Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.
Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, Frida Kahlo, 1940
by Sara Robertson, Senior Curator
You all know “The most interesting man in the world,” A clever ad featuring a man whose life is anything but ordinary. A person who is, “considered a national treasure in countries he’s never visited,” and, “in museums, he is allowed to touch the art” (quite fitting). He acts as a symbol of how people want to live their life—in a sort of wild fantasy. You are all probably wondering why I bring up this fictitious “hero”. Honestly, he was the first thing that came to mind when I started thinking how to write about Frida Kahlo. Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree (and hope that everyone does) that the iconic artist from Mexico deserves much more than a comparison to this character. It is that, rather simply put, to me Frida Kahlo is the world’s most interesting woman, and I even go as far to say one of the most interesting artists. Her life, and work, were filled with enough interesting facts to write hundreds of articles, essays, and “In the Collections” about, and many already have. To not over do it, I am going to condense it down to three: the sad, the terrifying, and the strange facts that make Kahlo so interesting that her life seemed as much a fantasy (though a tragic one) as a man who “is fluent in all languages, including three that he only speaks.”
Frida painting Broken Column, 1944, in her studio in Mexico City
The sad: In Mexico, Frida Kahlo is known as a heroína del dolor, “the heroine of pain”, and it is not difficult to understand why. For the majority of the artist’s life, she was either bedridden, in a wheelchair, or having to wear a corrective corset for her spine. In reality, Kahlo was ill most of her life. There were multiple reasons for these precautions, and it all began when Kahlo was only six years old. She contracted polio, which her parents mistakenly first attributed to a wooden log that had been throw at Frida’s foot by a little boy. For a time, Kahlo did not undergo any treatment, or wear any supportive gear. Her unsupported limp led her pelvis and spinal column to continue to twist and deform as she grew, making her disability ever more prevalent. Kahlo features this ailment as a theme in many of her works, and most predominately in her painting called The Broken Column, in which Frida paints herself with a long crevice running down her torso. The crack opens in her center to reveal a backbone in the form of a ruined Ionic column, fragile and broken. You can see Kahlo painting this portrait in her wheelchair and corset below.
The terrifying: In 1925, when she was 18 and had begun to apprentice for her father’s artist friend, Frida was riding in a wooden bus when an electric trolley rammed into it. It is truly amazing that Frida survived the accident, because she was was pierced by the trolley’s metal handrail. It had torn through her lower body on the left side and exited through her groin. Her spinal column and pelvis were each broken in three places, and her collarbone and two ribs broke as well. Her leg that was deformed by polio, was fractured in 11 places, and her right foot was dislocated and crushed. To make the scene even more jarring, in the impact, Frida’s clothes had been yanked off, leaving her mangled form completely nude. The accident left Kahlo even more crippled than before, and affected her physical and mental well-being for the rest of her life.
Henry Ford Hospital, Frida Kahlo, 1932
The strange: In Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, Hayden Herrera described Kahlo’s paintings as portraits that “interweave fact and fantasy as if the two were inseparable and equally real.” Indeed, Kahlo’s works—made up mainly of self-portraits—were, and still are hard to define. Unlike many artists, her work has transcended labels: while many, like André Breton, recognized her as a surrealist, others, like her lover and husband Diego Rivera, swore that her work was rooted in realism. Even Kahlo herself did not know exactly how to categorize her own work: "Really I do not know whether my paintings are surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself.” (from the diary of Frida Kahlo) What is known, is that people are drawn to her use of vivid color over an entire canvas, or to her imagery, with it’s strong nationalistic undertones for the country of Mexico, to which she held so dear. Also just as true: it is very difficult, and can easily make one uneasy to look at Frida’s self portraits. The frankness in her paintings reveal deep, dark, and twisted images representing her most raw emotions over a rather tumultuous and unsteady life.
Without Hope (Sin Esperanza), Frida Kahlo, 1945
Despite all of this—and believe me when I tell you it is only the tip of the iceberg—Kahlo was also known to have a lust for life. Even after all of her setbacks, Kahlo made up for every unfortunate event with her undying love for her nation, and her work that made her a national treasure.