PRINT May 1976

Frida Kahlo: Her Life, Her Art

IN APRIL 1953, LESS THAN a year before her death at the age of 44, Frida Kahlo had her first major exhibition of paintings in her native country of Mexico. By that time, her health had so deteriorated that no one expected her to attend. But an ambulance drew up to Mexico City’s Gallery of Contemporary Art, and she was carried to the opening on a hospital trolley. Dressed in her favorite Mexican costume, she reclined on her four-poster bed, which she had bedecked with photographs of her political heroes, Malenkov and Stalin. One by one, 200 friends and admirers greeted the painter, then formed a circle around the bed and sang Mexican ballads with her until well past midnight.

The occasion encapsulates as much as it culminates this extraordinary woman’s career. It testifies, in fact, to many of the qualities that marked Kahlo as person and painter: her gallantry and indomitable “alegria” in the face of physical suffering; her insistence on surprise and specificity; her peculiar use of spectacle as a mask to preserve privacy and personal dignity. But most of all, this opening dramatized Frida Kahlo’s central subject—the artist herself.

Although the scene would surely have appealed to her, we do not know how Kahlo would have chosen to paint it. Most likely there would have been recognizable images of her husband, Diego Rivera, and of other art-world notables. But from Kahlo’s earlier works, we can be fairly sure that her own nearly beautiful face would have stared out of the canvas, her dark eyes under their thick, connecting eyebrows set in a gaze that was at once impassive and passionate, her full red lips surmounted by the slight shadow of a moustache. Certainly, too, she would have depicted her long flowing Mexican Indian costume and her jewels, ribbons, flowers and combs—adornments that made her as much an art object as a personality. This finery often turns up in Kahlo’s self-portraits, where it both conceals and makes poignant the most important fact of her life: pain.

On September 17, 1925, when she was 15, her bus was rammed by a street car into a telephone pole. Kahlo was literally impaled on a metal bar in the wreckage; her spine was fractured, her pelvis crushed, and one foot was broken. She never fully recovered from these injuries. Her spinal cord slowly deteriorated and she had to wear a metal brace to keep the bones from settling on each other. Until her death 29 years later, she was in and out of hospitals, having some 35 bone grafts, spinal fusions and other surgery. Toward the end of her life, she pronounced with typically self-mocking bravado: “I hold the record for operations.”

There were other sufferings as well. Gregarious and venturesome, she was all too familiar with the loneliness and tedium of invalidism. She longed to have children, but her smashed pelvis led only to several miscarriages and at least three doctor-ordered abortions. And finally there was the anguish of being deceived and abandoned by the man she loved, her husband, Diego Rivera.

These misfortunes she transmuted into art with a remarkable frankness tempered by humor and fantasy. Her paintings’ tart charm comes from the artist’s primitivizing style. Based largely on Mexico’s popular art, its hallmarks are naive handling of form and space, literal presentation of imaginary scenes and unexpected combinations of color. To eyes accustomed to the harmonies of French painting, Kahlo’s color choices—jarring olives, lavenders and oranges, glaring blues, many earthy tones with almost no black in the shadows so that light often has a visionary brilliance—are odd and striking.

Kahlo learned from Rivera to combine the simplifications of popular art with more complex ideas derived from European tradition. But she avoids the traps into which painters who intentionally adopt a primitive style all too often fall: what might have been quaint has a steely strength of drawing, what might have been arch has a simple breadth—qualities that recall Mexican mural painting. Kahlo never simply patches together naive style and sophisticated aims. She succeeds in using the dissonance between style and content to inject tension into her imagery. The figure of Kahlo herself becomes the nexus of this disjunctive tension, and the viewer immediately senses it.

Clearly the artist was anything but simple. She traveled much, visiting Paris twice, and often stayed in the U.S. Her circle of friends, wide and cosmopolitan, included André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. In addition, she surely admired and studied the work of Gauguin, Rousseau, de Chirico, Ernst, Dalì, Tanguy and Magritte, for traces of their influence can be found in her fantastic imagery and folklore style. Kahlo’s work is ingeniously ingenuous, and her primitivism thus seems an ironic stance. It allowed her to mask, and to mock, the intimate torments of the self.

Her true subjects were embodied states of mind—her joys and sorrows. Always closely connected with the events of her life, these images convey the immediacy of lived experience, combining fantasy and actual events as if the two were inseparable and equally real. It is significant, too, that in the heyday of the Mexican mural movement, Kahlo chose to make her paintings modest in size, personal in subject and private in purpose. Such attributes were low on the list of priorities among the great muralists. On the contrary, the muralists were impelled by external social circumstances, believing that art should be a collective endeavor that could broadcast shared revolutionary values in synthetic scenes populated by historical or type-cast figures. Kahlo, by contrast, eschewed epic scope and scale; she painted mostly self-portraits, suggesting that the confinement of invalidism led to a confinement in subject matter. Indeed, the peculiar intensity of her paintings convinces us that they were somehow therapeutic, crucial to the artist’s well-being. Her sex also had such a patent impact on her art that Kahlo has become something of an underground heroine among feminist artists in recent years.1 She pursued self-awareness through art at a time and place when society almost prohibited a woman from seriously following a career. She had the admirable ability to differentiate herself as an artist from Rivera’s driving energy, heroic aspirations and immense fame—all without competing with, or deferring to, him. Indeed she was known as Frida Kahlo, never Frida Rivera; she commanded attention as a painter and exotic personality quite apart from her connection with her husband. Her work explored private intensities of female experience—having abortions, for example—subjects that were thought wildly inappropriate for art. In a country where women were advised until recently to wear long sleeves, this took some courage.

