Book Review: Frida, A Biography

I picked up this biography, written by Hayden Herrera, at the library recently, the second time I’ve checked it out. The first time, last year, I read it quickly, fascinated by the turbulent life of such a unique and talented artist and overwhelmed by the included images of so many of her works. I decided to check it out again last month because I had temporarily stalled out on my recreation of one of her paintings, The Broken Column, and I hoped re-reading her bio would help to re-ignite the creative flow and get me over the hump.


(Whether that indeed worked or not, remains to be seen. I am hopeful. At least I’m getting a few blog posts out of it! There’s this one, and also another I am working on in which I explore the technical problems I ran into and how I plan to work around them.)

The second time reading the biography was different from the first, perhaps because I read more slowly and thus absorbed more details. Or perhaps because I knew where the story would go on its various turns and so felt the pride and sorrow more keenly for what she endured and what she produced.

Again I was enthralled by the photographs of her paintings. I spent a lot of time flipping between the written descriptions of them and of her circumstances while she created them, and the sections with the images. Her skill and her unique perspective created some very powerful surrealist art, like What The Water Gave Me.  How could I not feel inspired that a woman in so much pain could still create at such a volume?

Her pain, both physical and emotional, are major themes in both her artworks, and her biography. At times it can be difficult to bear witness, on a visceral level. And Frida herself does little to soften the blows or help the viewer ease in to it. She created an intense persona, both in real life and on canvas, and insisted that those dealing with her did so on her terms.

One of the hardest portions of the book, for me, were her letters to her first boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias. In them, she presents herself as the most forlorn, pathetic creature wholly dependent on this young boy for self-approbation, even as he is clearly starting to pull away. She is depressed as she recovers from her tragic bus accident, and the depression leads her to make incredibly self-deprecating statements that are at odds with that strong persona that she later in life so actively presented. Some of that reappears in her letters to Diego during their periods apart, but not to the same degree. Adult Frida has a better sense of her own self-worth while declaring her devotion to her unfaithful yet supportive husband.

I think those lame letters were difficult for me as a reader for two reasons: in the first place, as I said, they contrast so strongly with the fierce, passionate woman she presented in her art and in her public appearances that the clash is confusing and unsettling; in the second place, they remind me of my own angsty, depressed stages, in my youth and occasionally in my present- periods I would prefer to forget, moments that cause blushing cringes upon remembering years later. I wrote letters during heartbreaks that were (mostly) never sent, and if those ever made it into my biography (if there was ever a reason for one to be written), well, they would show a side of myself that I would rather the world didn’t see.

And yet, when I ponder it, I have no doubt that Frida, had she lived to see her biography written, would have demanded her letters’ inclusion. Her art is nothing if not laying herself bare to the viewer’s gaze, so the idea of excising part of her story in that way would not fit with her overall approach to life and art. At least, not as I understand her, after reading this biography.

Even though it conflicts with her allegria, the despair in those early letters is just as much a part of her as the colorful character she so often presented. One needs only look at her later paintings to see both, especially in Without Hope.

There are so many lessons to be learned from Frida as a budding artist still finding my own creative voice. She had her unique ways of dealing with the Impostor Syndrome that plagues so many of us, and she managed to push through her darker moments to continue creating her art. She unflinchingly portrayed her pain and her flaws as integral parts to her story. She had some training in art, but developed her own visual language and style to become an iconic, unforgettable artist. She expressed feelings of low self-worth while being courageous enough to be vulnerable in her art.

There was a movie made based on this book, starring Selma Hayek (hence her picture on the book’s cover), which I still need to see. I hope it is as good as the source material.

This well-written biography makes a compelling read, and paints a colorful, comprehensive picture of a woman and an artist who is one of my biggest creative role models: Frida Kahlo, whose demons not only couldn’t keep her from creating, they fueled her fire instead.

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