Tomorrow marks Bisexual Visibility Day, let’s celebrate by understanding the life and work of the Mexican painter
BY CHARLOTTE GRIMWADE, IMAGE BY CREATIVE COMMONS
Born in 1907, Frida Kahlo is known as one of the world’s most infamous artists. Insisting she was actually born in 1910, to align with the start of the Mexican Revolution and therefore the symbolic founding of modern Mexico, Frida is remembered for her revolutionary politics, disability activism and obviously her incredible art.
Frida is heralded by feminists and members of the LGBTQIA community as a bi icon. However, her bisexuality is frequently overlooked by academics and museum curators, often a mere footnote amongst a range of more in-depth insights about her life. As we enter Bi Visibility Day tomorrow, it’s important to recognise the impact of bi icons like Frida, and particularly how she’s influenced, and continues to influence, the LGBTQIA community.
Alongside her marriage to fellow Mexican painter Diego Rivera, Frida was rumoured to have had affairs with Leon Trotsky, Georgie O’Keefe and Josephine Baker amongst others. In her paintings, Frida often explored sapphic themes and motifs, most evident in the 1939 piece Two Nudes In A Forest. The painting was given to Dolores del Río, an actor and close friend of Frida’s, though it’s unclear whether or not the work suggests the pair had a sexual relationship together or not.
Throughout her art, Frida constantly engaged with identity. Her renowned self-portraits exemplify this, showing an active contention with gender identity and her own queerness. It’s difficult to ascertain whether Frida would have personally approved of a term like “bi icon”, but it’s undeniable that she was ahead of the times with her gender expression and portrayals. A family photograph taken by her father, Guillermo Kahlo, in 1926 reveals Frida standing on the left in a full suit staring directly at the camera. Further paintings by Frida herself, such as her 1940 self-portrait with cropped hair highlights her ongoing engagement with traditionally masculine forms of dress. Frida’s stance on her own gender identity definitely fluctuated over the course of her life and career. However, her embrace of considerable gender fluidity and freedom contributes to her status as a queer icon and pioneering creative.
Friends of Diego and Frida recalled the latter’s bisexuality in hindsight. Jean van Heijenoort, stated “Frida had many girl friends and lesbian friends […] her lesbianism did not make her masculine.” Meanwhile, Lucienne Bloch famously noted how Diego said over breakfast in Detroit, “You know Frida is homosexual, don’t you?” Paintings like the 1938 piece, What The Water Gave Me, further contribute to representations of the women that Frida loved, highlighting the complexities of her sexuality and sense of self.
It’s important to remember that Frida wasn’t the only iconic queer artist from the first half of the 20th century. Hannah Höch, Jeanne Mammen, Tamara de Lempicka, Marie Laurencin and Claude Cahun are all examples of artists creating thought-provoking art drawing from personal experiences with sexuality and gender exploration. In contrast to these equally prolific yet normally forgotten artists, in recent decades Frida has emerged most strikingly as a cultural icon. It’s easy to spot her face plastered on mugs, bags, keychains, posters and more across museum gift shops and all over the Internet. The irony is that, as a prolific socialist, Frida would probably have hated the idea of becoming a “brand”, placed at the heart of consumerist culture.
Though it’s vital to be wary when describing Frida as an “icon” in a consumerist sense, it’s undeniable that her art has been of immense significance to the bi and LGBTQIA community more broadly. Contemporary queer artists like Julio Salgado and Raychelle Duazo have described how Frida has influenced them and their work. In an interview with Google Arts & Culture, Julio explained how “unfortunately, it wasn’t until her death that others began to recognize her as a queer icon. So, while I love Frida, I also want to make sure and follow and support the art of queer artists of color who are still alive.” In the same series of interviews, Raychelle summarised the nuance of perceiving Frida as a bi icon perfectly: “I think anyone who loves Frida and her work would recognize her as queer, though I can’t imagine that she’d want to be described as an ‘icon’ of anything.”
So, as we shed light on the experiences of the bisexual community this month, it’s important to remember those who paved the way, Frida being one of them. Despite the complexities of defining someone as an “icon” and using their image following their death, it’s clear that Frida’s sexuality played a key role in her art and personal experiences. It seems impossible to imagine a future where we don’t consider bi history and art without thinking of Frida Kahlo.
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