Kahlo‘s paintings are concerned with medical imagery, which is presented in terms of pain and hurt, featuring Kahlo bleeding and displaying her open wounds. Kahlo‘s medical paintings are especially dealing with childbirth and miscarriage and have a strong sense of guilt, of a sense of living one’s life at the expense of another who has died so one might live.
Although Kahlo featured herself and events from her life in her paintings, they were often ambiguous in meaning. She did not use them only to show her subjective experience but to raise questions about Mexican Society and the construction of identity within it, particularly gender, race, and social class.
Kahlo often featured her own body in her paintings, presenting it in varying states and disguises: as wounded, broken, as a child, or clothed in different outfits, such as the Tehuana costume, a man’s suit, or a European dress. She used her body as a metaphor to explore questions on societal roles. Her paintings often depicted the female body in an unconventional manner, such as during miscarriages, and childbirth or cross-dressing.
To explore these questions through her art, Kahlo developed a complex iconography featuring symbols like monkeys, skeletons, skulls, blood, and hearts. Other central elements that Kahlo derived from Aztec mythology were hybridity and dualism. Many of her paintings depict opposites: life and death, pre-modernity and modernity, Mexican and European, male and female.
In addition to Aztec legends, Kahlo frequently depicted two central female figures from Mexican folklore in her paintings: La Llorona and La Malinche as interlinked to the hard situations, the suffering, the misfortune or the judgement, as being calamitous, wretched or being ‘de la chingada’.
When Kahlo was six years old she contracted polio, which made her right leg shorter and thinner than the left. The illness forced her to be isolated from her peers for months, and she was bullied. While the experience made her introverted, her father taught her about literature and philosophy, and encouraged her to play sports to regain her strength, despite the fact that most physical exercise was seen as unsuitable for girls.
Kahlo was enrolled in a German school due to her father’s wishes. She was soon expelled for disobedience and was sent to a vocational teachers school. Her stay at the school was brief, as she was sexually abused by a female teacher. Kahlo was accepted to the elite National Preparatory School who had only recently begun admitting women, with only 35 girls out of 2,000 students.
She was rebellious and against everything conservative and pulled pranks, staged plays, and debated philosophy and Russian classics. To mask the fact that she was older and to declare herself a ‘Daughter of the Revolution’, she began saying that she had been born on 7 July 1910, the year the Mexican Revolution began, which she continued throughout her life.
On 17 September 1925, Kahlo and her boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias, were on their way home from school when the wooden bus they were riding collided with a streetcar. The accident killed several people and fractured Kahlo‘s ribs, both her legs and her collarbone. The accident ended Kahlo‘s dreams of becoming a doctor and caused her pain and illness for the rest of her life.
Kahlo soon began a relationship with Rivera, who was 20 years her senior, and had two common-law wives. Her mother opposed the marriage, and both parents referred to it as a ‘marriage between an elephant and a dove’, referring to the couple’s differences in size; Rivera was tall and overweight while Kahlo was petite and fragile.
After four years in the US and back in Mexico, she was again experiencing health problems – undergoing an appendectomy, two abortions, and the amputation of gangrenous toes – and her marriage to Rivera had become strained. He was not happy to be back in Mexico and blamed Kahlo for their return. While he had been unfaithful to her before, he now embarked on an affair with her younger sister Cristina, which deeply hurt Kahlo’s feelings.
Despite a reconciliation, both Rivera and Kahlo continued their infidelities. They successfully petitioned the Mexican government to grant asylum to former Soviet leader Leon Trotsky and offered La Casa Azul for him and his wife as a residence. The couple lived there from 1937 until 1939, with Kahlo and Trotsky not only becoming good friends but also having a brief affair.
On 21 August 1940, Trotsky was assassinated in Coyoacán, where he had continued to live after leaving La Casa Azul. Kahlo was briefly suspected of being involved, as she knew the murderer, and was arrested and held for two days. Her continuously fragile health had increasingly declined and was exacerbated by her heavy consumption of alcohol.
She experienced pain in her legs, the infection on her hand had become chronic, and she was also treated for syphilis. The death of her father in April 1941 plunged her into a depression. Her health made her increasingly confined to La Casa Azul, which became the center of her World. Her health continued to decline and by the mid-1940s, her back had worsened to the point that she could no longer sit or stand continuously.
In 1945, she traveled to New York for an operation. The difficult operation was a failure. Kahlo also sabotaged her recovery by not resting as required and by once physically opening her wounds in a fit of anger. She underwent a new bone graft surgery on her spine. It caused a difficult infection and necessitated several follow-up surgeries.
Kahlo‘s right leg was amputated at the knee due to gangrene in August 1953. She became severely depressed and anxious, and her dependency on painkillers escalated. When Rivera began yet another affair, she attempted suicide by overdose. She seemed to anticipate her death, as she spoke about it to visitors and drew skeletons and angels in her diary. The last drawing was a black angel, interpretaded as the Angel of Death.
I joyfully await the exit – and I hope never to return. (Espero Alegre la Salida – y Espero no Volver jamás) – Frida Kahlo
On the night of 12 July 1954, Kahlo had a high fever and was in extreme pain. She had given Rivera a wedding anniversary present that evening, over a month in advance. At approximately 6 a.m. on 13 July 1954, her nurse found her dead in her bed. The nurse, who counted Kahlo‘s painkillers to monitor her drug use, stated that Kahlo had taken an overdose the night she died.