The result is an independence from mainstream modes that is exemplary to women artists looking for an alternative to the dialectics of modernism. They recognize the specifically female aspect of Kahlo’s imagery. Yet Kahlo conceives of the body and face schismatically in her self-portraits. Her body, either nude or dressed in ruffles and ribbons, she paints as subject for the artist’s scrutiny: the female in the passive role of pretty object, victim of pain, or participant in nature’s cycles of fecundity. Her face, by contrast, is regal, defiant, almost androgynous.(Kahlo appears much more typically feminine, i.e. soft and delicate, in photographs than in self-portraits.) Looking at her face in a mirror, Kahlo perceives herself as depictor, not as object depicted. She thus becomes both active artist and passive model, dispassionate investigator of what it feels like to be a woman and passionate repository of feminine emotions. Rivera perhaps recognized this strange dichotomy in his wife’s self-image when he called her “la pintora más pintor,”—using both the feminine and masculine terms. André Breton, too, caught the feeling of the self-portraits when he spoke of Kahlo’s art as “a ribbon around a bomb . . . there is no art more exclusively feminine.”

Roots, 1953, makes the point. The painting is the reverie of a bedridden, childless woman longing to join cycles of life and matter beyond the singularity of her own body. Here Kahlo reclines, like Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy, in a strange desert landscape, her elbow propped on a pillow. As in a dream, her body extends over a large region of volcanic terrain without having any logical relationship in terms of scale or placement to the surrounding mountains and ravines. But Kahlo tries to overcome her separateness—that Mexican sense of solitude that Octavio Paz called “a form of orphanhood”—by painting concrete ties between her body and the earth. A large section of her torso is removed to create a window through which the barren landscape can be seen. Out of this mystic womb grows a vine that spreads over the desert floor so that Kahlo becomes a source of life. Pliant green stems resembling arteries leading to and from the heart take the place of brittle, injured bones; they exemplify an interweaving of plant and human life that Kahlo used to express her wish for fertility and her sense of her own tenuous hold on existence.2 The veins of the vine leaves are red with her blood as it courses beyond the leaves themselves to create life in a barren earth. Possibly Roots also alludes to the artist’s desire that her body fertilize the life cycle of nature after her death. The evidence: the earth at Kahlo’s feet opens into a dark pit that could be a womb or a grave.

Frida Kahlo was born on July 7, 1910, in Mexico City’s suburb of Coyoacán. Her father was a German-Jewish photographer who specialized in recording the splendors of Colonial architecture. Her mother was a Mexican Roman Catholic of Indian and Spanish extraction. In recollecting her childhood, Kahlo proudly dated her social conscience from childhood experiences during the Mexican Revolution. At the age of six, she was confined to her room with paralytic polio, an illness from which she fully recovered, except that one leg grew slightly larger than the other. With outdoor activities thus curtailed, her childhood pleasures were reading, singing and fantasizing. She learned five languages: German, French, Spanish, English and a Mexican Indian dialect.

“My childhood was marvelous,” she wrote, “because although my father was sick (he had vertigos every month and a half) he was a great example to me of tenderness, of work (photographer and also painter) and above all of understanding for all my problems which from the age of four were already of a social nature.” In Kahlo’s late Portrait of Don Guillermo Kahlo, 1952, her nervous, keen-eyed father and his camera are surrounded by a few large round cells with dark nuclei and by a swarm of small dark marks that suggest sperm. (Such microscopic organisms appear in several Kahlo paintings. They spring from her interest in medicine3—she originally wanted to be a doctor—and are based on illustrations in medical books, especially the ones she owned on parturition.) An inscribed scroll below her father’s bust, a device derived from Mexican Colonial paintings, speaks of his generous, intelligent, valiant character and suggests that his will to work despite illness fortified Kahlo’s own artistic ambitions as well as her political resolve: “He suffered for 60 years with epilepsy, and yet never stopped working and he fought against Hitler . . .”

By the time that she was 13, Kahlo was a clever mischief-maker with an already active social conscience;she belonged to a lively left-wing clique at the National Preparatory School and to the Young Communist League as well. Unlike most girls her age, Kahlo wore her hair short and dressed in a leather jacket and denim pants with patches; the pants hid the effects of polio on her legs. When she was still at the preparatory school studying to become a medical student, she often went after class to watch Rivera paint at the nearby Ministry of Education. Indeed, it appears that she became so infatuated with the huge, ugly muralist that she announced to her classmates, “My ambition is to have a child by Diego Rivera and I’m going to tell him so someday.” Shortly thereafter, she was crushed in the bus accident.

