, highly vivid biography."
With generous use of firsthand sources including collectors, friends, and fellow artists, Hayden Herrera has produced an exhaustively researched study of the Mexican painter's life, loves, and artistic ambitions. Material from the artist's letters and diaries adds a distinctively intimate tone to a sympathetically told tale of sexuality, politics, and marginalization in the world of art. This bestselling book is considered the primary record of Kahlo's life.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.38(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Blue House
On Londres Street

The story of Frida Kahlo begins and ends in the same place. From the outside, the house on the corner of Londres and Allende streets looks very like other houses in Coyoacán, an old residential section on the southwestern periphery of Mexico City. A one-story stucco structure with bright blue walls enlivened by tall, many-paned windows with green shutters and by the restless shadows of trees, it bears the name Museo Frida Kahlo over the portal. Inside is one of the most extraordinary places in Mexico -- a woman's home with all her paintings and belongings, turned into a museum.

The entrance is guarded by two giant papier-mâché Judas figures nearly twenty feet tall, gesticulating at each other as if they were engaged in conversation. Passing them, one enters a garden with tropical plants, fountains, and a small pyramid decked with pre-Columbian idols.

The interior of the house is remarkable for the feeling that its former occupants' presence animates all the objects and paintings on display. Here are Frida Kahlo's palette and brushes, left on her worktable as if she had just put them down. There, near his bed, are Diego Rivera's Stetson hat, his overalls, and his huge miner's shoes. In the large corner bedroom with windows looking out onto Londres and Allende streets is a glass-doored cabinet enclosing Frida's colorful costume from the region of Tehuantepec. Above the cabinet, these words are painted on the wall: "Aquí nació Frida Kahlo el día 7 de julio de 1910" (Here Frida Kahlo was born on July 7, 1910). They were inscribed four years after theartist's death, when her home became a public museum.

Another inscription adorns the bright blue and red patio wall. "Frida y Diego vivieron en esta casa 1929-1954" (Frida and Diego lived in this house 1929-1954). Ah! the visitor thinks. How nicely circumscribed! Here are three of the main facts of Frida Kahlo's life -- her birth, her marriage, and her death.

The only trouble is that neither inscription is precisely true. In fact, as her birth certificate shows, Frida was born on July 6, in 1907. Claiming perhaps a greater truth than strict fact would allow, she chose as her birth date not the true year, but 1910, the year of the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. Since she was a child of the revolutionary decade, when the streets of Mexico City were full of chaos and bloodshed, she decided that she and modern Mexico had been born together.

The other inscription in the Frida Kahlo Museum promotes an ideal, sentimental view of the Rivera-Kahlo marriage and home. Once again, reality is different. Before 1934, when they returned to Mexico after four years of residence in the United States, Frida and Diego livedonly briefly in the Coyoacán house. From 1934 to 1939 they lived in a pair of houses built for them in the nearby residential district of San Angel. After that there were long periods when Diego, preferring the independence of his San Angel studio, did not live with Frida, not to mention the one year when the Riveras separated, divorced and remarried.

The inscriptions, then, are embroideries on the truth. Like the museum itself, they are part of Frida's legend.

The house in Coyoacán was only three years old when Frida was born; her father had built it in 1904 on a small piece of land he acquired when the hacienda "El Carmen" was broken up and sold. But the heavy walls it presents to the street, its one-story structure, flat roof, and U-shaped plan, with each room giving onto the next and onto the central patio instead of being linked by hallways, make it seem to date from colonial times. It stands only a few blocks from the town's central plaza and the parish Church of Saint John the Baptist, where Frida's mother had a particular bench that she and her daughters occupied on Sundays. From her house Frida could walk by way of narrow, often cobblestoned or unpaved streets to the Viveros de Coyoacán, a forest park graced by a slender river winding among trees.

When Guillermo Kahlo built the Coyoacán house, he was a successful photographer who had just been commissioned by the Mexican government to record the nation's architectural heritage. It was a remarkable achievement for a man who had arrived in Mexico without great prospects, just thirteen years before. His parents, Jakob Heinrich Kahlo and Henriette Kaufmann Kahlo, were Hungarian Jews from Arad, now part of Rumania, who had migrated to Germany and settled in BadenBaden, where Wilhelm was born in 1872. Jakob Kahlo was a jeweler who also dealt in photographic supplies; when the time came he was wealthy enough to be able to send his son to study at the university in Nuremberg.

Sometime around the year 1890 the promising career of Wilhelm Kahlo, scholar, ended before it had begun: the youth sustained brain injuries in a fall, and began to suffer from epileptic seizures. At about the same time, his mother died, and his father married again, a woman Wilhelm did not like. In 1891 the father gave his nineteen-year-old son enough money to pay for his passage to Mexico; Wilhelm changed his name to Guillermo and never returned to the country of his birth.

