Frida Kahlo by Archana Mehta

"I paint self-portraits because I am the person I know best. I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to and I paint whatever passes through my head without any consideration." This statement captures the essence of Frida Kahlo’s work. Everything she paints, she paints without reservation. Her artwork is a biography of her life, encompassing her emotions, her feelings, her pain, her hatred, her love, her guilt, her political beliefs, her family and much more. Kahlo is a woman who experienced many happy times, but her life was filled with tragedy as well. Both of which led to her profound artwork. When looking at her work, one can be lost in a sea of emotions. I have never seen artwork such as Kahlo’s that has affected me on so many levels.

In order to come close to understanding an artist’s work, one must be familiar with the artist’s life. Kahlo was born in Mexico City in 1907, the third daughter of Guillermo and Matilda Kahlo. Her father was a photographer of Hungarian Jewish descent, who had been born in Germany; her mother was Spanish and Native American. Her life was to be a long series of physical traumas, and the first of these came early. At the age of six she was stricken with polio, which left her with a limp. In 1922, she met Diego Rivera, a famous painter at that time who was married, yet Kahlo was attracted to him but did not know how to deal with such emotions.

In 1925, Kahlo suffered the serious accident which was to set the pattern for much of the rest of her life. She was traveling in a bus which got into a huge accident. Consequently, she suffered serious injuries to her right leg and pelvis. The accident made it impossible for her to have children. This accident was very traumatizing and it took her many years to come to terms with it. Much of her artwork is influenced by this tragic event and the life-long battle against dealing with the memory and pain of this event. In 1926, during her convalescence, she painted her first self-portrait, the beginning of a long series in which she charted the events of her life and her emotional reactions to them. Kahlo painted about seventy self-portraits. The self-portraits demonstrate in her face her feelings of love, loss and passion for those whom she loves.

photo of the artist

In 1928 she met Rivera again and instantly she fell in love with him and married him. Her marriage to Rivera was another huge influence on her paintings. Kahlo later expressed, "I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down…the other accident is Diego." Throughout the rest of her life, she suffered many health problems with her legs and her back as well as miscarriages. Her husband continued to have affairs with other women as did she carry her own romantic affairs as well. Her health reached its lowest point when she had to have her leg amputated due to gangrene and her weight loss became so bad that she was bedridden for months.

Kahlo’s paintings are unique in that they capture many emotions that a human being can experience in a life-time in a single painting. However, her paintings are even more unique because they capture the feelings that many women experience as well. She is thought to be one of the leading female painters of her time because she had no reservations about painting her reality. An art critic once said, "Frida began work on a series of masterpieces which had no precedent in the history of art - paintings which exalted the feminine quality of truth, reality, cruelty and suffering. Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas as Frida…"

The next six paintings to be discussed represent the deep emotions of Frida Kahlo throughout her lifetime.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1931

  This painting may resemble the wedding portrait of Diego and herself. This painting is interesting because both of them look very stiff and are not facing each other but rather facing forward. They do not seem to look happy and their hands are loosely clasped as if the connection between them was never as strong as one would expect in a newly married couple. Most of the painting has dull colors except for the bright red shawl that Frida is wearing. The features on both faces are exaggerated. On Frida, her eyebrows, her height and her small feet are very different when compared to Diego’s huge stature, large head and large feet. Also, the faces have a mask-like appearance to it kind of like the early African art.
The next painting represents one of her many miscarriages, the worst one which took place in Detroit on July 4th, 1932. She was pregnant three times but her injured pelvis prevented her from childbirth. In the painting, she is in Henry Ford Hospital. She is naked in her bed and her abdomen is still swollen from pregnancy. The objects floating around her express her feelings of the miscarriage. The red ribbons resemble the umbilical cords or veins. The male fetus resembles the little Diego she wished to have. She demonstrates her frustration of not being a mother. The objects around her attached to the red ribbons are much larger than her actual body, symbolizing how her fears and tragedies are overtaking her life. Also, the horizon in the background is very prominent and her painting looks kind of childlike based on the simplicity and little detail in her painting. The fact that she lies alone in her bed, with no one around her except the sky, shows that she feels alone. Frida said, "…painting completed my life - work is the best thing."  