During her convalescence at home one year later, Kahlo began to paint using a specially constructed easel so that she could work in bed.4 The small body of work that she produced between 1926 and her death in 1954 is a kind of self-creation and a challenge to fate. Her self-portraits served as alternate realities to extend and make concrete her restricted and threatened hold on life. One of her friends, sensing this, remarked: “She is the only artist to have given birth to herself.”

The images of Kahlo—often footless, headless, cracked open, hemorrhaging or with heart extracted—may have been a form of exorcism. By projecting pain outward onto the canvas in the form of a visual image she both admitted her suffering and turned it into fantasy. She created an alternate Frida Kahlo to bear the burden of invalidism.

In The Broken Column, 1944, anguish is made vivid by nails driven into Kahlo’s face and naked body and into the sheet wrapped around her hips. Like a Christian martyr, she displays her wounds. But she does not look heavenward for solace; realist even in her fantasy, Kahlo confronts pain head-on. Tears dot her cheeks, but her features are unflinching, because she preferred to convey her emotion by symbols and wounds. The contrast between her acute physical torture and the masklike composure of her face makes the pain in The Broken Column and other works deeply unsettling. She uses the immense expanse of ravine-gashed desert as a metaphor for her own torn body, deprived of potential for creating life. By contrast, in her bust-length self-portraits, thick, succulent vegetation often surrounds her face and closes off space. The faults and fissures of the land speak of violence done to her body.

The Broken Column depicts a cracked and crumbling Ionic column in the place of Kahlo’s own injured vertebrae in the opened hollow of her torso. Life is replaced by a permanent ruin. The orthopedic corset that holds her body together suggests the imprisonment of invalidism. A disjointed, surrealistic entry in her diary illuminates the meaning of The Broken Column: “To hope with anguish retained, the broken column, and the immense look, without walking, in the vast path . . . moving my life created of steel.”

Some time after her accident, Kahlo took her first three paintings to show to Rivera. He liked her work and he liked her, too. After a fiery courtship, they were married in August, 1929. The marriage of the exotic 19-year-old invalid to a titan more than twice her age (and almost twice her size) was marked by mutual dependency and moments of fierce passion. Most observers note the contrast between Rivera and Kahlo—his extreme egocentricity and her generous spirit. Thanks to his mania for publicity, their marriage was part of the public domain. Yet one close friend suggests that she might have preferred a more private life: “She had to be priestess in Diego’s temple.” Their adventures were gobbled by the press; the loves, battles, separations and sufferings of these sacred monsters were beyond the petty censuring strictures of Mexico’s conservatism. Like saints or demigods, the Riveras were called by first name only. Diego and Frida became coin of the Mexican national treasure.

Frida’s obsession for Diego is expressed in Diego on My Mind, where Diego’s portrait appears in the third eye in Frida’s forehead (she called it the “eye of super-sensibility”), and in Self-Portrait as a Tehuana, 1943, in which a small bust of Diego rests on Frida’s eyebrows. In the latter, a sinister web of roots or veins radiates outward from Frida’s Tehuana headdress as if she wished to extend her vitality beyond the confines of her body. Frida’s face, with its heavy eyebrows and faint moustache, peers from the center of the web like a female spider; she seems to have consumed Diego in her obsession and lodged the thought of him within her own being in the form of a portrait within a portrait.

Much of Kahlo’s journal is a prose poem addressed to Rivera. His name is everywhere. In moments of loneliness she cried out: “Diego, I am alone!” Then, a few pages later, “Diego, I am no longer alone!” Some of their friends believe that camaraderie, rather than sexuality, bound the Riveras together. She was too much his mother, daughter, sister and general protector to be primarily his lover, they say: “It would have been incestuous.” Yet her journal displays a steamy passion for him:

Diego. Nothing is comparable to your hands and nothing is equal to the gold-green of your eyes. My body fills itself with you for days and days. You are the mirror of the night. The violent light of lightning. The dampness of the earth. Your armpit is my refuge. My fingertips touch your blood. All my joy is to feel your life shoot forth from your fountain-flower which mine keeps in order to fill all the paths of my nerves which belong to you.

Perhaps the “paths” of Kahlo’s nerves are the veins, vines and roots (and sometimes the loops of silk ribbon) that appear in her self-portraits.

The diary also contains a kind of love chant. Diego was, she said, the beginning, the constructor, her child, boyfriend, lover, husband, friend, mother, father, son, herself and the universe. Another entry declares her desire to give birth to Diego: “At every moment he is my child, my child born every moment, diary, from myself.” Her niece, Isolda Kahlo, is convinced that the relationship between them was primarily that of mother and son. “Women,” said Kahlo, “would always like to have him in their arms like a new-born baby.”

