The Transmission of Pain
Through Paint: A Critical Look
At Frida Kahlo’s Expressive Art
Table of Contents
Before the Pain……………………………………………………………………………...3
The Tragic Accident………………………………………………………………………...4
The “Other Accident”……………………………………………………………………….6
Unfulfilled Maternal Desire………………………………………………………………...8
Should Art Be Personal?........................................................................................................9
Frida Kahlo’s artistic influence has reached far past its Mexican origins over the several decades since her death. Her paintings portray an element of intimacy and rawness that few other artists have been able to achieve. Her unique character and ability to overcome enormous, painful obstacles in her personal life has made her a powerful female artist that is generally respected and admired in the art community. Her ability to convey the feelings and sensations associated with her horrific and emotional experiences to her viewers is both her greatest skill and her most common area of criticism from others. Her openness to blatantly share her darkest moments with her audience is often a point of artistic controversy and is still debated by critics today. Many critics look down upon such personal expression and see it as useless in art while others can’t see good art without it.
Overall, there are three main events that deeply affected Kahlo’s life and are therefore depicted most often in her paintings. These include the infamous trolley accident, her rocky marriage to Diego Rivera, and her struggles to bear children. Each of these events plays its own role in shaping her art and so each must be considered in isolation in order to understand her artistic motive as a whole.
Before the Pain
Frida Kahlo was born in Coyoacan, Mexico on July 6, 1907. She later claimed 1910 as her birth year, however, so she could call herself the daughter of the Mexican revolution. She became very involved in politics later on in her life, especially after her marriage to Diego Rivera, so this reassignment of her birth year makes sense in concordance with her strong political background. At the age of six, Kahlo experienced her first significant health issue when she was diagnosed with polio. Although her right leg and foot were weakened by the disease, she was able to recover after a stretch of strict bed rest (Zamora, 1990).
In terms of her character, Kahlo was often described by those around her as having an excellent sense of humor and a strong, opinionated position on life. In her teenage years, she regularly exhibited precocious and rebellious behavior, even to the point of shaming her highly traditional Mexican family. Her father, Wilhem Kahlo, seemed to be the closest to her and played a highly influential role as her inspiration to become an artist. She was extremely outgoing and boisterous and was often caught fabricating elements of her stories to achieve a more dramatic effect. She was a bright student and a lively child and seemed to enjoy pushing the boundaries and living life to the fullest (Zamora, 1990). Much of this changed, however, after the tragic trolley accident that brought her life to a halt and became a significant source of her pain throughout the rest of her years.
The Tragic Accident
On September 17, 1925, Kahlo and her current boyfriend, Alejandro Gomez Arias, were involved in a horrific accident when the bus they were riding collided with a streetcar. Kahlo was only 18 at the time. She was impaled by a metal handrail that entered through her left hip and exited through her genitals, severely and permanently damaging her uterus. She had several broken vertebra, a smashed pelvis and right foot, and a dislocated elbow. Depending on the source, it is also possible that she experienced a fractured right leg, broken ribs, and a broken cervix. Although Kahlo was not expected to live, she did manage to survive but spent nearly a month in the hospital recovering. Afterwards, she was confined to her bed for over a year as she went through various casts, braces, and grotesque therapies that were meant to help her heal properly but caused her excruciating pain. It is suspected that at this time, Kahlo began to paint in order to starve off the boredom that was consuming her in her completely immobile state (Zamora, 1990).
Although the occurrence of the actual accident and the long convalescence period that followed undoubtedly caused Kahlo extreme pain, most of the paintings addressing this experience were painted much later in her life when her health underwent several periods of deterioration. One of her most controversial paintings relating to her injuries from the accident was “The Broken Column,” which was painted in 1944 and is an obvious statement on the extreme pain she was experiencing at that time. The self-portrait depicts Kahlo in one of her many contraptions meant to serve as a back brace. She is naked and her entire body is covered in small pins that puncture her skin. Many tears are falling from her eyes. The center line of her body is cut open and exposed and a crumbling column stands in place of her backbone, serving as a metaphor for her own damaged bones. The scene behind her is that of a desolate desert which seems to sympathize with her lonely, pained gaze that communicates her extreme despair. A friend of Kahlo’s, Luis-Martin Lozano (2001), noted that this painting seemed to mark the beginning of Kahlo’s process of deconstruction and disintegration due to her deteriorating health.
