First impressions of Frida: What these personal photos reveal about an icon

Frida Kahlo's personal photo collection is in Canada for the first time ever — so we asked artists to share what the pics mean to them.

Frida Kahlo's photo collection is in Canada for the first time ever. Artists share what the pics mean to them

Detail of Frida Kahlo, by Guillermo Kahlo, 1926. ©Frida Kahlo Museum (Courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)

Hundreds of Frida Kahlo's personal snapshots are now on display at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary — and it's the first time these pictures have ever appeared in Canada.

As a painter, Kahlo's favourite subject was herself, and she understood the identity-defining power of a selfie generations before anyone ever uttered that word. She painted more than 50 self-portraits, building her own myth in the process, and her paintings tell the story of her illness and chronic pain, her politics, her relationships. More than half a century later, she's an icon — so recognizable she's even a Disney character.

But Kahlo's photo collection presents a different portrait of the artist. Not The Two Fridas, but the 240 — one for every image on display. The pictures appearing at the Glenbow are the stuff of daily life — photos of family and friends, informal snapshots.

The Glenbow's vice president of collections, Melanie Kjorlien, spoke with CBC Calgary last week about the travelling exhibition, which has hit 12 cities already. As she put it: "We're hoping with this exhibition, for those people who maybe know of Frida Kahlo but maybe don't know a lot about Frida Kahlo, that this exhibition will give them an opportunity to learn more about her as an individual, and her life and the experiences that really shaped her."

What do the photos reveal? CBC Arts put that question to some Canadian artists who count Kahlo as a major inspiration. Here are their impressions on a few of the images you'll find at the Glenbow to May 21.

'It feels almost unbearably personal and intimate'

Frida stomach down, Nickolas Muray, 1946. ©Frida Kahlo Museum (Courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)

Based in Vancouver, Grace Cho is an illustrator and designer (who's been known to Instagram her sketches of Kahlo from time to time), and she says that Kahlo's paintings taught her a core lesson. "The painful emotions you experience can be channelled into art, and they can even become beautiful in this way," she says. "You can look to yourself and what you are feeling and going through as a starting point for your art — you don't have to feel like you have to keep looking outward at the world for inspiration." 

If you could ask Frida anything about this picture, what would you ask?

Cho: "Did you have any idea of how many people would eventually see this photo? How do you feel about that?" 

What came to mind when you first looked at it?

Cho: "It feels almost unbearably personal and intimate, like it is from a personal photo album not meant for strangers to see. It's clear she is very comfortable with the photographer for her to be OK with him taking a photo of her like this. Her face is partially obscured but it looks like she is smiling. Her eyes are looking confidently and directly at the camera. I like how the photo shows me Frida the human being — it's different from the more posed photos of Frida the artist that I've seen in the past."

'She feels so surprisingly familiar'

Frida painting the portrait of her father by Gisèle Freund, 1951. ©Frida Kahlo Museum (Courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)

"My mother (who is also an artist) adores Frida's work, so I grew up with her art in my life," writes Bronwyn Schuster. Raised in Calgary, the figurative painter is currently based in Vancouver, and she says she was inspired to "delve into self-portraiture" because of Kahlo's paintings.

What came to mind when you first looked at the photo?

Schuster: "I have this strong desire to be sitting along with her. It feels warm, even though it is a black and white photo."

To you, does the photo reveal anything about Kahlo? What?

Schuster: "She feels so surprisingly familiar, holding that same look that I see in my artists friends when they paint and draw."

'What if you never met Diego?'

Diego Rivera (in his study at San Ángel), Anonymous, ca. 1940. ©Frida Kahlo Museum (Courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)

Jo Lee is a former CBC Arts: Exhibitionist in Residence, and back when her episode aired, the Toronto illustrator told us how Frida Kahlo is one of her personal heroes. "I love how she unapologetically portrays her identity, gender and class through her work," Lee writes. "Her honesty and vulnerability (life, love, death, pain) in her work and personal life has inspired me to be more bold and fearless in my own work and life."

If you could ask Kahlo anything about this photo, what would it be?

Lee: "What if you never met Diego?"

What came to mind when you first looked at it?

"A master working on his masterpiece, deeply engrossed. I imagine Frida deeply moved and inspired by Diego. For me it reveals they have a very intimate relationship — he is allowing her to take photos of him while he is working. I interpret the kiss as a very sweet gesture of love, and a marking of her love to him."

'A modern day Mona Lisa'

Frida Kahlo in the Blue House, Anonymous, 1930. ©Frida Kahlo Museum (Courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)

If Amanda Di Genova could go back in time to meet anyone, she'd pick Frida Kahlo — and she's painted the famous artist on plenty of occasions, making her even more cartoon-colourful than she was in real life. (The artist contributed a few works to Frida-focused art show in Montreal last year, as well.) "Frida has been such an inspiration since I first discovered her work. To imagine all the things she overcame in terms of her relationships, health, family, being this female artist in a male-dominant world is incredibly inspiring," she writes.

What does the photo remind you of?

Di Genova: "The composition of the photo reminds me of a modern day Mona Lisa."

To you, what does the photo reveal about Kahlo?

Di Genova: "The way she holds herself from her cigarette to her posture gives off a dominant vibe. She appears as strong with and without her Tehuana costume, and I think this dressed down version of her reveals a masculine and feminine side to her identity." 

If you could ask her anything about this picture, what would you ask?

Di Genova: "I would ask what she's thinking/looking at, and who rolls her abnormally large cigarettes!"

See more images from Frida Kahlo: Her Photos.

Frida Kahlo by Lola Álvarez Bravo, ca. 1944. ©Frida Kahlo Museum (Courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)
Frida at the age of 5, Anonymous, 1912. ©Frida Kahlo Museum (Courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)
Frida painting in her bed, Anonymous, 1940. ©Frida Kahlo Museum (Courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)
Frida and Diego with friends Anonymous, ca. 1945. ©Frida Kahlo Museum (Courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)
Frida Kahlo with the doctor Juan Farill, by Gisèle Freund, 1951. ©Frida Kahlo Museum (Courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)
Nickolas Muray and Frida Kahlo, by Nickolas Muray, 1939. ©Frida Kahlo Museum (Courtesy of the artist)
Frida Kahlo, by Guillermo Kahlo, 1932. ©Frida Kahlo Museum (Courtesy of the Glenbow Museum)

Frida Kahlo: Her Photos. To May 21. Glenbow Museum, Calgary.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?