Indeed, in Portrait of Diego, c. 1949, he is depicted as a large, pale, naked baby. Lying in Kahlo’s lap, he is given a position that is partly fetal and partly that of Christ in a Pietà. A huge third eye is opened in his forehead, symbol, perhaps, of the artist’s foredestined visual acuity. He holds a maguey plant (a cactus that gives pulque and grows a phallic flower) that could be Kahlo’s sexual metaphor for Rivera, “fountain-flower.” Kahlo paints herself as a combination of enthroned Madonna and lactating earth mother. She is supported by an earth goddess in the form of a pre-Columbian idol whose body becomes a mountain on which a tree and cacti grow. This mountain is, in turn, embraced by a larger divinity whose pre-Columbian features are only partly concretized out of the surrounding sky. Kahlo and Rivera are thus doubly encompassed by their Aztec progenitors, once on the earthbound, and once on the celestial level. Portrait of Diego is a kind of fantastic Assumption of the Virgin in which Mother and Son are rejoined in a pre-Columbian heaven that is split into day and night by the simultaneous presence of the sun and the moon.

Kahlo recorded all aspects of her marriage in paint. One of the more sanguine moments is reflected in Diego and Frida, 1931. In a stripped-down space, “Panzas” or “fatbelly,” as she called him, stands as solidly as a triumphal arch, palette and brushes in hand, and head turned slightly away. Beside him, Kahlo looks tiny, delicate and decidedly subordinate; she presents herself not as a painter, but as an adoring wife, her head inclined toward her husband. Quite different is Rivera’s depiction of himself and Kahlo in his Hotel del Prado mural (1947–48). Here he is a short fat boy. She is a woman a head taller than himself, and her hand is placed on his shoulder in a gesture of motherly possession.

Although he often ignored it, Kahlo’s love was a necessity to Rivera. He had great respect for her as an artist and as an intelligence; he valued her criticisms of his painting highly. In his autobiography, he called her “the most important fact in my life.” The notes from Rivera to Kahlo that are exhibited in the Frida Kahlo Museum reveal a tender solicitousness on the part of a man better known for formidable thoughtlessness than for delicacy of sentiment. Nevertheless, he drew women to him as a magnet attracts iron. His doctor, noting this, conveniently pronounced him unfit for fidelity. Rivera happily followed the prescription.

In 1939, Rivera divorced Kahlo, baldly explaining to a reporter that though he was indeed divorcing his third wife, “There is no change in the magnificent relations between us. We are doing it in order to improve Frida’s legal position . . . purely a matter of legal convenience in the spirit of modern times.”

Kahlo took the divorce harder. Her despair informs The Two Fridas, 1939, her first large canvas and one of her most fascinating works. Seated in front of a typically El Greco sky, a recurring backdrop in her self-portraits, one Frida wears a white Victorian dress, the other a Tehuana skirt and blouse, referring to Kahlo’s dual heritage, European and Mexican Indian. Both women’s hearts are exposed—an unashamedly literalistic device to show that the painting deals with the heart’s sufferings. The Tehuana Frida sits with her legs apart like a man. Near her sexual organs she holds aminiature portrait of Rivera as a child. An oval-shaped photograph framed in red, the portrait seems to stand for either a lost embryo or a lost lover.

A vein that begins in the red frame winds around the Tehuana Frida’s arm, continues through her heart and links her to the Victorian Frida. Finally the vein ends on this Frida’s white lap where she shuts off its flow of blood with a pair of surgical pincers. A note to Rivera in Kahlo’s journal says, “. . . my blood is the miracle that travels in the veins of the air from my heart to yours.” In anger at the divorce, she cuts this blood off. But it continues to drip, and the stains on her lap echo the red flowers embroidered on her white skirt, as well as call to mind hemorrhages from Kahlo’s miscarriages. Typical of Kahlo’s sardonic version of the pathetic fallacy is the way some of the small embroidered flowers on her shirt’s ruffle are slyly transformed into splotches of blood. Kahlo herself told a friend that The Two Fridas expressed “the duality of her personality.” To the American art historian McKimley Helm she explained more, and he wrote: “One of them is the Frida that Diego had loved.” The second Frida, the one in the white dress, is the “woman Diego no longer loves.”5 Both, however, are profiled by the turbulent sky that amplifies their horrific inner commotion, while heightening the disturbing paralysis of pose and demeanor.

After a year of mutual unhappiness, Rivera asked Kahlo to come to California where he believed that her bone problems might be better diagnosed. On December 8, 1940, they were remarried. Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940, shows that life with Rivera still had its familiar afflictions. Her hair cropped short as a man’s, Kahlo sits in a Mexican chair wearing a man’s suit so huge that it must be Rivera’s. The ground is covered with strands of black hair that seem as disturbingly animate as the roots and veins depicted in other self-portraits. Kahlo stares defiantly, as if to warn the spectator that she might pursue destruction further. She holds the scissors on her lap near a lock of shorn hair that hangs between her legs. Perhaps significantly, the scissors are in the same position as the surgical pincers in The Two Fridas. In both pictures, one senses that some macabre and painful act has been performed—a violent rejection of femininity or a desire to excise the part of the self that possesses the capacity to love. (Significantly, Rivera’s autobiography notes that Kahlo agreed to remarry him on the condition that they would not have sexual intercourse.)

