When people say ‘Mexican artist’, Frida Kahlo’s name is often one of the first that springs to mind. While the Mexican influence can be clearly seen in Kahlo oil paintings, how about the German influence? Yep, you heard right. What many people may not know is that Kahlo is half German on her father’s side, and that he was an accomplished photographer in his own right.
Carl Wilhelm Kahl was born in 1871 in Pforzheim, Grand Duchy of Baden, in the German Empire, the son of a jeweller, Jakob Heinrich Kahl and Henriette Kaufmann. Kahlo used to claim that her father was of Hungarian Jewish heritage, but a recent book asserts that despite this being propagated by her, his parents were in fact Protestants hailing from Frankfurt. Kahlo is also known to have claimed to have been born in 1910 as opposed to in 1907, so that her birthday would coincide with the Mexican Revolution – we’re not really sure what her angle may have been on the Hungarian Jewish claim, but it may have been to disassociate herself from Germany at the time of the Nazi regime.
Wilhelm studied at the University of Nuremburg and in 1891, reportedly because he did not get along with his new stepmother, his father paid him to leave Germany and travel to Mexico. In May of 1891, aged just 19 years old, Wilhelm left Germany onboard the freighter ‘The Borussia’, changing his name to Guillermo Kahlo because he felt that it sounded more Hispanic. When he arrived he began working at a German run jewellery store, and soon after married his first wife Maria Cardena, with whom he has three children. Their second child died shortly after being born, and Maria herself passed away following the birth of their third child.
On the same night that Maria died in 1898, Guillermo proposed to Matilde Calderon, his co-worker at the jewellery store of native Amerindian descent. It was a marriage of convenience with Guillermo seeking company and Matilde, as she would later confess, only marrying him because he reminded her of her former German lover. Guillermo sent away his two daughters from his first marriage to be raised in a convent, and Matilde’s father taught Guillermo the art of photography and helped him establish his business. By 1901 Guillermo owned his own studio, was working regularly for publications like El Mundo Ilustrado and Semanario Ilustrado, and he went on to commissioned by the government for architectural photos that have been described as his best work.
But the achievement that Guillermo is probably best remembered for came into the world on July 6th 1907 at the family’s Blue House in the Coyoacán borough of Mexico City. As well as a photographer Guillermo was an amateur painter and it was through him that Kahlo would have her first contact with the arts, although the extent of Guillermo’s influence upon his daughter’s work is unknown. What is known is that he taught her how to take and develop photographs, and his portraits of Kahlo are among the earliest that are known to exist. Guillermo passed away in 1941, probably unaware of the legacy that his third daughter from his second marriage would eventually leave behind.