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What Would Frida Do?
A Guide to Living Boldly
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Having doubts about your next step? Ask yourself what artist Frida Kahlo would do in this “beautiful volume . . . sure to inspire” (Boston Globe).
NAMED A BEST GIFT BOOK OF THE YEAR BY: Instyle, Oprah Daily, Business Insider, Esquire, Boston Globe, and Redbook
Revered as much for her fierce spirit as she is for her art, Frida Kahlo stands today as a feminist symbol of daring creativity. Her paintings have earned her admirers around the world, but perhaps her greatest work of art was her own life. What Would Frida Do? celebrates this icon’s signature style, outspoken politics, and boldness in love and art—even in the face of hardship and heartbreak. We see her tumultuous marriage with the famous muralist Diego Rivera and rumored flings with Leon Trotsky and Josephine Baker. In this irresistible read, writer Arianna Davis conjures Frida’s brave spirit, encouraging women to create fearlessly and stand by their own truths.
There are queens and movie stars and warriors and socialites. From Cleopatra to Beyoncé, when we look back through history, we find no shortage of women we can look to for inspiration on how to be confident. But there’s also no doubt that Frida Kahlo’s story makes her one of history’s most inspiring female role models—a master at turning lemons into lemonade.
Combing through Frida’s life to better understand how she went from a child prone to illness to one of the most well-known faces in history has been no easy task. It’s required spending, essentially, my every waking moment with Frida. Before I knew it, she had taken over my life. Suddenly, during my daily travels through New York neighborhoods, I began to notice the subtle influences of Frida; she’s there in the flick of a graffiti stroke, the sway of a passerby’s skirt, the mariachi tunes floating out of a dimly lit bar. During conversations, I’d find words tumbling out of my mouth that sounded a lot like the ones Frida once wrote in her diary. Soon, her style had even seeped into my closet, the color palettes of my wardrobe becoming more vibrant, my accessory collection expanding to incorporate indigenous-inspired designs.
By the time I completed this book, I had begun to feel as though I might know Frida Kahlo better than anyone living in the entire world. But of course, the truth is that actually knowing Frida Kahlo is impossible. Even while she was alive, those around her only got to know a portion of Frida, the mask she chose to show the world via her paintings—and perhaps the same is true of her own husband, Diego. In fact, I believe that her biggest creative achievement wasn’t her paintings at all, but instead the performance art that was her life—the drama she created with a main character who had such mystique and allure that generations have been carefully turning over her life in books and essays and exhibits and films ever since. Frida Kahlo was an enigma, a magician, a woman who reveled in being misunderstood.
There is, however, one thing we know for sure about Frida Kahlo: she was a badass, and she did not lack in confidence. As I study this woman who stood tall in her views—a feminist and communist who proudly rocked features that, still today, are often seen as anything but the typical standard of feminine beauty—I begin to contrast that Frida with the young woman who wore long skirts to conceal her crippled leg after being nicknamed “Peg Leg” by her peers. The comparison raises the question: was Frida truly confident… or was she just adept at hiding her insecurities?
Even someone with a minimal knowledge of art can take one look at Frida’s portfolio and see very clearly that the artist had no shortage of self-love—or narcissism, depending on how you look at it. And she was just as unapologetic in her real life as she was on canvas. Take, for instance, the words she penned to her husband, Diego Rivera, in one unsent letter: “I don’t give a shit what the world thinks. I was born a bitch, I was born a painter, I was born fucked. But I was happy in my way. You did not understand what I am. I am love. I am pleasure, I am essence, I am an idiot, I am an alcoholic, I am tenacious. I am; simply I am.”
I PAINT SELF-
I AM SO OFTEN ALONE,
BECAUSE I AM THE
PERSON I KNOW BEST.
“I am; simply I am.” Those are the words of a woman who not only was comfortable in her own skin but actually preferred having flaws. It’s important to remember that in her paintings and letters, Frida had the power to tell her own story her own way, as the creator of her own portraits and writer of her own narratives. But she never shied away from capturing the darkest details of her life, nor did she ever try to present herself as someone who was perfect or even likable. She was self-aware enough to admit that she was “born fucked” and “an alcoholic” while also being clear that she was her most loved subject. Her life offers a refreshing approach to finding confidence by simply being.
It’s possible, of course, that Frida was born into the world with an extra set of armor to prepare her for all the pain that lay ahead of her. By all accounts, Frida was comfortable in her own skin starting in childhood—and though her relationship with her mother was, according to Frida herself, largely strained, Frida did have a close bond with her father, and he was the one who bolstered her from a young age. In her 1983 biography, Frida, author Hayden Herrera wrote that Frida described her relationship with her “Papa” as “marvelous… he was an immense example to me of tenderness, of work, and above all, in understanding for all my problems.” It was Guillermo, also, who taught his daughter photography, one of her earliest lessons in creativity and self-expression.