At the top of the canvas the words and notes of a popular song illustrate Kahlo’s personal history: “You see, if I loved you it was for your hair, now that you are hairless I don’t love you any more.” A friend recalls that Rivera loved Kahlo’s long hair, and she herself made a ritual of dressing her hair with flowers, ribbons and jewels. But when she discovered Rivera with another woman in California, she warned him that if he left her she would cut off her hair. He did, and she did. In her painting, Kahlo makes a rueful jest of her feckless retaliation: cutting off a sign of femininity becomes nothing more than the illustration for a popular song.

Perhaps the greatest trauma in Kahlo’s marriage to Rivera was her inability to bear his child. Like so many of her experiences, this, too, became an obsessive theme in her art. In Detroit in 1932, she suffered a dangerous miscarriage accompanied by hemorrhage. Desperately depressed, she recorded the experience in paint. Henry Ford Hospital, 1932, shows a diminutive Frida lying naked and hemorrhaging on a huge metal hospital bed. The patient’s feeling of isolation and helplessness is dramatized by the bed’s enlargement and by the vast emptiness of the plain on which it floats. On the horizon can be seen the chimneys and tanks of industrial Detroit which Rivera was busy glorifying in his murals. Kahlo holds six red ribbons suggesting blood vessels or umbilical cords, from the ends of which float strange objects that symbolize her failure to become a mother. Maternal failure recurs in Without Hope, 1945. Here a cornucopia of fleshy horror is screamed, like a speech symbol in a pre-Columbian manuscript, onto a wooden scaffolding that recalls both Christ’s cross and Kahlo’s specially constructed easel. The miscarried child thus becomes her sacrifice, placed upon the cross-easel between a pale moon and a blood red sun. Cellular organisms dot the sheets like eggs waiting to be fertilized, echoing the sun and moon in an image of cosmic and microscopic unity.6

Such hallucinatory and self-mortifying images are, of course, familiar in Surrealist iconography. Surrealistic too, are the horror, humor and surprise in Kahlo’s work; her use of hybrid figures—part human, part animal, part plant or part inanimate matter—and her predilection for immeasurable empty spaces. It is little wonder, then, that Frida Kahlo was welcomed into Surrealist circles both in New York, where Julien Levy gave her a show in his Surrealist-oriented gallery and Peggy Guggenheim included her in two exhibitions of women’s art in her gallery, Art of This Century, and in Paris, where in 1939 André Breton organized a Kahlo exhibition.

Breton, who proclaimed Mexico to be a Surrealist country when he visited the Riveras in 1938, made much of Kahlo’s independently invented Surrealism. In a 1938 essay on Frida Kahlo, he wrote:

My surprise and joy were unbounded when I discovered, on my arrival in Mexico, that her work has blossomed forth in her latest paintings into pure Surreality, despite the fact that it had been conceived without any prior knowledge whatsoever of the ideas motivating the activities of my friends and myself.

But Breton was not telling the whole truth. He knew that those “latest paintings” had been painted after Kahlo took a trip to Paris in 1937 and after her acquaintance with Surrealists and Surrealist ideas. Indeed, Kahlo’s paintings after her 1937 contact with Surrealism do reach new levels of sophistication both in style and content. A comparison between The Bus, 1929, or Henry Ford Hospital and later works like What the Water Gave Me, 1938, or The Broken Column shows that what began as a delight in the fantastical incongruities and simplicities of naive art later developed into a more complex involvement with enigma and psychological innuendo.

Strictly speaking, though, Kahlo was not a Surrealist, but a Surrealist discovery. Her fantasy is a product of her temperament, life and culture. Surrealism may have inspired her to tap the naive fantasy and style so typical of much Mexican art. She wanted to set down images so painfully personal that a less primitivizing style could make them unbearable to the viewer. Her style distances us from the agonistic content without losing vividness. At the same time, it affirms her commitment to her ethnic past.

Kahlo’s painting differs from that of the Surrealists in several regards. It is not the rarified product of a disillusioned European culture, nor is there anything contrived or far-fetched about her fantasy. Her imagery is always concrete, and her symbolism relatively simple—so much so, in fact, that Mexicans call her a realist. Though Kahlo’s paintings served a private function, they were meant to be accessible in their meaning. She explores the magic and the enigma of immediate experience and real sensations rather than seeking some higher reality beyond the concrete objects, people and sensuous stimuli of everyday life.

If the European Surrealists invented images of threatened sexuality, Kahlo made images of her own ruined reproductive system. Eroticism ran more in her veins than in her head—for her, sex was less Freudian mystification than a fact of life. Furthermore, she depicted with a frankness that verged on ferocity the first-hand drama of physical suffering. To do that, she did not need the tutoring of de Sade. This bluntness contrasts in the strongest fashion with Surrealist indirection and ellipses, one reason (others being that she was Mexican and a woman) that may account for her undeserved neglect in this country.