Aside from the more obvious interpretation, other critics have drawn rather obscure sexual connotations from the painting. Margaret Lindauer (1999) suggested that the column seems to be forcefully penetrating Kahlo’s core, representing violent rape and is synonymous with the metal handrail that penetrated Kahlo in the trolley accident. Lindauer also uses this portrait as an example of Kahlo’s suspected masochistic tendencies because her body is depicted in a voluptuous and sensuous manner and her posture is rigid and proper, despite the incredible pain she is enduring. Although these mixed messages do seem present in the painting, this interpretation seems like a reach. Her upright posture and proud stance could also be construed as strength and endurance, as her powerful spirit shining through her crippled physical self.
Another painting that clearly represents Kahlo’s physical pain from the accident is “The Wounded Deer” painted in 1946. In the painting, a deer is standing in a forest and has been shot several times by arrows, causing it to bleed profusely from its wounds. Kahlo’s face is pasted on the deer’s head like a mask, symbolizing her transformation into this animal form. The arrows are strategically placed so that they mark the areas in which Kahlo most frequently experienced her pain—her back, pelvis, and heart. Kahlo painted “The Wounded Deer” just before undergoing a dangerous operation to fuse her vertebrae. Therefore, some critics interpret the painting as the creature (both the deer and Kahlo) facing its fate (Zamora, 1990). Sarah Lowe (1991) suggested the painting holds significant cultural symbolism because the deer is often considered a sacrificial animal in Mexican culture and holds great meaning to its people. Lowe also interprets the extensive, elegant antlers on the deer as being symbolic for rebirth and fragility because of their continuing growth cycles. Although Kahlo’s pain is clearly depicted in this painting, it is also important to interpret it within her cultural context. Without this information, the painting seems quite strange and lacks the power behind its entire message.
The “Other Accident”
Frida Kahlo’s turbulent relationship with her husband, the famous Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, is another ongoing source of her pain that is frequently but sometimes subtly depicted in her self-portraits. Kahlo had many encounters with Rivera as a teenager but it wasn’t until later in her life that she formally introduced herself to him so that he could critique her early paintings. Her feelings for him were strong from the beginning and his support for her as a painter only solidified her intense love for him. They married on August 21, 1929, despite her friends and family members’ warnings that he was a womanizer and a drunk. Their marriage held strong for awhile, although Kahlo realized early on that Rivera was, in fact, having many affairs with many other women. It wasn’t until Kahlo caught Rivera in an affair with her beloved sister, Cristina, that she finally left him. Though she had struggled with Rivera’s unfaithfulness all along, his relationship with Cristina struck her hard, yet it was eventually Rivera who requested a divorce. Their relationship underwent many ups and downs over the following years, but they eventually decided to remarry on December 8, 1940, though Kahlo made many changes to their relationship so that she could remain independent and maintain her sanity. Despite the extreme pain Rivera caused her, she continued to refer to him as the love of her life (Zamora, 1990).
A very famous painting that depicts the emotional pain Kahlo experienced as a result of Rivera’s unfaithfulness is “A Few Small Nips” painted from 1935 to 1936. The painting is rather gruesome in nature and was inspired by a newspaper story about a brutal murder of a woman who was stabbed several times by her drunken husband (Lowe, 1991). The man stands over his dead wife with the knife in hand and blood is spattered everywhere, even extending to the frame of the painting, although this feature was added long after the painting was complete. This piece of art is considered strongly connected with Kahlo’s feelings about Rivera because it was painted just after his affair with Cristina and seems suggestive of the emotional wounds this caused her. Importantly, Martha Zamora (1990) notes that in the original version of the painting, a ribbon was included that read “My Sweetie Doesn’t Love Me Anymore,” which could be considered a direct expression of Kahlo’s despair about the affair. However, the ribbon was eventually removed from the painting for unknown reasons. From a broader viewpoint, some critics see the painting as being Kahlo’s personal statement against violence inflicted upon women (Lowe, 1991). After the extensive emotional abuse she endured from Rivera, it is no wonder that Kahlo felt stabbed or murdered by his actions. The betrayal of a husband killing his wife is quite synonymous with what she must have felt after discovering his various infidelities. The strong symbolism and metaphor behind this painting is what makes it so powerful despite its disturbing details. It is meant to be uncomfortable to the viewer because its rawness is what clearly transmits Kahlo’s emotions.
