A chubby child with a winning smile and sparkling eyes, Kahlo was stricken with polio at the age of 6. After her recovery, her right leg remained thinner than her left and her right foot was stunted. Despite her disabilities or, perhaps, to compensate for them, Kahlo became a tomboy. She played soccer, boxed, wrestled and swam competitively. “My toys were those of a boy: skates, bicycles,” the artist later recalled. (As an adult, she collected dolls.)
Her father taught her photography, including how to retouch and color prints, and one of his friends gave her drawing lessons. In 1922, the 15-year-old Kahlo entered the elite, predominantly male NationalPreparatory School, which was located near the Cathedral in the heart of Mexico City.
As it happened, Rivera was working in the school’s auditorium on his first mural. In his autobiography—My Art, My Life—the artist recalled that he was painting one night high on a scaffold when “all of a sudden the door flew open, and a girl who seemed to be no more than ten or twelve was propelled inside. . . . She had,” he continued, “unusual dignity and self-assurance, and there was a strange fire in her eyes.” Kahlo, who was actually 16, apparently played pranks on the artist. She stole his lunch and soaped the steps by the stage where he was working.
Kahlo planned to become a doctor and took courses in biology, zoology and anatomy. Her knowledge of these disciplines would later add realistic touches to her portraits. She also had a passion for philosophy, which she liked to flaunt. According to biographer Herrera, she would cry out to her boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias, “lend me your Spengler. I don’t have anything to read on the bus.” Her bawdy sense of humor and passion for fun were well known among her circle of friends, many of whom would become leaders of the Mexican left.
Then, on September 17, 1925, the bus on which she and her boyfriend were riding home from school was rammed by a trolley car. A metal handrail broke off and pierced her pelvis. Several people died at the site, and doctors at the hospital where the 18-year-old Kahlo was taken did not think she would survive. Her spine was fractured in three places, her pelvis was crushed and her right leg and foot were severely broken. The first of many operations she would endure over the years brought only temporary relief from pain. “In this hospital,” Kahlo told Gómez Arias, “death dances around my bed at night.” She spent a month in the hospital and was later fitted with a plaster corset, variations of which she would be compelled to wear throughout her life.
Confined to bed for three months, she was unable to return to school. “Without giving it any particular thought,” she recalled, “I started painting.” Kahlo’s mother ordered a portable easel and attached a mirror to the underside of her bed’s canopy so that the nascent artist could be her own model.
Though she knew the works of the old masters only from reproductions, Kahlo had an uncanny ability to incorporate elements of their styles in her work. In a painting she gave to Gómez Arias, for instance, she portrayed herself with a swan neck and tapered fingers, referring to it as “Your Botticeli.”
During her months in bed, she pondered her changed circumstances. To Gómez Arias, she wrote, “Life will reveal [its secrets] to you soon. I already know it all. . . . I was a child who went about in a world of colors. . . . My friends, my companions became women slowly, I became old in instants.”