Frida Kahlo: An Illustrated Biography
by Zena Alkayat & Nina Cosford

Chronicle Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-452-15023-9.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 02/08/2017

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: Creative Life

Frida Kahlo: An Illustrated Biography is a lovely little book to hold in one's hands with its perfect size, hard covers and no dust jacket to slip off. Frida Kahlo's name is against a background of gold which is fitting as the book is from the Library of Luminaries series.

Frida Kahlo is one of the world's most celebrated artists and much has been written about her. For her fans, there can never be too much. Author Zena Alkayat "has taken care to be accurate and faithful to the truth throughout this book," she says in the Acknowledgments. She is grateful for "the evocative and brilliantly illuminating Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera" as well as The Diary of Frida Kahlo by Christina Burrus.

The book begins with a quote from Kahlo: "I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best." Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo Y Calderon was born on July 6, 1907 in the barrio of Coyoacan in Mexico. She contracted polio at the age of six and after nine months confined to her room, took up sports to regain her strength. She belonged to a mischievous clique at school called the Cachuchas. It was at school that she met her future husband Diego Rivera who was painting a mural in the auditorium.

On September 17, 1925, Kahlo was in a bus collision with her boyfriend Alejandro. As the author writes: "The accident transformed Frida. It clipped her wings and subjected her to a lifetime of pain." Despite the pain and many surgeries including the amputation of a leg, Kahlo painted herself and her life.

Nina Cosford illustrated the book throughout, not with Kahlo's paintings but with the familiar surroundings of Frida Kahlo's life. A two-page spread illustrates Kahlo's room with the artist propped up in bed, painting. She painted her first self-portrait there using a mirror attached to the canopy of her bed. When she sought to make a living from her art making, Kahlo asked for a professional evaluation of her work from Diego Rivera. They married on August 21, 1929 when she was twenty-two and he was forty-two.

Kahlo dressed in traditional costumes inspired by "matriarchal Tehuana women" from south Mexico even while in the United States where Rivera was painting murals and Kahlo continued to paint. Items from her wardrobe are illustrated and another illustration shows her hair in braids decorated with flowers and combs.

When Kahlo and Rivera divorced, she moved into her family home, La Casa Azul (The Blue House) where the kitchen was decorated in traditional Mexican style. Nina Cosford has drawn an illustration of the exterior of La Casa Azul, the kitchen and Kahlo's many pets including Fulang-Chang, a spider monkey, and Granizo, a fawn.

Kahlo and Rivera remarried on December 8, 1940 and Rivera moved into La Casa Azul. As the author says, Kahlo produced some of her best work during the 1940s and during that time her health was declining. One of the illustrations shows her strength of spirit: Kahlo in a four-poster bed at her one-woman exhibition in spring 1953 when she was unable to walk on opening day. It is this drive and vigor that draw many of us to reading about Kahlo's life and appreciating her paintings which nowadays appear in many forms.

Frida Kahlo died at the age of forty-seven on July 13, 1954. The book is a beautiful tribute to her vibrant life and spirit.

Zena Alkayat is a bestselling author, book editor, and journalist from London. With many years of experience in media and publishing, she has covered subjects from tea and cake to concrete, cocktails, and Coco Chanel. Nina Cosford is a freelance illustrator based in the southeast of England. Visit her website. See a review of their book, Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography, and a review of their book, Jane Austen: An Illustrated Biography.

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