seventeen she was seriously injured in a horrific
accident when a trolley collided with the bus in
which she was riding. In the collision a metal pole
entered her hip and came out through her vagina,
her spinal column was broken in three places, her
ribs were crushed, her foot and leg broken. With
her macabre sense of humor she announced that she
had lost her virginity to the accident. A bizarre
detail of the crash suggests the combination of
the grotesque and the exotic that is characteristic
of her paintings: Her body was found in the wreck
covered in both blood and gold dust (which a passenger
had been carrying in a paper bag).
and isolated during her long recovery, she began
to paint, using her father's paintbox and brushes.
Although she had no formal art training, her early
paintings—done either in a primitive cubism
or (like the glamorous self-portrait she made for
her boyfriend) in the style of Modigliani—are
far from amateur. Perhaps she learned from her father,
an amateur painter himself.
being the age of the heroic mural painters in Mexico,
Diego Rivera, José Clemente Oroxco and David
Alfaro Siqueiros were all toiling at their epic
paintings on the walls of post offices and ministries
of agriculture. Emboldened by the response her paintings
received, Frida went to show them to Rivera. Although
they were the ultimate odd couple—he was childish,
gregarious, huge and hugely fat; she frail, neurasthenic
and morbid—they fell in love at once, and
in August of 1928 they were married. The marriage,
said Frida's parents, was that of an elephant and
remained passionately fond of each other until Kahlo's
death in 1954, but Rivera's chronic womanizing made
the marriage an ongoing torment for Kahlo. An unlikely
Don Juan—Kahlo described him as a cross between
the Buddha and a frog—he had numerous affairs,
including flings with the movie stars Paulette Goddard
and María Félix. Although Frida had
many liaisons herself with both women and men (the
exiled Leon Trotsky, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi),
she was devoted to Rivera and deeply wounded by
her marriage Kahlo began to paint decorative, heroic
portraits of Mexican-Indian women in Rivera's stirring,
populist manner. In 1932, while Rivera was working
on a mural in Detroit, Frida had a miscarriage.
Her despair at the loss of "little Dagueito,"
however, also precipitated her most creative period.
seeing her inconsolable desperation, suggested she
try painting on a piece of sheet metal in the manner
of a Mexican retablo. A retablo
is a votive painting made to commemorate a miracle,
showing the tragedy—a disease, an accident—and
the saint who helped avert or overcome the tragedy.
A banner or a panel below the painting would explain
magic power of the retablo comes from
its refusal to distinguish between fact and fantasy.
In the retablo, belief subsumes reality
within its cosmic eye. And it was the retablo's
supernatural capacity to link inner and outer, sacred
and profane that Frida took as her model. Like a
retablo or an icon, Kahlo's paintings
(with a couple of exceptions) conform to the small,
intimate scale of folk art, most of her pictures
measuring eleven inches by fifteen inches or fifteen
painting recording her miscarriage, Henry Ford
Hospital, in which a nude Kahlo on a
hospital bed is connected by an umbilical ribbon
to six strange objects (three of them suspended
in the air), might at first resemble a painting
by Magritte or Max Ernst, in which incongruous objects
are juxtaposed for an unsettling effect. But although
she was embraced by the surrealists, Kahlo's surrealism
is (mostly) unintentional (though she was far from
being a naive painter and well aware of European
a surrealist painting depends on absurdity, Kahlo's
paintings, like medieval Annunciations, bristle
with meanings. Not a single object is put in her
paintings that does not bear some, often many, symbolic
purposes: the prayerful floating fetus, the anthropomorphic
pelvic skeleton, the hemorrhaging uterine orchid,
the giant snail (indicating the painful slowness
of the operation), the pink translucent anatomy
torso (objectification of female mysteries), the
sinister machine (clinical coldness).
the early '30s, Kahlo began her series of autobiographical
self-portraits in earnest by making a painting to
represent every year of her life, beginning with
My Birth (1932). When she says the
painting represents "how I imagined I was born,"
she means it with hair-raising literalness. In this
horrific nativity we see a room with grey walls
and a wooden floor bare of all furniture except
a wooden bed. On the white sheets of the bed is
a scene so graphic and startling it might be an
early Francis Bacon: A woman, with legs spread,
is giving birth to a baby. No detail is spared:
the folds of the mother's vagina, her pubic hair,
the contorted head and closed eyes of the newborn
emerging from the womb, the blood-soaked bed. What
makes this picture particularly gruesome is that
the mother's head is entirely covered by a sheet.
one level the newborn is clearly meant to be Kahlo
herself, as is indicated by the joined eyebrows.
But Frida also thought of the baby as the child
she had recently miscarried. We learn that the mother's
face is covered because Kahlo's mother died just
as Frida was completing this painting.
with all Kahlo's paintings, interpretations multiply.
The painter herself saw it as representing "the
one who gave birth to herself... who wrote the most
beautiful poem of her life."
But the painting above the bed of the Mater
Dolorosa, who knows of the crucifixion to come,
suggests a more universal reading. The grief-stricken
Virgin Mary with two daggers sticking in her throat
underscores the spiritual agony of the event and
symbolizes the suffering of women, death fertilizing
birth, and other cosmic themes that obsessed Kahlo.
The fusion of the sacred and the grotesque, the
symbolic and surreal, the Freudian and the folkloric—this
is the essence of Kahlo's disturbing style.