Unfulfilled Maternal Desire
Yet another significant source of pain in Kahlo’s life is her continued struggle to bear children. This ability was greatly hindered by the injuries she sustained to her uterus after the trolley accident. Though the reports are somewhat mixed, most sources confirm that Kahlo had at least two miscarriages in her lifetime, one of which was life-threatening and left her in the hospital for several days (Lindauer, 1999). It is also reported, however, that Kahlo had at least two abortions as well which leads us to question how deeply she really desired a child, especially when she was well-aware that Rivera did not want any more children. In Kahlo’s defense, some sources justify the abortions by stating that they were recommended by her physicians because of the danger the pregnancy posed on her deteriorating health (Zamora, 1990). Regardless of this, from her diary entries, it seems that she struggled with this maternal longing throughout her life and was deeply scarred by the realization that she would never be able to fulfill it.
Kahlo’s miscarriages are depicted in several of her paintings, but one of the most important is “Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed)” which was painted in 1932, just after her second miscarriage that nearly took her life. The painting shows Kahlo lying naked in a hospital bed that seems to be mysteriously floating on the horizon of the city of Detroit (she was in America with Rivera at the time). There are six seemingly unassociated objects floating around her, but they are all attached to her body by red threads. Sarah Lowe (1991) believes that all of these objects symbolize the emotions and sensations Kahlo experienced immediately following her miscarriage and interprets each very clearly. The baby that floats directly above her is meant to be her lost fetus, and the medical model floating next to it depicts the fully functioning body of which she lacks. The pelvis floating below her is a picture of her own pelvis that she blames for the miscarriage, and the snail above her represents the slow experience of the miscarriage itself. The flower, which was given to her by Rivera, is meant to bring a sexual metaphor to the sentimental experience. Finally, the unidentifiable machine symbolizes the mechanical portion of the miscarriage (Lowe, 1991). Based on this description, all aspects of the miscarriage are included. From a broader perspective, Martha Zamora (1990) suggests that the painting reflects Kahlo’s conflicted emotions about having a child and her feelings of isolation because she is so far from her home in Mexico. The position of the bed on the empty horizon does suggest her isolation but it is difficult to see her mixed emotions in this particular painting. The tears on her face and the limp position of her body only seem to suggest sadness and disappointment.
Should Art Be Personal?
Because much of Kahlo’s artwork displays her deeply personal feelings and experiences so honestly, she has received a great amount of both praise and criticism for her paintings. After considered the events that occurred in her life and the artwork that followed, it seems difficult to not praise her for her honesty and strength as an artist. In fact, many critics do support her clear expression of pain through the canvas, describing it as a “literal transcription of her lived reality, an autobiographical act that transmuted her pain into paint” (Lent, 2007, p. 70). From a feminine viewpoint on Kahlo’s artwork, Elizabeth Garber (1992) suggests that it stands as a symbol of a woman’s strength in the face of pain and suffering and should be commended for its true communication of femininity. From this standpoint, it is nearly impossible to interpret Kahlo’s paintings without seeing her gender as a highly influential factor. This leads one to question whether her art would be interpreted the same if she were a male painter rather than a female.
