Frida Kahlo is an artist whose storytelling transcended both her chosen medium and her lifetime. Kahlo’s full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón, and she was a Mexican painter born in 1907. Her work was part of the genre of Magical Realism and often explored politics and identity, which is especially memorable in her colorful self-portraits. A serious bus accident left her in lifelong chronic pain, which she often incorporated into her art. Though during her lifetime she was frequently better known for her more famous husband, she has become somewhat of a female icon in recent years, becoming one of the most famous women artists of all time.
Here are 4 storytelling truths that can be learned from the life and work of Frida Kahlo:
1) Don’t be afraid of color.
One of the reasons Kahlo’s work is so memorable is because of her distinctive use of color. She uses color in surprising ways to tell an emotional story, whether it is juxtaposing soft pastels with painful subjects or combining colors that are not usually seen together to tell a complex story. She often incorporated vibrant flowers into her self portraits, saying, “I paint flowers so they will not die.” Like the flowers she painted, her stories live on at least partially because of her bold choices with color. Consider how your color choices can tell a more nuanced story, too.
2) Your difficult stories resonate.
Kahlo experienced a lot of tragedy in her life, particularly surrounding her physical health. Where some might shy away from telling those stories, she let it inform all of her work and leaned into the sadness of it all. She said, “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.” Because she was brave enough to paint her actual reality, her work resonated deeply with people and still does. Vulnerability in storytelling is often what makes it complex and interesting to your audience.
3) Use the lens of your heritage.
Kahlo was alive during a time when multiculturalism was not yet a concept, nor was diversity and inclusion. She unapologetically leaned into her Mexican and Indigenous heritage, however, learning more about where she came from and incorporating it into her painting. Her color palette often featured traditionally Mexican decorative colors, and she used themes from her Heritage throughout her storytelling, too. She said, “The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.” That fearlessness in telling the stories she needed to tell without censoring them helped inspire such deeply resonant work. Consider how your culture can more deeply inform your storytelling, too.
4) Introspection is okay.
Storytellers are sometimes fearful of being too introspective to relate to an audience, but Frida Kahlo painted a vast array of self-portraits without remorse. She said of her self-portraits, “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” Generations of people have found her self-portraits to be moving and relatable, so clearly her introspection was still powerful storytelling. As she said, “Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain.” Sometimes looking inward can help storytellers and their audiences to understand each other better. Do not be afraid of storytelling that centers your own experience.
Frida Kahlo’s deeply painful and creative life has storytelling wisdom for us all, from her bold use of color to her ability to share difficult stories to her unapologetic appreciation for her heritage to her thoughtful introspection. Storytellers everywhere can learn from her indefatigable desire to create and tell stories, no matter what. As Frida said, “I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”