Queer Art History Research
Frida Kahlo’s Crush on Georgia O’Keefe and the Ways History Disregarded Women Artists’ Expansive Love,
by Lindsey Cherek
In this research paper, I am going to investigate and show the ways in which prominent bisexual woman artist Frida Kahlo's love life was expansive, complex, and queer, and ultimately reached the hands and heart of Georgia O’Keefe. I will also dissect the ways in which institutionalized homophobia and misogyny keeps us from truly understanding and celebrating queer women artists throughout history, through the lens of Kahlo's love stories and archived life experiences. My research will go through both Frida Kahlo's and Georgia O’Keefe’s relationship histories, career histories, the challenges they faced in their marriages with powerful men artists, and the intimacy they found with other women and each other.
I will pull evidence from Frida Kahlo biographies and her personal letters and diary, including a recently discovered chest of Frida’s belongings documenting her emotions and encounters with bisexuality, archived in the book Finding Frida Kahlo by Barbara Levine and Stephen Jaycox. There is also a very clear dismissal of Kahlo's bisexuality from those who knew her and from scholars throughout history. Examples of this erasure are in the biographies, Frida, by Hayden Herrara, and in Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself by Salomon Grimberg. Much of her queerness is excused as vanity, narcissism, and severe loneliness, which is rooted in a deep misunderstanding of queer sex and relationships.
Scholarship has a pattern of misinterpretation of women’s intimate relationships for friendships. Many of the statements made about Kahlo and O’Keefe’s bisexuality are vague, general, and lack proper investigation and citation. Though there are very few queer sexual experiences we can verify for Kahlo, as this was a time of rampant homophobia, and to this day heteronormativity rules our canon, I believe there is a true importance to making space for her queerness and appreciate the ways O’Keefe impacted her life with their intimate connection.
Frida Kahlo's art gives us a glimpse into the honest and expansive ways that she lived and loved. For the duration of her life, Kahlo used painting as a means of biography, archiving her thoughts, feelings, and experiences with deep and personal symbolism. She was a feminist decades before that word arrived in our consciousness, living in a way that resisted ideas of gender and heteronormativity, and creating art that challenged the roles of living in a patriarchal society.
Kahlo met her husband Diego Rivera when she sought his professional opinion on her paintings. Based on Rivera’s recount of their first interaction, originally from his autobiography, My Art, My Life, he says to her, "In my opinion, no matter how difficult it is for you, you must continue to paint.”1 From the very beginning of their love story, despite how very damaging and toxic the story became, Rivera was a proponent for Kahlo’s artistic practice, and gave her the encouragement she needed to take her career seriously.
1Herrera, Hayden. Frida, a Biography of Frida Kahlo. (New York, Harper & Row, 1983), p. 88
Their marriage was complex and painful for Kahlo. Rivera had affairs with many women, notably his studio assistant, Iobe Robinson, in 1930, which established the beginning of suffering in their marriage. She states, “I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down. . . . The other accident is Diego.”2 Within the next 5 years, Rivera would have a year long affair with Kahlo’s sister, Cristina. The misery this infidelity caused for Kahlo can be witnessed in her painting, A Few Small Nips, created in 1935.
It is no surprise that Kahlo had affairs throughout her lifetime. Many argue that she looked for relief outside of her marriage with Rivera due to severe loneliness, vanity, and narcissism, or perhaps as an act of retaliation. 3 Though it is true she experienced loneliness and longing for Rivera to give her the love and respect she deserved, I believe she lived a life uniquely queer, and embraced the pleasure she found in her connections with others. The ignorant perspective that she embraced her queer relationships for any other reason than that she wanted to promotes binary and ableist and homophobic ideas that are deeply ingrained in our art history canon. Frida Kahlo did not have sex with women because it was easier, or more comfortable in her disabled body, or because she was desperate for sex; she was a queer woman who loved queer intimacy, because like all queer people, she was honest with herself and the world about what she truly wanted.
Stated perfectly in her recently discovered diary from 1948, she writes:
“Being Bisexual is not a sin
it is simply, being free
of all prejudice, because one
gives the body what it asks for
what it needs.
And I enjoy it that way, he who
criticizes me, he should
go to hell.
In many other entries in the diary, Kahlo details queer thought about frequently spoken lesbian proverbs, stories of the island of lesbos that she longed to live on, and love notes to her lover, Doroti – all alongside erotic sketches of breasts and vulvas and vulva-like fruit. 4 It is impossible to read through her personal diary entries without feeling her deep connection to her queer identity, which I believe also reveals itself in much of her still life and portraiture paintings.
2 Herrera, Hayden. Frida, a Biography of Frida Kahlo. (New York, Harper & Row, 1983), p. 107 3 Grimberg, Salomon (2008). Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself 4 Levine, Barbara, Jaycox, Stephen. Finding Frida Kahlo. (New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009) p. 144-160
It was also no secret to Rivera that she had affairs with women, as this seemed to be an agreement that Rivera embraced, often bragging about her lesbian experiences in public. Hayden Herrera writes on Rivera’s attitude about Frida’s queer experiences in his biography on Frida:
“Lucienne Bloch remembers the morning in Detroit when, dawdling over Sunday breakfast, Rivera suddenly astonished Lucienne by pointing to Frida and saying, “You know Frida is a homosexual, don’t you?” The only one who was embarrassed was Lucienne. Frida just laughed as Diego went on to tell how she had teased and flirted with Georgia O’Keeffe at Stieglitz’s gallery.”5
This is one of the only clearly documented stories in scholarship about Frida Kahlo that points to evidence of her intimate relationship with Georgia O’Keefe. Like Kahlo, O’Keefe was also married to a famous male artist who would consistently cheat on her, and similar to Kahlo’s beginnings with Rivera, Kahlo looked up to O’Keefe as a successful artist. O’Keefe’s paintings of flowers were a major success and attracted criticism for sexual symbolism.6 O’Keefe was known to press against these claims, but it is now understood that she may have had to keep the sexual nature of her work secret to maintain her career and access to the modern art world as a woman. There is a lot of ambiguity around O’Keefe’s bisexuality, and it is impossible to find a primary source, but the internet speculates she had affairs with both Rebecca Strand and Mabel Dodge Luhan while staying in Taos, New Mexico.7 I believe much of the “feminine energy” and eroticism that fans have described from O’Keefe’s paintings is actually just the power of a queer woman knowing herself and sharing that power on canvas.
