Frida Kahlo is one of the most recognised artists today,irregardless of her gender. Her signature eyebrows and surrealistic self-portraits that broke the societal norms of both today and the past, are now known to almost every casual enjoyer of the art world. However, while her fame and popularity make Frida a succesful pioneer of art, one must not ignore her painful journey of love affairs, infidelity, divorce and remarriage, several miscarriages, years of being bedridden or wheelchair bound, intractable pain and multiple unsuccessful operations behind her path to immortality.
Frida Kahlo was born in Coyoacán, which used to be a small town in the outskirts of Mexico. Not even more than four years old, Frida was in the middle of the the Mexican Revolution where revolutionaries would visit her family house as her mum usually prepared them a warm meal. Moreover, while she had the bad luck of facing war conditions during her childhood more pain awaited for her in the later years of her life.
One can claim that Frida's pain began before she was born since in 1930 she was diagnosed with Spina Bifida, a condition that affects the development of the spinal column and decreased sensitivity in the lower part of her body. The case of Frida's leg pain can be seen in one of her paintings "‘What I saw in the water" which shows various events from the artist's life along with her feet deformity due to the disease.
Furthermore, while Frida was unknowingly facing this disease in her childhood, she contacted polio by the age of six which left her bedridden for multiple days. Moreover, this left her right leg deformed which led to bullying by her peers which had direct psychological impact to young Frida's rebellious and joyful behavior.
The accident that changed it all
In a never-ending expanding universe, it is hard for someone to believe that every action has direct consequences in their lives. However, in Frida's case it seems to be that the butterfly effect has had more than a direct effect on her life.
In 1925, Frida and her partner at the time, Alejandro Gómez Arias, were returning from school on a rainy day. However, while they boarded the bus, the couple decided to pop off the bus and search for an umbrella that Frida seemingly lost. As a result, they got off and later returned to board another bus. This lost umbrella and her choice to go look for it has had the most impact on her life than anything else.
During the ride, the bus driver tried to pass in front of an oncoming electric streetcar, which crashed into the side of the bus. This resulted in many deaths and injuries.
Frida tried to capture the feel of this accident in one of her drawings and in one of her paintings called "The Bus".
Due to multiple traumas–Frida's spine was injured in several places, the right foot and leg broken and her pelvis badly damaged by a piece of metal handrail, injuries that left her in bed for more than 3 months. The pelvis damage was one of the most important reasons why Frida was unable to carry any children later in her life.
This accident was the shifting point to Frida's life.Moreover, her physical pain resulted in long periods of confinement in bed, accompanied just by physical pain and pure boredom. This led her to dropping out from her plans of studying medicine and instead took up painting, a hobbie she used to do back in her childhood. She asked her father for some oil paints and brushes and through a special easel she restarted her artistic journey.
"They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn't. I never painted my dreams. I painted my own reality".
Frida's painful experience and one of the most noteworthy interpretations of pain come from Frida's self-portrait "The broken collumn" in which Frida represents her spine as a broken column, overflowing with multiple fractures and with nails all over her body which can be claimed to be the residual pain from her spine injury. Furthermore, the empty space in the background have been claimed to symbolise her pain and solitude.
I think it is important to note that according to a 2006 neurological journal, renowned neurologist Valmantas Budrys claimed that Frida's injuries were overestimated by the doctors at the time which performed multiple operations to Frida which exaggerated her already existed pain and fractures.
In the late 1940s, Frida has underwent a total of 8(!) spine operations which left her with two major scars on her back which can be shown at one of her paintings, "The tree of Hope, Remain strong/firm". The title of the painting obviously correlates to the internal dialogue of the shown heroine.
In this painting we can see the theme of duality; the painting is divided into two with Frida appearing besides her self on the operating table. In her hands she holds a small yellow flag. She is also holding a pink orthopedic corset, which portrays the corsets she had to wear through her lifetime.
"There is a skeleton (or death) that flees in the face of my will to live."
Furthermore, while Frida was in physical pain, she went on to paint a number of paintings with more than 50 being self-portraits. In her own words:
I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.
Misscariages and leg amputation:
While Frida has already been through hell, her suffering did not stop there.
Frida's attempts at bringing a new life were never fruitful. In the letters exchanged with her personal doctor, it seems that Frida had more than 1 miscarriage and an abortion due to her being advised that she would not bear the process of pregnancy.
Adding to all of that, due to uneccesary operations on her legs, Frida's leg had to be amputated below the knee in 1934.
Psychological toll and final days:
It is obvious to everyone that all this physical pain along with the bare weight of existence can be excruciating to someone's psyche. And Frida was no exemption.
She was operated on more than 30 times during her life, her body could not provide her the kid she wanted and her partner's infidelity has had a clash on her. In her latest letters, she claimed "I almost lost my reason. I keep on waiting to kill myself … Never in my life have I suffered more." In her final diary entry she writes
I hope the exit is joyful … and I hope never to come back...
Frida's eventual death came in 1954 from a pneumonia. As claimed, "It is difficult to find an artist whose life and works were more deeply affected by illness than Frida Kahlo’s"
However, while mostly bedridden or wheel-chair bound in her life, she managed to leave her mark on the world and became a symbol in the world of art. She has managed to take the risk of showing her vulnerabilities and her nude, sick body and has managed to transcend her physical and psychological pain onto her art.
Frida Kahlo is an impressive example of an artist whose entire life and creativity was profoundly infl uenced by chronic, severe illness; an artist whose talent arose from psychical and physical suffering yet never was overcome by it
Rest in peace Frida.