Highly Sensitive Refuge
Frida Kahlo

3 Things Highly Sensitive People Can Learn From Artist Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, who was likely a highly sensitive person, said, “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.”

We may know Frida Kahlo by her reputation as a free spirit, or the iconic self-portrait of her in a flower crown, dark hair parted in the middle with a unibrow. She was indeed a unique artist who left her mark, and image, on the world, but her story goes deeper than what we may see in pop culture. The symbol of her has taken on a life of its own, to the extent that you can find versions of her self-portraits everywhere, like on tote bags, and Beyoncé even dressed like her for Halloween one year.

I am old enough to vaguely remember the 2002 film Frida, starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor, based on her life. I rewatched it recently and found signs of not only a free spirit and feminist icon, but also a sensitive person. I also really enjoyed seeing a few of her paintings come alive on film, though it’s important to note that only about a third of her work was self-portraits, and the rest were portraits of others, animals, or of still life.

In the spirit of sensitivity, this piece will try to look below the surface at Kahlo and draw out some deeper lessons from her life that apply to highly sensitive people.

3 Things Highly Sensitive People Can Learn From Artist Frida Kahlo

1. The deep pain you endure can lead to your powerful legacy.

Kahlo’s life was partially defined by her health and her body’s limitations, due to an accident when she was 18. She also had a limp when she walked, ever since childhood polio. She was bullied for it as a child, but her father encouraged her to exercise and be physically active. 

Then, at 18, she was in a bus when a streetcar crashed into it, resulting in many broken bones and three spinal cord injuries. For several months of recovery, Frida couldn’t move and laid in bed. Incidentally, it was during this time that she began to really focus her considerable intellect and creativity on art. Highly sensitive people (HSPs), too, are usually creatively inclined

But this wasn’t all an opportunity to get in touch with her inner self through the pain — it was also a matter of medical bills preventing her from going to medical school herself. The terrible accident definitely changed the course of her career, but also affected her voice as an artist. 

Kahlo’s ongoing disability also led to suffering the first of several miscarriages at 30, which unquestionably also caused emotional pain. She underwent dozens of surgeries, and her body probably hurt for most of the days of her life. There are many factors in Frida’s story that she summed up in brief quotes as causing physical and emotional pain, revealing her sensitive nature. These include: “I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” and “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.”

Though she came of age in a privileged family in the roaring ‘20s, one way she expressed herself was through her iconic attire, which reflected the same reclamation of Mexican folk art as her paintings came to do. She wore jade necklaces and rebozos from the Tehuantepec region wrapped around her shoulders. These became noticeable, and sometimes appreciated, when she and her husband, Diego Rivera would travel to the United States. 

Together with long skirts, this attire also worked to cover Kahlo’s plaster corsets, back braces, and limp. She embraced her eyebrows, bright ribbons, and lipstick, possibly as ways to draw attention to her head rather than her body. But we can infer she was not trying to hide, in part from the way her self-portraits stare at us with confidence. Though her image may now be fetishized or appropriated at times, it is fair to say she painted yet another self-portrait in the form of her unique personal style.   

While Kahlo was an artist known for her self-portraits, Rivera was an artist known for helping to establish the mural movement in Mexico. They first married when she was in her early 20s, and he was over 20 years older and had been married twice before. The two divorced in 1939 and remarried a year later. Kahlo was also bisexual — Georgia O’Keeffe was one woman she allegedly spent time with — and both she and Rivera had numerous affairs

Frida Kahlo lived life in a body that wouldn’t do all that she wanted it to do and probably caused her daily pain, and yet that is not the first thing her legacy brings to mind. If anything, thoughts of her now evoke color, life, independence, and a strong sense of self. All these decades, Kahlo’s legacy has remained, and even more than just the sum of her art or pain alone.

2. Do not let anyone reduce your complexity — embrace it.

Some people have simpler stories and backgrounds than others, or fit more easily into the status quo. Although Frida Kahlo has become a fetishized icon, she had a complex identity that cannot be reduced to simple categories.

