Painting Herself Cracked Open: Frida Kahlo

"The Two Fridas", 1939, 1.74 m X 1.73 m, oil on canvas, Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, A divided woman: heroic flamboyance conflicted with inner darkness, femininity contrasted with androgyny, the victim and the martyr
"The Two Fridas", 1939, 1.74 m X 1.73 m, oil on canvas, Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, A divided woman: heroic flamboyance conflicted with inner darkness, femininity contrasted with androgyny, the victim and the martyr

“The palpable energy that radiates from Kahlo’s small, meticulously observed self-portraits comes from the ferocity of her dialogue with herself and the directness with which she told her story. She painted herself cracked open, weeping beside her extracted heart, hemorrhaging during a miscarriage, anesthetized on a hospital trolley, sleeping with a skeleton, and always—even when she appears beside her pets or her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera—she looks fearfully alone.” Hayden Herrera

Until we started planning a trip to Mexico City and watched the film Frida, the art of Frida Kahlo held little appeal. (History of Art, Janson’s tome for the only art history class I’ve ever taken, mentions neither Frida nor her husband Diego Rivera!) 

Visiting her home, La Casa Azul in Cayoacan, now a part of Mexico City, made us huge fans. Seeing the The Two Fridas, painted the year of her divorce from Diego, the year her body was stretched, sometimes upside down, with twenty-kilogram weights attached to it, made us feel her pain and heartache. Reading Hayden Herrera’s definitive exploration of her life and work when we got home, well, let’s just say I’ve renewed the book twice from the VPL and hope someone buys me a copy.

For Frida, painting was “a form of psychological surgery and denial.” It’s easy to understand why.

In 1925 when she was only eighteen years old, a trolley plowed into the bus she and her boyfriend were riding home from school in, leaving her a partial invalid for life. A metal rod punctured her abdomen. Her spinal column was broken in three places. Her pelvis was fractured. Her right leg was broken, gangrene set in and five years later she had to have it amputated. Her collarbone and two ribs were smashed. Doctors also discovered she had had spina bifida as a child, further complicating her broken spine. (Also, at the age of seven Frida had had polio, leaving one of her legs smaller than the other.) Two years after the trolley accident, her boyfriend fled the country, unable to deal with the trauma and encouraged by his parents to leave. Over her lifetime Frida endured 35 operations, at least seven of them in 1950, a year in which she was enclosed in a steel corset for eight months, needled with morphine to alleviate the pain. “She lived dying” until 1954.

Frida grew up, lived and died in the historic house with the cobalt-coloured façade that is now the Frida Kahlo Museum. Her mother, of Indian and Spanish ancestry, was ill soon after Frida was born. As a result, Frida never really bonded with her, becoming, instead, her father’s favourite child. He had emigrated from Germany and was one of Mexico’s foremost professional photographers, hence their large home. Until after her accident Frida’s only painting experience was assisting her father in the dark room retouching photos with colour. 

One of the striking things about Frida’s paintings, especially her many self-portraits, is her penetrating gaze. Photographs of her display the same intensive scrutiny. Baeza Ruiz, a researcher from the Victoria & Albert Museum, describes Frida seducing the camera: 

From a very young age, Kahlo learned to pose for the camera, often gazing straight at the camera with her characteristic defiance. This awareness of the onlooker, through the eye of the camera, but also of her own reflection, marks the beginning of her self-made image. Later she shapes this image through her choice of clothing and her painting, especially in her self-portraits, both driven by her cultural and political commitments.

At the age of fifteen Frida entered the best school in Mexico, a centre of ideological and political unrest. She chose a program that would lead her to medicine. Unable to return to school after the accident, “Bored as hell in bed”, and concerned about her parents’ finances and the worry her accident was causing them, Frida began to paint portraits of her friends, her family and herself. 

We saw the bedroom where she began painting, which Lisa Waller Rogers, who has a superb series of blogs about Frida, describes so well: 

On the underside of the bed canopy a mirror was hung so that Frida could see herself. Lying in the bed, she could paint self-portraits using the wooden easel her mother gave her…She covered her headboard with photographs of loved ones and political idols: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. In the bedroom were her toy collections, pre-Hispanic art pieces, Judas figures, and a diorama of mounted butterflies under glass. The room was fragrant with medicines and perfumes.