Kahlo’s humor, too, differs from the sophisticated and disenchanted urge to paradox of European Surrealism. “Surrealism,” said Kahlo parodying Lautreamont’s famous phrase, “is the magical surprise of finding a lion inside a wardrobe, where you were ‘sure’ of finding shirts.” Less complex and ironic, more fatalistic and earthily sardonic than Surrealist humor, Kahlo jests at death and pain. She found strength in her sense of the absurd. “La vida es un gran relajo” (Life is a big mess), she said. By contrast, Surrealist humor takes itself deadly seriously. In her last years, Kahlo resented Breton’s conscription of herself into the legions of Surrealism. “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t.” she said. “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” But in Mexico, Breton’s ideal is often realized: dreams and reality are one.

Those who saw Kahlo as an ardent Communist made the same kind of mistake. It is undeniable that she always had an interest in Communist politics. That interest coincided with Rivera’s, and he liked to stress his wife’s partisanship by painting her as a Communist heroine in his murals. In 1937, Rivera arranged for Leon Trotsky and his wife to be given asylum. Kahlo met them at the Mexican port of Tampico and she lent them a house adjacent to her own in Coyoacán. She celebrated the consequent friendship with a full-length Self-Portrait dedicated “to Leon Trotsky, with all love,” in which she stands like a prima donna between two curtains, as charmingly poised as the creole women in portraits from the Colonial period.

But the depth or longevity of her political engagement is uncertain. She once brushed off the flamboyant Stalinism of her later years by saying “that’s for Diego.” Rivera had been expelled from the party in 1929, and Kahlo might have been playing a role in order to help him gain readmission. With few exceptions, her paintings from the 1930s and ’40s have little direct connection with her political views. Obliquely, however, the incorporation of Mexican motifs and a primitivizing style represented a rejection of bourgeois values. Only at the end of her life, when she came to doubt the value of her introspective images, did politics come to the forefront in her art. Wishing to discover “what my paintings may do to serve,” she painted at least three tributes to Joseph Stalin. The last one, unfinished, stands on the easel in her house to this day.

Kahlo’s main source remained Mexican Colonial and popular art, and her impulse was to stress the Mexican elements in her experience—not only in her painting, but in her behavior, appearance and home as well. Frida was far from alone in this emphatic “Mexicanismo.” There was, after the revolution of 1910, a general urge among artists and intellectuals to establish a connection with indigenous culture. It showed up in the muralist movement, begun in the 1920s, and it continued in the 1930s even in the European-oriented easel paintings of artists like Tamayo, Augustin Lazo and Carlos Merida; they blended a native flavor with imported ideas that ranged from Cubism, Dada and Surrealism to German Magic Realism and Picasso’s Neoclassicism. But nationalistic fervor made many other Mexican artists adamant that creating a truly noncolonialized Mexican art meant rejecting all foreign influences.7

These artists borrowed the bright colors, naive drawing and easily legible subject matter from popular art, aiming to make a simpler, more direct and accessible art, one free from the elitist values associated with European style. Subjects, too, were picked for their native content. The focus was on contemporary Indian life and the Aztec past with the Indian playing the role of innocent or martyr. These artists admired such popular art forms as “retablos” (ex votos), caricature (especially Posada’s sensational horror scenes, skeleton prints and song illustrations),8 and “pulqueria” murals9 (naive and often humorous decorations for bars selling pulque). Even the untutored work produced in open-air art schools of the postrevolutionary period became a source for sophisticated artists. While Kahlo shared these enthusiasms with her Mexican contemporaries—and there are other parallels as well between her work and that of artists like Antonio Ruis, Roberto Montenegro, Maria Izquierdo and Abraham Angel—her art, nonetheless, stands somewhat apart from theirs.

Most evocative of Kahlo’s search for an essential Mexican identity is My Nurse and I, 1937. Kahlo depicts herself with the body of a baby and the head of a woman suckling in her dark Indian nurse’s arms. A symbol of Mexico’s Indian heritage, the nurse also embodies the nurturing power of the Mexican earth, plants and sky. The ducts and glands of her left breast are shown as plants, and their lactation is echoed in the engorged veins of a huge tropical leaf and in milky raindrops in the sky. The fact that it is an adult head that suckles suggests that as a painter Kahlo continues to derive nourishment from her Indian and earthy roots. The nurse’s face is a fierce Aztec mask, but, like Kahlo, she has loose black hair and eyebrows that meet, indicating that Kahlo identifies the nurse as her ancestor or as another aspect of herself.

