Frida Kahlo, the Mexican Surrealist painter, has a well-known name in the art world and even in the mainstream (due in part to a 2002 biopic about her life, starring actress Salma Hayak as Kahlo). Although her paintings did achieve a certain degree of recognition and appreciation during Kahlo’s lifetime, she has attained a greater level of posthumous fame, as is the case with many fine artists. I first heard of Kahlo many years ago, in relation to her mustached self portraits with monkeys. My interest piqued, I investigated more of her body of work and was drawn to the strange visceral power of many of her paintings, which evoked themes including pain, self-destruction, and rebirth. Intrigued by Kahlo’s possible impetus for creating such work, I have read up and researched her life and art, considered the intersections between the two, and developed some interesting personal observations.
It seems that Frida Kahlo’s artwork was primarily catalyzed by a desire to fill a certain emptiness in her life. An overarching sense of incompleteness compelled Kahlo to seek validation through outside sources; some of this validation-seeking was destructive, but much of it was expressive, exemplified by her dynamic persona, a unique personal style, and the vibrancy of her paintings. An examination of Kahlo’s short life by way of others’ writings about her and her own writings is what led me to the idea that she felt incomplete. Early in her life, a freak accident malformed her body; among other consequences, Kahlo would never be able to give birth. Additionally, Kahlo’s romantic relations with painter Diego Rivera may not have been wholly satisfying to her. A woman who craved much attention, she had fallen in love with a man who was unwilling to be exclusively devoted to her. Despite her own trysts, Kahlo seemed to feel dependent upon Rivera, to the extent that his actions deeply affected her life and by extension, her artwork.
To offer a brief timeline, Frida Kahlo was born in Coyacan, Mexico in 1907. At six years of age, she contracted polio, which had crippled her right leg by the time she was eleven. This turned out to be a rather minor maladjustment compared to the physical impairments she would suffer at age eighteen, as the result of being involved in a trolley car accident. At twenty two years old, Kahlo married Diego Rivera, who was twenty years her senior. Kahlo died when she was only forty seven, possibly due to complications from her physical problems, possibly via suicide. By that time, she was confined to a wheelchair; she had amputated legs, a shattered backbone, and withered flesh because of her lack of movement.
Kahlo’s main physical problems resulted from her accident at age eighteen, in which a trolley car she was riding in was hit by a bus. Kahlo was pierced by an iron handrail that entered her left hip and exited her vagina. The accident caused fractures of her pelvis, vertebrae, and foot. Due to the spinal fracture, Kahlo’s back had to be kept immobilized. This involved the wearing of plaster or metal corsets for long periods of her life. After just three months of her first corset, her entire right side felt “as if asleep” (Tibol). She also had difficulty walking. After a year, Kahlo was already feeling that she had “reached the limit, having so many attacks like an old woman. How will I be when I’m thirty”?’ (Tibol 407). Unfortunately, as time progressed, Kahlo’s physical condition continually declined.
Being fitted with a new corset was a nightmarish process for Kahlo. She had to hang from the ceiling for hours, waiting for the plaster to dry. Once it was dry, she felt “choked, there’s a frightful pain in the lungs and all down my back, I can’t even touch my own leg and can hardly walk or sleep” (Tibol 51). In addition to these corsets, Kahlo was subjected to thirty five operations related to her injuries and lived in nearly constant pain. By the mid 1940s, her health was declining even further. She was experiencing extreme weight loss and fainting spells. Early in 1953, doctors suggested amputation of her right leg because of gangrene. She said she wanted to die and drew herself in her diary as a doll breaking apart with the caption, ‘I am DISINTEGRATION’ (Herrera 215). After the amputation, Kahlo grew very depressed and soon passed away. Her death was reported as being caused by pulmonary embolism, but this was debatable, as she had already made several suicide attempts. Friends thought her death was another such attempt, successful this time. Some evidence of this hypothesis seems to be granted by the last words in Kahlo’s diary: “I hope the exit is joyful-and I hope never to come back-Frida”. These words were accompanied by a drawing of a black angel rising (Herrera 219).
It was not until after the trolley accident that Frida Kahlo began to paint seriously. Her father had been an amateur painter and she had always felt drawn to that kind of art, but had never pursued it. One reason she turned to art after the accident is because she was bedridden and bored, but I would posit that her sudden deep need to express herself through painting was also linked to the physical and mental consequences of her injuries.
In a book analyzing Kahlo’s paintings, Hayden Herrera suggests that Kahlo “painted herself as the heroic sufferer” (Herrera 180), exaggerating her suffering and presenting it for the eyes of all. Perhaps this was part of a process of externalizing the pain she felt inside, to help her work through her suffering and make something creative out of it. Herrera seemed to think there was also an element of attention-seeking, using her suffering as a vehicle. Although it is impossible for any outsider to state with certainty which aspect of the painting process was more important to Kahlo-confronting and transforming her pain or communicating and sharing it with a potential audience-it is clear that most of her paintings do deal with personal trauma.