Frida had briefly met Diego Rivera, Mexico’s most famous artist at the time, and admired him enormously. She wanted his opinion of her paintings, so she lured him down from the scaffolding at the Ministry of Education where he was working on sequences of murals depicting his Communist ideology. In his autobiography Diego wrote that Frida’s canvases revealed, 

precise delineation of character and true severity…a fundamental plastic honesty…They communicated a vital sensuality, complemented by a merciless yet sensitive power of observation.

Frida fell passionately in love with Diego, despite their age difference, (he was twenty-one years older than her), his unusual physique, (she nicknamed him “frog-toad”) and his unabashed mania for publicity and philandering (he had numerous short-lived and lengthy relationships and was by then a father). They wed on August 21, 1929, her parents saying it was “like an elephant marrying a dove.”

We spent an entire morning at La Casa Azul. It’s not a guided tour, you’re free to wander on your own through the house and gardens. The signage is good and museum staff are stationed in some rooms to answer questions.

What an artists’ home. “The place is so impressive. What interior design skills, particularly her art studio,” Magellan said.

Herrara describes Frida and Diego’s relationship very well:

Their union was both carnal and comradely, bound by mutual dependence and yet surprisingly open and free. One of their most powerful bonds was their admiration for each other’s art. To her he was the world’s greatest artist, the “architect of life,” “the slant life giver of worlds.” To him Frida was “a diamond in the midst of many inferior jewels” and “the best painter of her epoch.”

Diego’s fame resulted in commissions in the United States where the couple lived from 1931-1934 until Diego was fired for refusing to remove Lenin’s painting from a mural and Frida, homesick for Mexico and having undergone foot surgery, an appendectomy and a therapeutic abortion in their last year there, insisted upon their return. A gruelling schedule had also left Diego unwell, mirroring the condition of their finances. 

Being married hadn’t stopped Diego’s philandering. “Like his mural painting, his love affairs were spectacular and public,” Herrara writes. Diego went so far as to say that his doctor had pronounced him unfit for fidelity! Frida’s response? In public, “I do not believe that the banks of a river suffer for letting the water run.” Her diary paints a different emotion:

I have suffered two serious accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar ran over me….The other accident is Diego.

What happened when they returned to Mexico was devastating for Frida. 

Diego began an affair. With Frida’s closed confidant, a woman whose husband had left her, a woman who modelled for Diego’s murals—Frida’s sister Cristina.

Frida raged at the betrayal in both her appearance and her art. She cut off her long beribboned hair, stopped dressing in the Mexican clothes that Diego liked her to wear and created paintings dripping with blood that dramatized her loneliness and suicidal feelings.

“Henry Ford Hospital,” 1932, painted when she miscarried little “Dieguito” in Detroit, the six umbilical objects symbolic of her feelings

Señora Frida was promiscuous too, with both men and women. The film Frida shows her affair with Leon Trotsky; like him, Frida was an ardent Communist. When I saw Patti Smith’s poem “Noguchi’s Butterflies” written on the wall of one of Frida’s bedrooms (she had a bedroom for sleeping and a bedroom for painting), I didn’t make the connection until reading Herrera’s book and discovering that Isamu Noguchi was another of Frida’s lovers.

“They had an earthly human love as well as the loftiness of a revolutionary agenda and their work,” Patti Smith

A resilient and determined woman, Frida continued to paint. Until 1938 she mostly gave away her paintings and had sold only a few. But that summer the actor and art collector Edward G. Robinson went to Mexico City just to see her paintings and paid $200 each for four of them. Later that year she had her first exhibition—in New York and then in Paris, each a great success!

But when she returned to Mexico City, Diego initiated a divorce. The Two Fridas painted in 1939 while the divorce was in process is full of pain and rage. The dual-heritage Frida. The Frida Diego loved (holding a picture of him as a little boy) and the one he didn’t. The unloved Frida with a broken heart, the other full. The stormy sky that recalls El Greco’s view of Toledo. The two women disconnected from the empty space in which they’re set. Here is what Picasso wrote to Diego about Frida’s paintings:

Look at those eyes, neither you nor I are capable of anything like it.