In contrast, other critics have harshly torn down Kahlo’s expressive self-portraits by criticizing their over-dramatic subject matter, mixed emotional messages, and continued calls for attention. Many people have questioned whether the nature of Kahlo’s pain was really as severe as she made it out to be, given that she was well-known for her overly dramatic personality and constant need for attention from those around her (Lindauer, 1999). Martha Zamora (1990) even points out that Kahlo often dramatized her disabilities to capture Rivera’s attention, especially when she knew he was with another woman. With this in mind, it may be difficult for some to believe in the true inspiration behind her paintings. In Marion Arnold’s article (2005), one critic characterized Kahlo’s work as “deceptive, ambiguous, intelligently designed, and deeply concerned with the ways in which painting stimulates mind games” (p. 20) and dismissed it as respectable art. Some critics have even gone so far as to describe her as a “little woman, who is fragile and sick, an invalid paintings her wounds” (Lozano, 2001, p. 140). Many of these criticisms, however, seem to be more of an attack on Kahlo’s character specifically, rather than her ability as an artist and the products that followed. This seems rather irrelevant when the art critics’ main job is to evaluate the art itself, regardless of the artist’s personality. However, because Kahlo’s personal experiences are so boldly embedded in her art, it does seem rather difficult to untangle the two and critique only one.
From a theoretical perspective, Leo Tolstoy (1930) would greatly support Kahlo’s blunt expressionism through the canvas. He would support the clarity with which her message of pain and sadness are transmitted to the viewer and would probably consider her feelings as being very strongly conveyed. Her message is about her individual journey and experiences, of which she is attempting to explicitly share with her audience. This individuality is a quality that Tolstoy found very rewarding in art. Though the level of pain that Kahlo actually experienced in her lifetime has come into question, there is little doubt that the sensation of pain itself is sincerely and truthfully depicted in many of the artist’s paintings. The feeling comes across clearly and powerfully and is intensely thrust at the viewer, which is yet another quality that Tolstoy found to be essential to good art.
Although opinions differ greatly as to whether Frida Kahlo’s paintings are truly respectable art, it seems undeniable that a message of pain is clearly transmitted through the canvas. Her art may not always be aesthetically beautiful but there is something valuable in the talent with which she explains her feelings so passionately to her audience. Her art is honest and daring in that it openly displays her vulnerabilities so that her viewers may better understand and relate to her emotions and experiences. Though this may be seen as a risky personal decision on the part of the artist, it is essential in order to create a strong connection with others. It also helps add a significant level of depth to one’s art, which is important in boosting its overall value. It is this risk that has, in part, made Frida Kahlo a prominent figure in the art community and has made her paintings famous.
Arnold, M. (2005). Frida Kahlo. The Art Book, 12(4), 20-21.
Garber, E. (1992). Art critics on Frida Kahlo: A comparison of feminist and non-feminist voices. Art Education, 45(2), 42-48.
Lent, T.O. (2007). Life as art/art as life: Dramatizing the life and work of Frida Kahlo. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 68-76.
Lindauer, M.A. (1999). Devouring Frida: The art history and popular celebrity of Frida Kahlo. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.
Lowe, S.M. (1991). Frida Kahlo. New York, NY: Universe Publishing.
Lozano, L.M., Monsivais, C., Saborit, A., & Rivera, D. (2001). Frida Kahlo. Boston, MA: Bulfinch Press.
Tolstoy, L. (1930). What is art? In S.D. Ross (Ed.), Art and its significance: An anthology of aesthetic theory (pp.178-181). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Zamora, M. (1990). Frida Kahlo: The brush of anguish. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
(Footnotes not included)
“The Broken Column” (1944)
“The Wounded Deer” (1946)
“A Few Small Nips” (1935-1936)
“Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed)” (1932)
Expected Graduation: May 2009
Hometown: Battle Ground, WA
Frida Kahlo is a highly influential figure in history, both as an artist and an icon of female strength. The many personal hardships and severe physical pain she endured throughout her life greatly impacted her art and the powerful messages she attempted to convey to her audience. It is this intense transmission of pain and emotion that has generated so much attention and has made her paintings a major point of controversy and criticism. The issue of whether such images are appropriate for the art world is still highly debated.