Kahlo’s identity was always complex, especially for her time. For one thing, she was born and lived much of her life in Mexico, but her ethnic background included her photographer father of German and Jewish background and her mother of both indigenous and Spanish background. She honored her family tree in one particular painting, “My Grandparents, My Parents, and I,” and through her dress. She loved her parents and sisters and grew up with supportive family relationships that continued into adulthood, for the most part.

As we know, Kahlo grappled with her unique and complex physical struggles through her art, as well. While her paintings were much more than self-reflection or personal therapy, she did address her identity and her body through her art. She painted herself with a broken spinal column, as a dead person, and with arrows shot into her. We know the first to have literally happened to her, while the latter two are even more symbolic. She exposed her disability in this and other paintings. If she was a highly sensitive person, perhaps art was an outlet for her trauma.

One of her memorable self-portraits is called “The Two Fridas.” It literally portrays two Fridas sitting beside each other and holding hands, and is full of the symbols characteristic of her paintings. One Frida has a broken heart, wears white Victorian dress and holds scissors, ready to cut both Fridas’ veins. The other has a full, healthy heart, is dressed in Tehuana clothing, and holds a small portrait of Diego. The duality present in this painting represents her complex identity, as well as her sensitivity and experience of pain, in multiple ways. If you’re a highly sensitive person, you’re aware how HSPs are deep, big thinkers.

Politically, Kahlo, like Rivera, was a socialist. She made sacrifices and dedicated her life to this cause to such an extent that we can also call it part of her chosen identity. Her style, hearkening to indigenism, was also related to the revolution that had taken place in Mexico during her childhood. Later, as an adult, she and Rivera hosted Leon Trotsky, a Russian political rival of Joseph Stalin’s, and his wife at their home (and she had an affair with Trotsky). She even painted a piece of art for him for his birthday. Kahlo’s and Rivera’s modernism both related to an artistic movement that had very much come of age along with certain political movements.

Even though Kahlo’s identity sometimes gets commodified in pop culture, she would probably not mind being a role model for unique and complex people. She once wrote:

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

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3. Your sensitive powers of observation and way of seeing the world are a great gift.

Shortly after meeting Kahlo, Rivera said of her, “Her works conveyed a vital sensuality, further enriched by a ruthless, if sensitive, observational capacity.” Frida was not only emotionally sensitive, but also sensitive in one of the best ways a visual artist can be: able to deeply observe. And as an HSP, I can attest to how we notice even the slightest details and nuances, which probably helped Kahlo enhance her art.

She and Rivera lived much of their lives in La Casa Azul (The Blue House), designed by her father. Because of her disability, she was confined to home much of the time, but she and Rivera filled their home with art pieces and other things that were meaningful to them. The contents of her home often found their way into her still life paintings or as symbolic items in her portraits. She sensitively selected and observed all of the things she surrounded herself with. Oftentimes, highly sensitive types create HSP sanctuaries — where they can recharge as well as thrive — and it certainly seems like Kahlo’s home was one. 

Kahlo did learn artistic techniques from Rivera in part, and also from her father, who was an architectural photographer. She learned photography from him when she was growing up, which of course requires a keen observer’s eye. She was also very quick to draw from aspects of both the art of European masters and modern European movements, like Surrealism. (It’s important to note, however, that her subject matter differentiates her from the Surrealist movement with which she has sometimes been grouped). 

As for the sensuality Rivera and others observed in Kahlo’s art, her paintings do show pleasure and the fullness of the senses through such forms as still-life works of juicy-looking fruits. They also, as we know, strongly portray pain. Symbols of life and death in her art represent another duality that she presented, which appeals to the viewer’s senses and through the keen observations of her own.

Looking at Kahlo’s life gives us takeaways for sensitive people, but also leaves me in awe of her strength and passion. I am amazed at how, in the midst of joy but also much pain, she seemed to live so fully and leave such a legacy. If she was indeed a highly sensitive person, she certainly accentuated the strengths of being an HSP in her works of art. Her artistic talent was her power, and her work continues to inspire people around the world.

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