Women’s History Month Notable Women Series: Review of “Frida Kahlo: An Illustrated Biography” by Zena Alkayat

This book is part of a new “Library of Luminaries” series by Chronicle Books celebrating famous women in books that contain abridged biographies of the lives of the women featured.  

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Frida Kahlo, one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, is enjoying something of a cult status now, especially among those of Mexican heritage. Her embrace of Mexico’s indigenous roots and her dedication to social and political reform in Mexico, combined with her colorful clothing, colorful sex life, and bright paintings, have made her a favorite daughter of Mexico.

This small but richly informative book tells Kahlo’s life story, from her birth as Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907, to her death at the age of 47.

The book pays particular attention to the illnesses and injuries which plagued Kahlo’s life, and which were so central to her life and career. At six, she fell ill with polio. At eighteen, she was nearly killed in a bus accident. Alkayat writes:

“A passenger’s package of gold dust burst during the accident and Frida’s clothes were thrown off in the collision. She lay on the ground covered in blood and shimmering with gold. Her body was pierced, fractured, and crushed.”

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The accident left her bedridden for a long period, during which time she began to paint. But she also was left with a lifetime of pain. Nevertheless, she continued to create works of art, and to become active politically.

Alkayat notes that “Frida had an outward vitality and fierce connectedness with life, but her paintings told a different story.” They showed, either symbolically or thematically, “intense and tortured depictions of her suffering.”

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In her brief lifetime she created 143 paintings, 55 of which are self-portraits. She also managed to have love affairs with a number of movers and shakers of the time, including Diego Rivera (whom she married when she was 22 and he was 42), American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, Hungarian born photographer Nickolas Muray, Communist leader Leon Trotsky, and jazz icon Josephine Baker.

Her work has been called surrealist because of its self-reflective style and emphasis on the subconscious.

Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931 by Frida Kahlo

Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931 by Frida Kahlo

This she combined with Mexican folk art which helped distinguish her work. During her lifetime, she sold relatively few paintings, but today her works fetch enormous prices at auction. In 2000, a 1929 self-portrait sold for more than $5 million. And, of course, she has become an important addition to the observation of Dia de los Muertos.

The watercolor illustrations by Nina Cosford pay tribute to Kahlo’s style, and yet are somewhat whimsical and suitable to the format of the book.

Evaluation: This small book is packed with interesting information, and will inspire readers to find out more about someone who continues to fascinate us as a woman, artist, and activist.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Chronicle Books, 2016

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3 Responses to Women’s History Month Notable Women Series: Review of “Frida Kahlo: An Illustrated Biography” by Zena Alkayat

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    This book was my introduction to Kahlo and I loved it.

  2. Rachel says:

    The timing of this is funny. Snap Chat just came out with a filter where you can make yourself look like her. I don’t do Snap Chat but my friends who do are posting their Frida pictures on Facebook like crazy. I’m sure she’d be very proud.

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