He arrived in Mexico City with almost no money and few possessions. Through his connections with other German immigrants, he found a job as a cashier in the Cristalería Loeb, a glassware store. Later, he became a salesman in a bookstore. Finally, he worked in a jewelry store called La Perla, which was owned by fellow countrymen with whom he had traveled from Germany to Mexico.

In 1894 he married a Mexican woman, who died four years later as she gave birth to their second daughter. He then fell in love with Matilde Calderón ...

Frida. Copyright © by Hayden Herrera. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Hayden Herrera is an art historian. She has lectured widely, curated several exhibitions of art, taught Latin American art at New York University, and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is the author of numerous articles and reviews for such publications as Art in America, Art Forum, Connoisseur, and the New York Times, among others. Her books include Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo; Mary Frank; and Matisse: A Portrait. She is working on a critical biography of Arshile Gorky. She lives in New York City.

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4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A story about pain, originality and passion. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history and seeks to be inspired by a phenomenal person who lived her life driven by her hearts desires. Frida is definitely a person worth reading about; she was an extremely strong person who suffered emense physical pain and great emotional distress but through these sufferings she produced unique painties and her art came to be one of the most appreciated art in Mexico and world wide.
deadbee More than 1 year ago
Hayden Herrera brings Frida to life in this book. All her triumphs and sorrows were researched and put into this book to give us a complete look at this amazing woman. After reading this book you will feel like you knew Frida intimately. This is a great book and I recommend everyone read it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book OK but it was more an interpretation of her art than a biography of her life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a fabulously written research work. I was more interested in learning about this very interesting strong willed woman in history and ended up reading long commentary on interpretations of her paintings that often argued the interpretations Frida herself gave the paintings. I wanted a biography about the person and not a textbook. However, I am not diminishing the amount of research and work that went into this extensive work. The author is a far better researcher than writer. In one paragraph she describes some artists of the time as trite she then goes on to use very trite expressions such as 'his eyes sparkled'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The greatest compliment one could offer a biographer is that she has brought to life her subject with honesty and insight. Well, I offer this compliment to Hayden Herrera. It is supreme understatement for me to observe that the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, was a complex person filled with great contradictions. Yet, through liberal use of Frida's letters coupled with Herrera's own insightful analysis of her painting, 'Frida' brings this great artist to life for us to bask in her brilliance, energy and strength. 'Frida' is one of the most remarkable, illuminating and fulfilling biographies I have ever read. I highly recommend this magnificent book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Any one who tries to say anything negative about this book is full of it. Perhaps anti-fems ahould not read this book if they are going to bash it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think anyone would enjoy this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I first saw this book at the age of 4. Instead of being "grossed out" like many other kids would of been, I was captured by the beauty this woman created from more pain than anyone should have in their life time. As soon as I could read and understand it, I took that book with me every where. Trying to show many people a story of a brave and loving woman who would not let the time, The politics, The men or the pain of her life stop her. With the release of the movie I'm pretty sure more will be interested in reading up on her. This book is perfect for that. I should know, I've loved her since I was a toddler.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book provides a good overview of Frida Kahlo's life, including many interesting photographs and paintings. The descriptions of the paintings are a bit long-winded- full of the accepted interpretations of what each painting was supposed to symbolize. The portion on her affair with Trotsky ignores the fact that Frida used the affair to get back at her husband Diego Rivera for his affair with Frida's sister. It ignores the fact that this affair ultimately led to Rivers's break with Trotsky and Trotsky's assasination by Stalin's spies. This portrayal is too sympathetic and ignores the extreme selfishness, cunning, and amoral character of Frida Kahlo and her shallow "communist" view of life (as well as ignoring the historical facts). It also pays little attention to her extreme alcoholism. For this reason, the book fails to convey an accurate, balanced portrait of this cunning, disturbed woman who nonetheless made a huge impact on feminist art and was intimately involved in the artistic and political movements of early 20th century Mexico.
Guest More than 1 year ago
THis is a well-written and extensively researched book. Frida Kahlo was a fascinating person and extraordinary artist. The author connects her life with her paintings. This is a balanced view of Frida (and Diego Riveria). The author acknowledges her talent, her independence, her strength, but also points out her jealousy, neediness, tendency towards alcohol and drug abuse, and her affairs. Diego was probably not the easiest man to be married to, but Frida was not an award-winning wife either. All in all, the book shows Frida's magnetic personality and unusual talent for putting her troubles and thoughts into her painting. A good read for anyone.