And that self-expression quickly became… expressive, indeed. An early family portrait shows a seventeen-year-old Frida wearing a tweed men’s pantsuit; her stance is cocky and defiant, as though she can already see the millions of people who will one day look at the photo and think, “A teenage girl in a men’s suit in the 1920s? Bold!” It was also a move that was unlikely to have gone over well with her strict, religious mother—but it’s clear that, by then, Frida Kahlo’s favorite way to make a statement was through… Frida Kahlo.
Around this same time, Frida’s father’s printmaker friend Fernando Fernández began to give Frida drawing lessons, and her notebooks soon overflowed with sketches. There were no paintings, at least not yet. It wasn’t until the bus accident in 1925, which sentenced her to many months in bed recuperating, that she began to experiment with painting. Using her father’s paints and oils, she’d often create portraits of family, friends, and visitors—but her easiest subject was staring back at her from the mirror.
Over the next three decades, Frida would paint more than fifty-five portraits of herself. Her obsession with her own image may have started from those traumatic circumstances, and that is perhaps how it’s possible that Frida could be at once so staunchly confident and so deeply insecure, a dichotomy that becomes obvious the more you look at her paintings.
Now, when we look back at Frida’s work—especially as women—we can see the courage in her paintings. Hardly a selfie is posted to social media without a bit of editing, airbrushing, or nip-tucking, all possible thanks to a variety of apps available at our fingertips. Similarly, we can’t forget that as the creator of her own image, Frida always had the option to paint herself in a different light—to remove her unibrow, lighten her skin, or soften her sharp features; in other words, to see herself through the lens of how society thought she should look, and then present that image for their acceptance. Instead? She represented herself exactly as she was. In every single brushstroke, Frida Kahlo celebrated herself.
Her adolescent confidence following her accident would also come in handy later, during Frida’s adulthood, when she became the subject of newspaper articles and gossip, thanks to her high-profile marriage to Diego Rivera. Twenty years her senior when they wed in 1928, Diego was already an established, famous artist. His star continued to rise after they were married, and he was increasingly commissioned for lofty projects. For Frida, this meant being at her husband’s side as he traveled from one hotly anticipated exhibition opening to another, everywhere from Europe to the United States—or as Frida so memorably put it, “Gringolandia.”
In the beginning, during their newlywed phase, it seems from Frida’s diaries, letters, and early interviews that she had no qualms about slipping into the role of the genius’s wife, proudly standing by her husband’s side. But soon it became apparent that Frida could not remain in his shadow for long. Take, for instance, an interview she did at age twenty-five with the Detroit News in 1932, when the couple was in town while Diego worked on several murals for the city.
When reporter Florence Davies asked Frida, “Are you a painter, too?” She quickly replied, “Yes. The greatest in the world.” Later, Davies visited Frida at home for a profile that would be given the now incredibly ironic headline “Wife of Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art.” In the article, the reporter wrote that Frida told her, with a “twinkle” in her eye, “I didn’t study with Diego. I didn’t study with anyone. I just started to paint. He does pretty well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist.”
I AM LOVE.
I AM PLEASURE,
I AM ESSENCE,
I AM AN IDIOT,
I AM AN ALCOHOLIC,
I AM TENACIOUS.
I AM; SIMPLY I AM.
Friends and acquaintances confirmed in anecdotes and interviews through the years that during her first stint in the United States, the sometimes shy young adult grew into a woman who could verbally spar with the best of them. Being pushed out of the comfort zone of her Mexican hometown to big American cities like San Francisco and New York—where her duty was to wine and dine the “right” circles for the sake of her husband’s reputation—gave Frida a kind of slick social smarts. She quickly became known for her ability to command a room; in one infamous story about a dinner in San Francisco early in their marriage, Frida noticed a young woman vying for Diego’s attention. Suddenly, she took a big swig of wine and, loudly and boisterously, began to charm the table with jokes and traditional Mexican songs. Soon, everyone’s eyes, including the young woman’s, were on Frida… instead of on her husband.
At times, her confidence led her to push buttons. Another piece of Frida lore involves the time she visited Henry Ford’s sister… and spent the entire occasion making sarcastic comments about church in front of the devoutly religious woman. And at the motor-company founder’s own home, she turned to the auto titan—who was widely known to be anti-Semitic—and asked, “Mr. Ford, are you Jewish?” Luckily for Frida, her husband, Diego, encouraged her mischievousness, later recalling the story and saying, “What a girl!”
