“I joyfully await the exit, and I hope never to return,” wrote a 47-year-old weak and bedridden Frida Kahlo.
In the early hours of the morning of July 13, 1954, Frida was discovered dead by the attending nurse. Born in Mexico City in 1907, Frida Kahlo was recognized, during her lifetime, as a surrealist-folk painter, an advocate for the Mexican Communist Party, and a woman with a tragic life of severe pain and hardships.
About 20 years after her death, Frida Kahlo has emerged as an icon of women empowerment, the feminist movement, the LGBTQ+ movement, a recognized figure in art history, and an emblematic of Mexican traditions and art culture.
From Memories of Pain | Frida Kahlo
Born to a German-Mexican father and a mother with mixed European/indigenous heritage, Kahlo was on track to become a medical student. Then a horrifying bus accident at the age of 18, one that caused severe pain for the rest of her life, left her bedridden for roughly three months with multiple surgeries required for the fractured pelvis and spine.
Her friend Andés Henestrosa would later say that Kahlo lived, dying. It was this accident, among other experiences, that influenced Kahlo to paint with a certain sadness and honesty of character, her strokes representing the resilient energy she had.
In 1929, Kahlo married Diego Rivera in a civil ceremony. Her father approved of the marriage because Rivera was rich and could afford Frida’s expensive medical treatment while her mother disapproved of it. The marriage was often referred to as one between an elephant and a dove referring to their body size and structure. The couple moved to the rural area of Moreles which during the Mexican Civil War saw some of the heaviest fightings.
This and the rural life she experiences sharpened her sense of the indigenous culture and heritage. Kahlo began wearing jewelry and clothing highlighting her heritage and belonging. This helped her in expressing her feminist and anti-colonial ideals.
Memory, the Heart
Although married, civil marriage was not without turbulence. Rivera and Kahlo were both involved in extramarital affairs both in Mexico and the United States. They lived in separate houses, Frida’s blue painted house called the Casa Azul, connected with a common space to welcome important and esteemed guests. While here, Kahlo explored her bisexual identity having both heterosexual and homosexual affairs, although it is widely speculated that she considered the former ones to be more important.
In early 1935, after returning to Mexico from the United States, Kahlo discovered that her sister Cristina had been involved in an affair with Rivera. This deeply hurt her and would be expressed in her painting, which she titled, ‘Memory, the Heart’. They later reconciled but continued having extramarital affairs. The continuous affairs of Rivera, whom she often touted as her ‘second mistake’ took an emotional and mental toll on Kahlo which was expressed in her painting, ‘The Two Fridas’. Kahlo and Rivera divorced in 1939 but remarried in 1940.
Frida’s declining health and subsequently failed surgeries resulted in her being confined to bed and to her home. She could no longer sit or stand for too long and she suffered from several bouts of depression. In 1953, her right leg was amputated at the knee due to gangrene and attempted suicide, under the emotional and physical pain of her illness and Rivera’s continuous affairs. She participated in a few political events with the Mexican Communist Party and against the CIA invasion of Guatemala.
Kahlo had, in a way, anticipated her death and on the morning of 1954, aged 47, she passed away, as softly as the strokes of sunlight that entered her room. It is argued that she committed suicide and died of an overdose.
The Experience and Expression of Pain and Suffering
Through a life that was lived primarily in pain, Frida Kahlo’s artwork is able to express her experience of the same. Her 1944 artwork, ‘The Broken Column’ depicts Frida cut open, showcasing a crumbling column, more than a dozen nails and tears. The broken column references her spine which was damaged in the accident, while her tears very honestly depict her suffering. The visual imagery of the barren ravines behind her reflects perhaps her loneliness.
In 1945, she painted ‘Without Hope’ a startling surrealist painting that depicts her lying in her bed but in the Mexican desert. She seems to have been pinned down and is forced to eat different animals whose skin and skulls can be seen. The visual imagery is striking and it shows Frida’s ability to narrate a story in both factual and metaphorical terms through her paintings.