The nurse’s stone mask also hints at the ritual savagery of the Mexican past, a past which, incarnated by the nurse, both feeds, possesses and perhaps even threatens Frida Kahlo. Such masks were associated with ceremonies in which women, children and captives were sacrificed to propitiate the Aztec gods. As an embodiment of the artist’s Aztec ancestry, the nurse at once protects Kahlo and offers her as a sacrificial victim. The influence of Aztec culture on Kahlo cannot be pinpointed, but the Riveras had a large collection of pre-Columbian art and these works, together with the myths and attitudes that they embody, surely affected her thinking. Aztec sun worship and the idea that the sun must be fed human blood to sustain its life-giving powers seem to be sources of meaning in several Kahlo paintings, most particularly, those dealing with her failure to bear children. Very likely, her concept of cosmic, embryological, earth and plant forces working in unity—a concept spurred by her childlessness and invalidism—was connected with her knowledge of pre-Columbian civilization. The Aztecs’ sense of magic and ritual permeated her art; so did their stress on fertility, blood, violence and their cyclical view of time.

Perhaps the strongest influence on Kahlo was the native art form depicting near disasters in “retablos.”10 The Riveras collected many of these small paintings on tin. In most retables, the Virgin or a saint is shown saving a sick, wounded or otherwise endangered person. A dedicatory inscription would usually read something like: “With great love and gratitude, I dedicate this present to Saint Xavier for having saved Ydigoras from drowning.” What mattered to the retable artists was the theatrical presentation of a calamity and the resplendent apparition of the intervening Virgin or saint. To enhance the drama, space is reduced to a rudimentary stage, and scale jumps are irrational. Figures and a few objects necessary to the story are painstakingly rendered in minute, if clumsy detail. All these are characteristics which Kahlo adopted in her paintings.

No doubt she admired the combination of strong feeling and naive style together with the clear-cut function of the image as an expression of gratitude and faith. As in her own paintings, the retables report the facts of physical distress in unsqueamish detail, but their naive style and reportorial directness prevent these scenes from indulging in the feverish agonism relished, say, in Mexican religious art. The tale is told not to get pity but to gain strength, and this is clearly the case in Frida Kahlo’s paintings too. Like retables, a number of Kahlo’s paintings are partly acts of gratitude, serving to confirm the wellbeing of a person who has temporarily escaped danger.

Even though Kahlo rejected religion at the age of 13, she could hardly forget her Catholic upbringing or remain oblivious to her religion-pervaded culture. The Church was too strong; in Mexican culture in general, pagan Indian ritual is overlaid, but not obliterated, by Catholic lore. Christian imagery underlies much of Kahlo’s imagery, as indeed it does that of Diego Rivera and many other Mexican muralists. My Nurse and 1, for example, has been likened to a Pietà, and it also brings to mind images of the Madonna and child where the Virgin is pained by foreknowledge of Christ’s death. Moreover, as we have seen, the theatrically bloody imagery of Mexican religious art was an important source for Kahlo’s wounded images of herself.

So was the Mexican cult of death seen in pre-Columbian, Catholic and popular art. Kahlo kept reminders of it around her house in the form of clay and papier mâché skeletons, a Colonial painting of a dead child surrounded by flowers placed at the head of her bed,11 or a real fetus preserved in a jar as a memento of her miscarriages. She frequently painted herself with a skeleton as her companion. For her, death was not something that would come at the distant end of life, but was lurking at every moment within her frail body. “We look for calm or ‘peace’,” she wrote, “because we anticipate death, since we die every moment.” Her response was typically Mexican: she courted and mocked death as if to assuage its malignant power.

At the time of her April 1953 opening, Kahlo described her condition to a journalist: “I am not sick,I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” That was not to be for long. The slow decay of her skeletal frame had not been halted. Four months after her exhibition her doctors informed Kahlo that she had gangrene in a leg and that it would inevitably spread. “Then amputate now,” she replied. A journal entry for February 11, 1954, reads:

They amputated my leg six months ago. They have given me centuries of torture and at times I almost lost my mind. I continue to feel like killing myself. Diego is the one that holds me back because of my vanity of believing that he might miss me. He told me so and I believe him. But never in my life have I suffered more. I will wait a little while . . .

Five months later, on the morning of July 13, 1954, her nurse found that Frida Kahlo had died in her sleep. The press reported that she had died from lung embolism. Rivera was informed of her death by the chauffeur: “Senor, murió la nina Frida.”

Frida Kahlo lay in state in the hall of the Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City. A scandal ensued when some of Rivera’s comrades covered her body with a red flag even though Rivera had promised not to let politics enter into this occasion. (Two months later he was readmitted to the Communist Party.) Then she was cremated. Her ashes are now in a pre-Columbian jar that stands, unmarked, outside her bedroom in the Frida Kahlo Museum in Coyoacán.

The house itself serves as the artist’s tombstone. Rivera gave the home in which Kahlo was born and died, complete with furniture, Mexican objects and art, to the Mexican people in 1955. His aim, a friend said, was to perpetuate the memory of “the exceptional creature who accompanied him during 25 years of his life.” Kahlo’s relics displayed in the museum—her costumes, jewelry, toys, letters, diary, books, art materials and art collection—provide a vivid picture of both the ambience in which she lived and worked and her personality. On the walls are some 50 of her paintings and drawings. Her wheelchair is placed before her easel. All around are details that could have come from her paintings: a plaster cast decorated with fantastic creatures and a classical column, papier mâché skeletons and “Judases” handing here and there. Her bedroom is dominated by her four-poster bed; it is covered with her embroidered bedspread and equipped with a mirror fixed to the underside of the canopy so that she could paint self-portraits while bedridden. The museum thus serves to convince us of the specificity and realism of Kahlo’s fantastic imagery. Because she was an invalid, the house in Coyoacán was her world. The paintings hanging in her house were obviously an expansion of that world; they powerfully evoke and commemorate her remarkable life within it.