Frida wasn’t all self-confidence all the time, however. She once wrote, “Of my face, I like the eyebrows and the eyes. Aside from that, I like nothing. I have the moustache and in general the face of the opposite sex.” She had her own insecurities, and in 1933 she painted a self-portrait titled simply Very Ugly, depicting herself using a harsher technique than usual; afterward, she threw the painting in the trash. It was salvaged when her friend Lucienne Bloch discovered the work in the garbage and rescued it.
OF COURSE, DIEGO
DOES PRETTY WELL
FOR A LITTLE BOY,
BUT IT IS I WHO AM
THE BIG ARTIST.
That reminder of Frida’s insecurities illustrates exactly what we can learn from her about self-assurance: confidence is a mindset—and sometimes, you have to fake it ’til you make it. On the inside, Frida was sometimes critical of herself—her features, her inability to produce children, even her work—and as we can tell from her letters and anecdotes from family and friends, she occasionally shared those feelings privately with her inner circle. But outwardly, she was brazen and audacious, never hesitating to brag about her talents as an artist or dress in a way that assured all eyes would be on her in any room.
Frida’s fearlessness in the face of her flaws can inspire us to get over our own imposter syndromes; whether we’re feeling inadequate in a boardroom or in a relationship, I can imagine that she would tell us—even if we don’t quite yet believe it ourselves—to always be our own biggest cheerleaders. We might not be able to control how we feel, but we are in total control of how we project ourselves on the outside. And if we brag about ourselves well enough, we might just start to believe it on the inside, too. Even in her vulnerable moments, Frida was her most authentic self, and she made no apologies about it. In just forty-seven short years of life, she taught us by example to celebrate how bold, brave, and beautiful we are—however we may come.
- "A modern take on a woman who was modern beyond her time. Arianna Davis's book paints a colorful picture of the strength, courage, and love that uplifted Frida Kahlo through her many tragedies. This comprehensive look into Frida's life leads me to think that we could all learn a lesson or two from Frida."—Nina Garcia, editor-in-chief of Elle
“Frida Kahlo, the beloved artist and feminist, lived a pretty fearless life—one we could all learn a few lessons from…This read will leave you feeling inspired.”—The Today Show
- "A passionate and insightful celebration of the life of Frida Kahlo, What Would Frida Do? applies Frida's life to modern situations in a heartfelt and fun manner readers will love!"—Chanel Cleeton, author of Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba
“Have you ever found yourself at a crossroads, wondering, as a woman, an artist, a bold seeker, what was next for your life? … A guidebook based on the life and work of pioneering Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, this beautiful volume is sure to inspire.”
- "Arianna Davis's book shares this icon's boldness and courage in full force, to inspire a new generation. I am excited to support a fellow Latina's work to keep our history alive."—Dascha Polanco, actress, activist, and proud Afro-Latina
“The guide to life we need right now... a fresh, sparkling read that offers advice to readers through the lens of the painter’s life experiences — a missive from woman to woman through a life lived fully, if imperfectly, in spite of so many obstacles."
- "Arianna Davis makes a beautiful case for contemporary women to follow in Frida's footsteps as we navigate love, work, creativity, friendship, and even getting dressed in the morning. This vibrant herstory-meets-self-help book is such a gift."—Gabrielle Korn, Director of Fashion and Culture at Refinery29
- “This book is what happens when a memoir meets self-help as the iconic Frida Kahlo's amazing story inspires a modern day guide to loving, living and finding true happiness.”—Business Insider
“Guaranteed to inspire even the most burnt out friend”
- "Frida Kahlo truly elevated confidence into an art form. In her book, Arianna Davis shows us the timelessness of Frida's message of unapologetic self-acceptance and fearlessness. What Would Frida Do? beautifully reminds us how abundant a woman's strength can be."—Julissa Prado, Founder & CEO of Rizos Curls
- "What Would Frida Do? will take you on a beautiful journey following how Frida turned her pain into power and left the evidence behind to inspire many generations to come."—Carolina Contreras, CEO of Miss Rizos Salon
- "Luminous... self-help meets biography in an inspiring narrative of what modern women can learn from one of the twentieth century's greatest artists. From Kahlo's brazen creativity to her unapologetic politics, her boldness in marriage to her lifelong battle with chronic illness, Davis explores the contemporary lessons we can mine from Kahlo's courageous way of life."—Esquire
- "A must read. This is a heartfelt portrayal of a complex, brilliant woman whose bold perspective on creativity, work, and sex stands the test of time."—Jessica Knoll, New York Times-bestselling author of Luckiest Girl Alive
- “This gem of a book… couldn’t have been gifted to the world at a better time.”—Black Enterprise
- “Gift this pithy gem to any friend who could use a little inspiration. Bonus: It happens to look great on any bookshelf.”—Redbook
- On Sale
- Oct 20, 2020
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Seal Press