The Flying Bed, 1932

What I saw in the Water, 1938
  "What I saw in the Water" has a very surreal look to it. It seems very dream-like, but in reality it is not. The picture incorporates numerous elements from other works. This piece, to an outsider, may appear to be an enigma and a psychological apprehension. However, after learning about her life, one can see that this painting combines the pain, death and sexuality of her life floating on the bath water that she is very much drowning in. She said, "They thought I was a surrealist. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."
This painting has a surreal feel to it as well. The painting shows Frida lying in a bed which looks almost like a grave with the plant growing on her. Frida, many times in her life, wished to be dead, which this painting may very well try to show. The figure above the bed represents Judas. The Judas figures are usually seen in the streets of Mexico on Holy Saturday before Easter, since it is believed that the traitor will only find release in suicide. The skeleton wires and explosives represent that at any moment they will explode, making her dream of death a reality. Her preoccupation of death can be seen in her paintings and in her house because she had skeletons and dead children hanging on the walls.  

The Dream, 1940

The Broken Column, 1944
  This example was painted after she underwent surgery. She felt a feeling of paralysis because her vertebral column was broken and she was forced to replace it with a steel corset and an Ionic column that takes the place of her damaged spine. The nails driven into her naked body demonstrate her frustration and anguish. Once again, Frida uses the horizon as a background and utilizes very soft and dull colors in the background. The fact that the background is very empty again shows that she may feel very isolated and lonely.


Here is her best known painting. The two images of Frida sit side by side with their hands joined in a stiff clasp. At the right, there is the loved Frida. She wears Mexican clothes. Her heart is whole and in her hands there is a miniature portrait of Diego which is attached to one of the vessels of the heart where the blood flows to his picture. This may symbolize how the blood pumping through her, the very blood that nourishes her, will always have the same amount of love and nourishment for him. At the left, there is the unloved Frida. She wears a white Victorian dress. Her lace bodice is torn, exposing her broken heart. In her hand there is a surgical scissors that is cutting off the flow of blood from Diego’s portrait. Frida once again evokes such a wide array of emotions such as pain, discomfort, disgust, empathy and sadness. She utilizes the horizon in the background and she focuses her detail more on the face than she does on the body, which relates to some of the earlier forms of art that were studied.

The Two Fridas, 1939
When one first looks at Frida’s artwork, it is easy to say that the artwork is very dreamlike, possessing enigmatic traits and abstract thoughts meshed together. "Surrealism was a means of reuniting conscious and unconscious realms of experience so completely that the world of dream and fantasy would be joined by the everyday ration world in an absolute reality, a surreality". However, after studying Frida’s life, it does not seem like as surreal anymore because many of her life events are expressed in the paintings, but they are expressed in such a way that looks dreamlike. For example, she often has floating figures and objects that are not normally found in the theme. Hence, Frida can be labeled as a surrealist, but it is important to remember that her paintings are not dreams, they are her reality.


When I look at Frida’s work, I see more of an expressionist style in her paintings. Expressionism is a movement that emphasizes subjective feelings and emotions. The subjects of expressionist works were exaggerated, distorted, or otherwise altered. For example, in her work her facial features and her body size were often exaggerated as well as the pain that she tried to portray. Landmarks of this movement were violent colors and exaggerated lines that helped contain intense emotional expression. Frida often used dull background colors with a few objects painted in either red or bright yellow. Artists are trying to pinpoint the expression of inner experience rather than solely realistic portrayal.

When Frida knew she was dying she said, "I hope the exit is joyful and I hope to never come back."
Frida Kahlo died on Tuesday, July 13th 1954. "Live life," she said.