Physically Frida’s health was in decline, her body in severe pain and by the end of the year she was drinking a bottle of brandy a day on top of all the morphine. There were rumours of attempted suicide.

A year later, on Diego’s birthday, December 8, they remarried! 

Frida moved into Casa Azul and Diego lived with her when he wanted to, keeping the San Angel Houses shown below. Frida, who had always been obsessed with fertility and had had several miscarriages and therapeutic abortions, began to mother Diego and treat him like her child.

But she continued to paint—producing 200 works of art in her short lifetime of painting—and in 1953 she had her first one-person exhibition in Mexico. 

“Viva la Vida” (Long Live Life), 1954, Frida’s last painting, her motto inscribed eight days before her life ended

For her last painting, chopped and sliced watermelons, crimson pulp and flesh and blood-black seeds set against a sky half dark and half light, Frida inscribed her name in red. Diego’s last painting, three years later, is of the same subject—”The Watermelons”—which relates both to the Day of the Dead when Mexicans imagine their loved ones feasting on this favourite food—and a tribute to Frida and her last work.

I asked Magellan how he felt about Frida.

I wouldn’t hang her art on our walls but it’s very complex work, often with a disturbing background with a meaning you could guess at, but when you know her story everything comes together.

And Gail.

When I think back to Frida’s house the first thing that comes to mind is the mirror above the bed she was confined to during her convalescence from the accident. I remember immediately thinking that was a good idea. As I reflect, it was probably good but also annoying at other times. I applaud Frida for how she lived her life. The more I know of her, the more I like her and her art.

And Karol.

With her difficult and painful physical limitations, limited education, few resources and almost no power, her work on justice for the Mexican people, often with Diego, is an inspiration.  

Harper’s Bazaar puts her in the top twenty female artists of all time, in the company of Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, Yayoi Kusama and Cindy Sherman. Others count her among the top ten women artists. To this day new biographies, exhibitions and documentaries (new this month, a three-part BBC series, Becoming Frida Kahlo, features an interview with Rivera’s grandson, who believes his grandfather “probably” ended Kahlo’s life in a last act of love) attempt to interpret her artistic triumph, a feminist who filled her autobiographical art with struggle and pain. The world keeps coming back to Frida. Me, too.


UPDATE April 4, 2023: An Immersive Biographical Frida Kahlo Exhibit is coming to Vancouver May 2023.
UPDATE September 13, 2023: Frida Kahlo on How Love Amplifies Beauty: Her Breathtaking Tribute to Diego Rivera. The Marginalian. September 13, 2023.

Herrera, Hayden. Frida Kahlo: The Paintings. New York: Perennial, 2002. Orignally published in 1991 by Harper Collins, this is considered the definitive classic of Frida Kahlo, her life and paintings. 

Jones, Josh. Discover Frida Kahlo’s Wildly-Illustrated Diary: It Chronicled the Last 10 Years of Her Life, and Then Got Locked Away for Decades.” Open Culture,  May 8, 2019.

Marsh, Ariana, and Widing, Kate. “20 Best Female Artists of All Time.” Bazaar. May 30, 2020. 

Rogers, Lisa Waller. “Frida’s Bed.” Lisa’s History Room. May 1, 2014. 

Smith, Patti. “How Frida Kahlo’s Love Letter Shaped Romance for Punk Poet Patti Smith.” Smithsonian.

Trebay, Guy. “Frida Kahlo Is Having a Moment.” The New York Times. May 8, 2015.

Thorpe, Vanessa. “Frida Kahlo’s husband may have helped her die, reveals Diego Rivera’s grandson.” The Guardian. Feb 11, 2023. This is where I read about the new BBC documentary and that Frida’s famous self-portrait with an image of Rivera on her own forehead sold at auction recently for $35 million.

4 Responses

  1. Amazing Frida. Built of pain, hope, suffering and courage.
    Thank you Gloria for bringing her colorful character.

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