Hayden Herrera, a scholar of 20th-century art, has contributed to Arttorum and other journals.



1. Gloria Orenstein published “Frida Kahlo: Painting for Miracles” in The Feminist Art Journal, Fall, 1973, pp. 7–9, and Joyce Kozloff spoke about Kahlo’s work at a meeting of the College Art Association in January 1975.

2. Kahlo painted a number of still-lifes based on 19th-century paintings of fruit and vegetables made to decorate Mexican kitchens. Because the tropical fruits and flowers in her still lifes tend to look animate—often resembling wombs, genitalia, bleeding hearts or suns with faces—Kahlo once wrote on one painting “Naturaleza bien muerta” (very dead still-life).

3. Diego Rivera, who had elaborate health problems of his own, came to share his wife’s interest in medicine. Some of the more embryological themes in his murals suggest that he may even have been influenced by her imagery.

4. Kahlo had some experience with art before her accident. In 1925, she took lessons in engraving over a period of four months with Fernando Fernandez who had a workshop near her school. On display in the Frida Kahlo Museum are several skilled ink drawings copied from engravings by Anders Zorn together with a letter from Fernandez commenting on Kahlo’s talent.

5. An entry in Kahlo’s journal published in Excelsior, July 13, 1967, gives another insight into The Two Fridas: “Origin of the two Fridas. I must have been six years old when I experienced intensely an imaginary friendship with a little girl.” She goes on to tell how she drew a door on a glass window in her bedroom and went out through this door to meet an imaginary friend. The girl was gay and agile, Kahlo remembered, and she “danced as if she had no weight. I followed all her movements and while she danced I told her my secret problems . . . 34 years have passed since I had that magic friendship and every time I remember it it becomes larger and more alive inside my world.”

6. Possibly the simultaneous presence of the sun and the moon in many of Kahlo’s paintings relates to the Aztec notion of the eternal war between light and dark. The Aztec idea that the sun must be fed human blood through the sacrifice of women, children and captives might be another source of meaning in Without Hope and other paintings. Also, the sun and moon often flank the cross in crucifixion scenes by Mexican Indian artists of the Colonial period.

7. See for example Rivera’s fulminations against “false artists” who imitate European modes thus perpetuating the semi-Colonial condition of Mexican culture in his “Frida Kahlo y el Arte Mexicano,” which appeared in Seminario de Cultura Mexicano, Boletin, No. 2, October 1943, pp. 89–101. Frida Kahlo’s habit of wearing Mexican costumes was part of this syndrome. In an article in Time, May 3, 1948, Rivera expounds: “The classic Mexican dress has been created by people for people. The Mexican women who do not wear it do not belong to the people, but are mentally and emotionally dependent on a foreign class to which they wish to belong, i.e. the great American and French bureaucracy.” Ironically, Kahlo’s “radical chic” so impressed Schiaparelli that he designed a “robe Mme. Rivera” for fashionable Parisians.

8. Kahlo learned from all three types of Posada print. There is a strong note of caricature in several of her paintings. A Few Small Nips, which shows a bloodied nude on a bed before her murderer was, in fact, based, like many of Posada’s prints, on a sensational news event. Kahlo read in the newspaper about a drunk who had murdered his girlfriend by inflicting over a hundred wounds. Brought before the law, he innocently protested, “But I only gave her a few small nips!” The main source for the skeleton protagonists in Kahlo’s paintings was Posada’s “calaveras,” or prints in which skeletons act like living people in order to mock human foibles and mortality. In addition, Posada’s illustrations for popular songs may have been a source for Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair.

9. Kahlo painted at least two “pulqueria” murals with her students in the 1950s, when she taught at the Education Ministry’s School of Plastic Art, “La Esmeralda,” and later, when she was no longer well enough to go to the school, when she gave lessons at home.

10. Kahlo did once paint a real retable depicting the collision of a street car and a bus with a bloodied girl sprawled on the street nearby. Her niece, who owns this work, says that it was made as a joke when Kahlo discovered an old retable illustrating an accident identical to her own. Kahlo repainted parts of it and added this inscription: “The couple Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde Calderon de Kahlo give thanks to the Virgin of Sorrows for having saved their daughter Frida from the accident that happened in 1925 on the corner of Cautemoz in and the Tlalpan highway.”

11. Similarly, Kahlo’s The Deceased Dimas, 1937, shows the traditional lying in state of a Mexican child. A crown on his head, blood trickling from his nose, Dimas lies "surrounded by flowers on a straw mat. No doubt Kahlo’s choice of this subject relates to her own sorrow about her lost children.