Kahlo began painting in 1925, during her convalescence from a terrible accident, when a tram collided with the bus on which she was travelling home from school. The impact broke her spine in three places and fractured her right leg, collarbone, ribs and pelvis. From 1925, her life was a battle against the slow deterioration of her body. ‘She lived dying’, said one friend.
Though a self-taught painter, she was highly educated and her knowledge of art history was extensive. The earliest paintings shown here reveal the influence of European traditions on her work. Kahlo particularly admired the Renaissance masters. The elongated body and stylised gestures of Self-Portrait Wearing a Velvet Dress 1926, and Portrait of Alicia Galant 1927, recall the figures in a Botticelli or Bronzino. Self-Portrait Wearing a Velvet Dress is Kahlo’s earliest known self-portrait, and her first serious painting. She was 19 and made it for her boyfriend, fellow student Alejandro Gómez Arias, whose portrait hangs nearby.
In other works, elements of European avant-garde painting come to the fore, including Cubism, Futurism and Neue Sachlichkeit. These overtly modernist paintings reveal Kahlo’s early political commitment. As a child, she lived through the Mexican Revolution, and from a young age was interested in politics. She is believed to have joined the Young Communist League, and attended rallies and meetings. In paintings such as Pancho Villa and Adelita, c.1927, she celebrates the heroes of the Revolution, placing her own portrait at the centre of the composition.
In 1928, when she was 21, Kahlo embarked on a relationship with Diego Rivera. Rivera, then aged 41, was Mexico’s most celebrated artist, famed for politically motivated murals that adorned the walls of numerous public buildings. Encouraged by Rivera, who used aspects of Mexican folk art in his mural schemes, Kahlo began to paint in a more vernacular style. The influence of Rivera’s style is evident in a number of her early works. In The Bus 1929, made the year she and Rivera married, she satirises the class divisions of Mexican society, portraying different types as they ride on the bus. The lower-middle class matron, the proletarian worker in blue overalls, the Indian mother with her infant, the capitalist gringo with a bulging money bag, all line up for our scrutiny. The modern young woman at the end of the bench could be taken for Kahlo herself.