Kahlo’s paintings primarily took the form of self portraits, in which she tended to combine elements of Mexican folk art with traditional Christian symbolism to create her own style. In this style, Kahlo produced about 200 works between 1926 and her death in 1954. Many of these paintings make reference to the corsets she had to wear and to several miscarriages she suffered. Another association commonly drawn in her paintings is that between sex and pain, which could be linked to the accident (penetration by the iron handrail) and related physical and emotional issues. Another feeling which frequently emerges and which could also be traced back to the accident and the resulting corset-wearing is a sense of being unable to freely move and otherwise feeling trapped. Kahlo described one of her own paintings by stating, “It’s my face in the middle of a sunflower…I don’t like the idea; I seem to be smothering inside that flower” (Tibol). In this description, that flower seems to be paralleling Kahlo’s corset(s).
This immobility theme recurs in other Frida Kahlo paintings. Even her occasional use of monkeys in self portraits may illustrate a variation on the theme. According to Herrera, the monkeys “are full of the possibility of movement while Frida is immobilized. Their restlessness hints at an energy trapped inside Frida that is so explosive it borders on rage” (Herrera 81). Perhaps it was a utilization of that kind of energy or even a defiant lashing out at her pain that also compelled Frida to paint her own hated corsets. She used gentian violet and mercurochrome and many decorative embellishments, including mirrors and colored feathers in the pubic region (Tibol 146).
Another large influence upon Frida Kahlo’s art was her relationship with fellow painter Diego Rivera. Rivera was notorious for his love affairs. Granted, Kahlo had a few flings of her own (with both other men and women), but she was said to be so smitten with Rivera that his infidelity severely hurt her; she felt rejected and depressed when the two were apart. One of Kahlo’s doctors even claimed that her physical health revolved around Rivera, suggesting that “When he was away or she felt abandoned by him, she would precipitate a crisis. When he was at her side, she recovered”. Whether or not there is significant credence to such an assertion is uncertain, but it’s possible that such a pattern could be connected back to Kahlo’s childhood, when she had polio and her father nursed her back to health (Herrera 194).
That Kahlo had a tendency to be overly dependent upon her love relationships is suggested even in letters to a high school boyfriend which “show her intense need bind herself to another person by telling him every detail of her suffering”, again according to Herrera. Perhaps she was just a passionate and over the top teen, as many are. At times, Herrara’s assessment of Kahlo seems quite unsympathetic, but it is interesting to consider, even if one ultimately disagrees. Herrera posits that Kahlo’s dependency was part of a larger psychological disorder and that she may have “sabotaged her own well-being by choosing to have unnecessary operations as a peculiar form of narcissism” (Herrera 194). He further suggests that a similar motivation compelled Kahlo to document her pain in the form of paintings and display it to others. I am not entirely sold on this premise. First of all, Kahlo clearly was not responsible for the accident that led to her injuries in the first place and I imagine that deciding on the appropriate care and treatment for such injuries was a tricky process at best. Secondly, if someone wants to seek attention from others in a narcissistic or exhibitionistic fashion, it certainly seems as if there would be much simpler ways to go about it other than being operated on or creating time-consuming, quality paintings that have stood the test of time.
Recurrent themes in Kahlo’s paintings very well might intersect with internal pain and real life turmoil, including Kahlo’s relationship issues with Rivera; but when Herrera suggests that such themes were part of an attempt to retain Rivera’s attentions, I think he is confusing process with product or thematic exploration with agenda. In other words, just because Kahlo may have explored certain hurt feelings or relationship issues in her artwork doesn’t mean she had a concrete agenda in direct relation to Diego Rivera. For many fine artists, it is the artistic process, not the final product, which is most pivotal.
According to Whitney Chadwick, “The self-image in the work of women artists in the Surrealist movement becomes the focus for a dialogue between the constructed social being and the powerful forces of instinctual life, which Surrealism celebrated” (Chadwick 295). In relation to this observation, another interesting aspect of Frida Kahlo’s art is the duality of her self-image. Sometimes two different Fridas are rendered in one painting.
Considering duality from a different perspective, after viewing Kahlo’s self image in paintings, it is interesting to examine the real life image she presented. The contrast between these two images may suggest that even her real life persona included elements of invention or façade, perhaps as just an artistic expression of personal style or perhaps to cover up for what she felt she was lacking. According to Herrera again, “Even in her youth, clothing not only distracted attention from her wounds, it played a key role in her self invention. As the years went on, her exotic dress accentuated the contrast between chronic pain and her gallant façade of alegria” (Herrera 38). Kahlo’s exotic dress included traditional Mexican costumes and ornamentation, but her stylistic inventiveness went beyond her attire to also encompass her surroundings. For example, her bedroom was decorated with dolls and skeletons (often decked out in Kahlo’s own clothing). From the perspective of biographer Raquel Tibol, it was a kind of protest against suffering that served as Kahlo’s motivation from transforming her environment into ” a grand procession of jewels, glass balls, embroidered costumes, and flashy hairdos” (Tibol). Maybe this is true. Maybe Kahlo just enjoyed a lively, bright, flamboyant aesthetic and chose to enact such preferences upon her living space.