Birth, like all Kahlo's work, is painted
in the meticulously detailed style of folk art,
in which every floorboard, every filigree of lace
is depicted. Everything in the room is centered,
symmetrical, frontal, iconic. Kahlo was not a primitive,
she moved in cosmopolitan circles, her diaries are
decorated with sophisticated, modernist sketches,
but she chose the stilted poses of portrait photography
and painstaking detail of naive paintings to lend
her art an ingenuous authenticity.
subtle overlapping of disparate styles of representation
is what gives the faces in her paintings their hypnotic
quality: the immobility of the sitter in formal
nineteenth-century photographs, the earnestness
of primitive portraits, the stunned gaze of the
psychologically damaged in clinical records and
the hieratic pose of the religious icon.
most memorable paintings are her self-portraits.
The odd thing about them is that, unlike those of
Rembrandt or Picasso, which show a wide and inventive
range in their introspection, the face that peers
out at us in Kahlo's self-portraits—interrogating,
pleading, asserting—is virtually the same
in all her paintings. But we hardly notice this,
because the face itself is so amazing—the
eyebrows touching like the wings of a tiny bird,
the faint "Zapata" mustache, the sensual
lips and dark, wary eyes. Like the Mona Lisa,
her haunted features become a sort of palimpsest
into which infinite meanings can be read.
interpretations arise as this enigmatic head is
placed against allegorical backgrounds of claustral,
menacing vegetation, stormy clouds or empty rooms.
In Itzcuintli Dog and I (in which
Frida sits on a chair smoking a joint with an absurdly
small dog at her feet) or Self-Portrait with
Monkeys, for instance, her baleful gaze, immobility
and melancholy are made more poignant by the presence
of the restless energy of the cats, dogs, parrots,
pet deer and spider monkeys that surround her, animals
being Mayan symbols of sex and freedom. Immobile
and wearing exotic costumes, she has the aspect
of a wounded, vengeful goddess surrounded by her
the fantastic Little Deer of 1946,
she fuses utterly with the stricken stag. A wounded
miniature deer with Frida's face is set against
the theatrical set of a decaying wood with the sea
in the distance. Kahlo's backgrounds, with their
shallow, two-dimensional space, reminiscent of a
photographer's painted backdrop, lend a ritual quality
to the events in her paintings that intensifies
their actions. Like some feral St. Sebastian, nine
arrows penetrate the deer's bleeding flank, the
nine wounds, like the nine tines of its horns, representing
Rivera's most grievous infidelities—the last
straw being his affair with her younger sister,
divorce from Rivera in 1939 inspired some of her
most ferocious paintings, including the hysteric
allegory The Wounded Table, her self-portraits
from 1940 with necklaces of thorns and a dead hummingbird
and The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, commissioned
by Clare Booth Luce. Luce was so horrified by the
result that she had portions of the picture painted
most alarming of all is her Self-Portrait with
Cropped Hair, in which a sullen and murderous
Kahlo in a man's black suit sits in a yellow chair
(reminiscent of the one in van Gogh's room), her
head shorn and a pair of scissors in her hand. The
floor is strewn with locks of her hair that, like
her venomous thoughts, have turned into a sea of
thrashing snakes intent on doing her vindictive
teenage sweetheart, Alejandro Gomez Arias, once
said, "The personality of this woman was so
contrary and multiple that you could say there were
many Fridas. Maybe none the one she wanted to be."
In her most fantastic self-portrait, The Two
Fridas, all the imaginary doublings and
painful ambivalences of her life are written with
unnerving precision. Against the backdrop of a turbulent
El Greco sky, her divided selves sit for a formal
the right is the Frida beloved of Diego, dressed
in native costume; on the left is the rejected Frida,
stiffly enclosed in a white wedding dress. Both
women's hearts have been removed, but the bridal
Frida's heart has been ripped apart and in her hand
she holds a pair of scissors that have just snipped
the vein that connects her to Rivera. Blood drips
on her lap. This split in Kahlo's attitude to herself
may explain why we accept what might otherwise appear
to be morbid self-indulgence.
May 20, 1940, Trotsky was gunned down by one of
Stalin's agents. Under suspicion of murder, Rivera
fled to San Francisco, where Kahlo joined him. They
were remarried on December eighth, Rivera's birthday.
But his carnal habits did not change. As late as
1949, he again considered divorce, so that he could
marry the Mexican movie star (and Kahlo's close
friend) María Félix.
the mid-'40s, Kahlo's health declined, and she went
through a series of horrendous operations. A metal
rod was inserted in her spine, and for almost a
year she was forced to wear a steel corset. Her
leg was amputated. Some of her paintings from this
period—The Broken Column, Without
Hope and The Tree of Hope—are
so graphic that they are excruciating to look at,
but her spirits were apparently high.
my new bone," she told a friend in a drug-induced
euphoria, "I feel like shooting my way out
of the hospital and starting my own revolution."
began painting a series of hallucinatory still lifes,
in which fruits and vegetables become writhing,
sexualized and vaguely menacing presences. In Roots,
a vine intended as a symbol of fertility—but
still monstrous—grows out of her chest, forming
giant mutant leaves.
colors became more saturated and took on idiosyncratic,
emblematic meanings. "REDDISH PURPLE,"
she noted in her diary, represented "old blood
of prickly pear; YELLOW: madness, sickness;
COBALT BLUE: electricity, purity, love; LEAFY-GREEN:
leaves, sadness, science. The whole of Germany is
in this color. DARK GREEN: the color of bad
news and business."
July 2, 1954, she got out of her hospital bed and
demonstrated in her wheelchair against the CIA-engineered
takeover of Guatemala, shouting, "Get out,
gringo murderers!" Eleven days later she died,
reportedly of a pulmonary embolism (those close
to her suspected she had taken her own life). The
final entry in her diary showed a hovering black
angel with the words: "I hope the exit is final
and joyful—and I hope never to come back.
you found that magic door again that, as a child
of six, you had painted with your breath on the
window pane? Did you disappear into your imaginary
world through the eye of the letter "O"
that, like a blank face, waited for you at the end
of your name?