Homeschool Heroes: Frida Kahlo for Kids
Too often schools get caught up teaching to the test. And sadly, that means that some of history's most influential people get cut from the curriculum. This series, Homeschool Heroes, tries to right that wrong so that kids grow up "standing on the shoulders of giants", with real-life role models that drive them towards greatness. Because what would childhood be, really, without a hero or two?
Today's lesson plan? Frida Kahlo!
Very few painters have become famous painting self-portraits, especially ones that accentuate their flaws, reveal their physical disabilities, and visualize painful psychological turmoil. And it’s even more rare for such painters to be early 20th century communist feminists.
Frida Kahlo's tumultuous and politically active life informed her colorful folk art, which has remained some of the most popular art to ever emerge from Mexico. Anyone who still loves color and bold hues, or believes the future is female, should to get to know Frida Kahlo.
A Full Life
The Mexico City native was born in 1907 and is well known for spending most of her life living in the same house, Casa Azul, where she died at the age of 47.
Kahlo is well known as the subject and painter of portraits featuring her thick uni-brow, crooked spine and pervasive heart problems. Most of her work stemmed from personal experience for this introverted artist, who painted the subject she knew the best.
Isolated as a child for polio and severely injured (her leg was impaled) in a bus accident that later caused her miscarriages and heart problems, Frida did not lead a charmed life physically. But her injuries and ailments always made their way into the bold, primitive images that made her famous.
Her painting was a way of expressing herself freely, even in a society that didn’t like women who were blunt. She found an advocate for her work as well as a mentor in muralist Diego Rivera, who later became her husband. The two traveled around the world with Rivera’s mural commissions. Although the two briefly divorced, they remarried a year later.
Political activism – including support of communist figures in the west and speaking out against U.S. policies in Central America – were big themes for Kahlo and Rivera. Some of her work reflects communist ideals; Rivera’s mural project in Rockefeller Center was halted when he painted Stalin into the image.
A Full Palette
Frida Kahlo’s work is often very literal. In opposition to many oil painters of the time, she didn’t deal in abstract images or excessive symbolism. She used Mexican mythology and symbols from classic folk art to depict fairly straightforward psychological states. This makes her work easy for all ages to understand, even though the depictions were (and still are) profound and shocking.
For example: one of her most famous paintings, The Two Fridas, depicts two versions of the artist sitting side by side. On the left, she is dressed in white, with an exposed, bleeding heart dripping onto her dress. The Frida on the right side is in colorful but less formal clothes, also with an exposed heart. The two hearts are linked by veins, and the Fridas themselves hold hands.
New Frida Kahlo fans should visit Casa Azul, Frida’s longtime residence in Mexico City and the home of the Frida Kahlo Museum. It houses some of the artist’s later-in-life works, as well as objects from her life.
Elsewhere in Mexico City, see Frida’s work at Museo Dolores Olmedo and Museo del Arte Moderno. More than 30 of Kahlo’s most famous paintings live in these museums, including The Two Fridas and Self Portrait with Monkeys, which is exactly what it sounds like: a portrait of the artist and her dearly beloved pets. Stateside, New York’s Museum of Modern Art houses three Kahlo self-portraits.
Want to see more of her work? Check out the kid-friendly book Frida Kahlo: The Artist Who Painted Herself by Margaret Frith. It’s part of the “Smart About Art” series and a great way to learn more about the artist while engaging with her work.
A Full Self-Portrait
Take some colored pencils or paints and try a Frida Kahlo-style self-portrait with your kids. Her child-like, folk art style isn’t intimidating to follow. And although you might not be a master, you can definitely master the art of self-reflection:
- Look in the mirror. Get a mirror and take a good, hard look at yourself. Kahlo was known for exaggerating what she felt were her weakest features (her thick eyebrows became a unibrow; her lip hair became almost a moustache). Don’t be afraid to be self-depreciating, or just very honest, about your features. You can make them look whimsical anyway.
- Look at your pets. Many of Kahlo’s self-portraits feature her pet monkey, whom she treated like a child. If your kids are close to their pets, this will come naturally. It may be a cat, dog, bird, mouse, or frog, but make sure you and your children include a favorite critter.
- Look deep inside. Frida often painted externally the wounds – both physical and emotional – that she held within. Painting in her style gives you an opportunity to encourage your kids to paint their emotions. Visualizing things that frighten us or make us sad is a great bit of art therapy, and it’s certainly one Frida would approve of.
A Full Circle
The hard, beautiful, and short life of Frida Kahlo teaches us that we are all more than the sum of our parts. Although her body was broken, her childhood isolated, and her mind focused on sad things, she created some of the most beautiful and life-giving art of the past century.
Kahlo’s perseverance and hard work are a great example to anyone who needs encouragement to keep going.
Have you introduced your kids to Frida Kahlo’s art? Share your favorite artists/role models with us.