Maybe, as Herrara suggested, Kahlo’s exotic finery was rooted in self-esteem problems due to her injuries, as well as the fact that Rivera liked her to dress up in traditional Tehuana attire. Herrera has even gone so far as to suggest that Kahlo’s dolls substituted for the children that her malformed womb and pelvis could never produce-and although I can’t factually deny that possibility, I personally find it to be a bit condescending and demeaning. Herrera has posited that it was Kahlo’s childlessness which “lent urgency to her connections with all forms of life. She nurtured the plants in her garden as if they were offspring; she painted flowers and fruit with such passion that they look alive” (Herrera 84). While Kahlo most certainly did have a passion to create, I find myself resenting the implication that all of her creations were substitutes for children, as if the only truly worthwhile accomplishment of a real woman is the birthing of human offspring and any other creative endeavors are pale approximations or frivolous substitutions.
Back to the contrast between Kahlo’s painted image versus her real life image, one may notice that although her painted self portrait presents a pretty realistic likeness, there are still certain differences in appearance. In her portraits, she looks less traditionally feminine, less prettified than in photographs. Her mustache is exaggerated and her features are given a somewhat steely cast (Herrera 138). Kahlo herself acknowledged this duality in terms of who she felt herself to be from within and who she saw from without. According to Herrera, “There was the flamboyant creature she presented to the world… This person hid the dark side of Frida, the needy, manipulating woman who in part embraced the role of victim in order to be admired for her martyrdom” (Herrera 136).
Although yet again Herrara’s assessment here sounds unsympathetic, overly harsh, and possibly even misogynistic, it is certainly likely that Kahlo did suffer from some serious psychological problems. She admitted to feeling a void and trying to fill it, even turning to drugs. Her drug use was started to combat the pain of her physical condition, but grew into an addiction. She even said herself: “Painting completes my life. I lost three children and another series of things that could have filled my horrible life. Painting is a substitute for all that” (Tibol 67). Based on such sentiments expressed by the artist herself, perhaps there is a valid basis for some of Herrera’s suggestions, after all. Or is there?
From a psychological perspective, Frida Kahlo’s artwork may have served as a means for her to sublimate her pain. This idea also ties into the Surrealist movement in that Surrealists were interested in overthrowing the control exerted by the conscious mind (Chadwick 295) and sublimation involves the subconscious mind. The production of a painting can serve as an act of sublimation which allows a certain kind of outburst to be expended constructively. Such an act offers relief and satisfaction, but if other elements of the artist’s life remain unchanged, then the impulses that led to the painting will return. Thus, the solution of conflict gained through painting can’t last and the process may have to be repeated (Pickford 50).
Also, the artist may be testing dangerous thoughts or ungratified wishes by hanging pictures expressive of such thoughts/wishes, in public places. In this respect, art is a part of ego defense in which fantasies are exteriorized by projection (Pickford 18). Again, this may be particularly relevant when applied to Surrealist artwork, in which unconscious fantasies are expressed and seek social and philosophical justification (Pickford 315).
Unfortunately for Frida Kahlo, she probably did not feel as if she received such justification during her lifetime, but she has certainly attained a high level of posthumous popularity, even perceived by some as cult-like. Numerous contemporary artists have created tributes to Kahlo and/or her work-for example, “Frida y su Enfermera” by Marcos Raya, a 1986 piece combining painting with objects like a mannequin wearing a gas mask and tubing around the torso. In addition to other visual artists, many writers have also been inspired by Kahlo’s legacy-for example, Katherine Harer, whose poem “Frida” includes the passage, “She knew the dance steps she missed, painted them on her breasts and stomach, on the plaster sheath she wore all the time now”. Even pop culture icon Madonna (who owns two Kahlo paintings) was one of several individuals who expressed interest in being involved with the aforementioned film project about Frida Kahlo.
According to Wendy Slatkin, “Kahlo’s self-embellishment, narcissism, and bisexuality are all seen as positive traits in the current cultural climate” (Slatkin 232). Indeed, some Frida Kahlo fans might very well relate to such outwardly-exhibited traits. Many others are drawn to Kahlo’s paintings, which powerfully express the pain she was feeling inside, even as she struggled to transform that pain by creating an evocative and significant body of artwork.
Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.
Harer, Katherine. “Frida”. In Five Fingers Review 7, p. 24. San Francisco: Five Fingers Press, 1989.
Herrera, Hayden. Frida Kahlo The Paintings. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
Pickford, R.W. Studies in Psychiatric Art Its Psychodynamics, Therapeutic Value, and Relationship to Modern Art. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1967.
Slatkin, Wendy. The Voices of Women Artists. New Jersey: Prentice -Hall, 1993.
Tibol, Raquel. Frida Kahlo An Open Life. Translated by Elinor Randall. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993.
If this article piqued your interest, stay tuned for an upcoming related article in which I offer more specific analysis of several Frida Kahlo paintings.