One personal diary entry from Kahlo may reference a sexual encounter she had with O’Keefe, as most of her known queer lovers were around her age. Her entry says:
They are very pleasant times
that are spent this way,
Be it with a man, be it
with an old woman this happens
The reference to a sexual experience with an older woman is in her 1948 diary, which is two years after the death of O’Keefe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz. More evidence points to how likely it is that they maintained a relationship between meeting in the early 30’s and Kahlo’s death in 1954. In 1933, Kahlo wrote a letter to O’Keefe, describing how often she thought about
5 Herrera, Hayden. Frida, a Biography of Frida Kahlo. (New York, Harper & Row, 1983), p.198 6 Montgomery, Elizabeth. Georgia O’Keefe. (Greenwich, Brompton Books Corporation, 1993), p. 14 7 Gramblin, Aimée. “Was Artist Georgia O'Keeffe a Sex Goddess?” Medium, Sensual: An Erotic Life, 16 May 2022, https://medium.com/sensual-enchantment/was-georgia-okeeffe-a-sexgoddess-7e402696f620. 8 Levine, Barbara, Jaycox, Stephen. Finding Frida Kahlo. (New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009) p. 147
her, how she would never forget her hands and the color of her eyes, and how she hopes to bring her flowers if she is still in the hospital once Kahlo could return to New York.9 Two weeks later, Kahlo visited O'Keefe, and then discussed the visit in her letter to afriend, Clifford Wright: “She didn’t make love to me that time,” she lamented. “I think on account of her weakness. Too bad.”
This clearly implies that they had made love before. Some argue that “making love” could just be flirting, but the idea that making love between queer people can only be a kind of physical sexual intercourse is seeped in a narrow misunderstanding of queer intimacy. Queer love exists beyond heternormative concepts of sex.
As we look back at Kahlo’s work, we can find moments of inspiration that she drew from her intimate relationship with O’Keefe. In 1932, after having recently met O’Keefe, Kahlo and Rivera left for Detroit and Kahlo created the painting, Self Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States. In this painting you can see Kahlo standing at the center in a pink, colonial dress, with the indigenous landscape of Mexico on her left, and a devastating landscape of industrial America on her right. Upon close examination of this painting, there are a few jackin-the-pulpit flowers that grow between other Mexican plants. Georgia O’Keefe devoted an entire series to this flower only two years prior, and these jack-in-the-pulpits are not indigenous to Mexico.10 It is endearing to think that Kahlo may have included this imagery in the painting to catch O’Keefe’s eye, knowing it was already part of O’Keefe’s visual language.
9 “Kahlo, Frida.” Yale University Library, https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/10172233. 10 Chernick, Karen. “Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe's Formative Friendship.” Artsy, 20 Mar. 2020, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-frida-kahlo-georgia-okeeffes-formativefriendship.
The challenge for investigating queer history is the fact that much of it has been disappeared, or intentionally ignored – for reasons of safety in the queer community, and then for reasons of upholding heternormativity for those outside of the queer experience. The early 20th century was a difficult time to be visibly queer, especially in America. From the 1840’s up until the 1970’s and later in America it was a criminal offense for gender non-conforming people to exist in public. Even today, much of mainstream America’s understanding of queerness relies on outdated ideas rooted in the gender binary, a bio-essentialist lie. The lives that both Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe led were radical and honest. Their connection, however big or small, is proof enough of the power of queer love. They were two queer women artists, showing the world what is possible when you embrace life beyond expectations and roles of this cisheteropatriarchal society.
A final, important note: it is not a requirement to have physically sexual experiences with those of the same sex to be queer. Queerness is hard to define, because at the core of defining this term, there are limitations within our language, and much of our culture’s perspective on the systems and structures of relationships are rooted in binary, heteronormative culture. It is our responsibility, as artists, as scholars, to correct the internalized homophobia we’ve archived in our canon. Queerness is expansive. Queerness exists outside of the binaries of man, woman, male, female, straight, gay. Queerness is an energy, a perspective on life, and an undeniable power that both Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe absolutely possessed without a doubt.
Chernick, Karen. “Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe's Formative Friendship.” Artsy, 20 Mar. 2020, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-frida-kahlo-georgia-okeeffes-formativefriendship. Gramblin, Aimée. “Was Artist Georgia O'Keeffe a Sex Goddess?” Medium, Sensual: An Erotic Life, 16 May 2022, https://medium.com/sensual-enchantment/was-georgia-okeeffe-a-sexgoddess-7e402696f620. Grimberg, Salomon. Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself. (Merrell Publishers, 2008) Herrera, Hayden. Frida, a Biography of Frida Kahlo. (New York, Harper & Row, 1983) “Kahlo, Frida.” Yale University Library, https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/10172233. Levine, Barbara, Jaycox, Stephen. Finding Frida Kahlo. (New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 2009) Montgomery, Elizabeth. Georgia O’Keefe. (Greenwich, Brompton Books Corporation, 1993)