In a similar fashion, Frida painted ‘The Two Frida’s and ‘Memory, the Heart’ both of which are in reference to her rocky relationship with Rivera. Her suffering in the former is depicted as two Frida’s each sitting with a broken and bleeding heart. The Frida on the viewer’s right is dressed in traditional clothing and has a portrait of Rivera, her lover, while the Frida on the viewer’s left is dressed in European clothing and is holding a surgical pincer that has ripped out an artery, dripping blood onto her dress. The painting captures Frida’s emotional pain of her divorce from Rivera, in addition to his numerous affairs that deeply pained her.
The Portrayal of Symbolism and Self
In a painting titled ‘Self Portrait With Cropped Hair’, Kahlo depicts herself in an unusual manner. While in her other self-portraits Frida paints herself as a feminine figure, she departs in this case. She is shown sitting on a chair, holding a scissor and freshly cut hair spewn all around her. Frida herself, in a more masculine pose and with her hair cut short, holds the scissors dangerously close to her genitals, which many conclude is a threat to Rivera given his affairs.
Even though Kahlo uses hair as a symbol of growth and beauty, here she forgoes them, depicting a more furious side to her. Many even assume that her cropped hair symbolizes her bisexual nature, one that she was not afraid to hide. The imagery and symbolism extend on to also address the patriarchal values of the society that Kahlo felt uneasy towards. These Spanish values of patriarchy or ‘machismo’ are being threatened here, through a frustrating self-portrait.
Another of Kahlo’s masterpieces, ‘The Wounded Table’ uses visual imagery, symbolism, and surrealism to address her loneliness as well as the stereotypes of being a Mexican. The painting opens up like a play, with different characters taking their place. The setting in the painting has, more often than not, been compared to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.
Continuing with her associated symbolism, the two children on the viewers’ left are Cristina’s showing Frida’s longing for children while on the other end is a deer, the animal serving as a surrogate child. Behind her is a man referencing Judas (also Rivera, the betrayer with a broken leg, bleeding, and a feminine skeleton with a hole in the place where Kahlo herself was injured). But the imagery is also beyond just personal connotations. The symbolism also reflects Kahlo’s separation, disintegration, and search for her ‘mexicanidad’ or Mexican origins.
Frida paints herself without arms, showing how helpless she is in the given situation. The table itself draws inspiration from the Aztec god Xipe Totec. A Nayarit figure, referencing Mexican heritage is sitting close beside Kahlo, drinking her blood symbolizing her sacrificing herself to her ‘mexicanidad’.
From Certain Anguish To Celebrated Icon | Frida Kahlo
We know Frida Kahlo was recognized as a painter during her lifetime, yet it was in the 1970s that her fame grew at an explosive rate. Her artwork was bought and sold for millions and every art collector wanted a piece of Frida Kahlo. Her visual style of surrealist painting, combined with a Mexican folk style and Aztec storytelling created for her a unique place in art history. Her style was more associated with Magic Realism or new Objectivity where reality was combined with fantasy, much like her depictions of her struggles.
Kahlo’s paintings seemed to always fight against cultural inferiority and colonialism. Her paintings were closely tied to her Mexican heritage, often using symbols that tied them down to narratives from Aztec mythology and also from Christianity. In her self-portraits, the facial features referenced those of saints, but without a holy glow. That was replaced with Aztec and Mexican symbolism that questioned the construction of their identities.
In 1983, art historian Hayden Herrera published a biography on Frida Kahlo and soon the whole world was heralding this woman from Mexico whole life depicted, through her paintings, a lot of anguish, yet her resilient and ferocious spirit led her to become a celebrated icon. She was seen on flags, printed on t-shirts, symbolized and immortalized in movies and music.
Frida became an embodiment of hope for the masses who were struggling with personal tragedies and commercial property for the masses who invested solely on the basis of her name. A life of pain and anguish was and is to date an icon of triumph and a spirit of resilience, all over the world.
- Unknown. Frida Kahlo and Her Paintings [Online]. Available at: https://www.fridakahlo.org (Accessed: 5 May 2021)
- Y, Candice. (2019). Frida Kahlo The Communist [Online]. Available at: https://www.liberationnews.org/five-things-to-know-about-frida-kahlo-the-communist/ (Accessed: 4 May 2021)
- R. Mariella C. (2010). Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Table [Online]. Available at: https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/frida-kahlos-wounded-table (Accessed: 6 May 2021)