Seen and Unseen in Frida Kahlo's Work

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By Celeste Lavin

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Monkeys. Red ribbons. A broken column. Frida Kahlo squeezed symbolism into every square inch of her work. A self-portrait was never just a depiction of the static self, but rather an entire story to be uncovered. And as a woman, an artist, a communist and a person with indigenous roots creating art in the 1930s, her story was one not often heard.

Red Ribbons

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In 1932, Kahlo had been living in Detroit when she had a miscarriage. She created this painting, titled "Henry Ford Hospital," that surreally depicts the experience. Lying in a hospital bed, Kahlo holds onto six objects, all connected with red ribbons. She uses ribbons in her work frequently, literally tying together the different images to construct a narrative. Here she shows a medical cast of a pelvis, a fetus, a snail representing the slow pace of miscarriage, a mechanical device to symbolize the machinery of the body, an orchid representing both the sexual and sentimental aspects of miscarriage and Kahlo's own pelvis, which was fractured in a traumatic bus accident seven years prior and led to the miscarriage. 



Kahlo's 1925 bus accident is a recurring theme in her work. In 1944, she painted "The Broken Column" a self portrait demonstrating her pain through visual symbolism. The column is a straight-forward representation of the broken spinal column she was left with after the accident. Metal nails in her face and skin, her spinal column replaced with a broken Ionic column, tears falling from her eyes, over and over again Kahlo shows her suffering. 

The Monkeys

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Nearly a third of Kahlo's paintings feature spider monkeys. The Aztecs associated monkeys with fertility, a theme that Kahlo deeply engaged with as she learned of her own infertility. Kahlo herself owned two monkeys as pets - one named Fulang Chang and another named Caimito de Guayabal. 


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"The Two Fridas" (1939) shows Kahlo in a white European dress with lace on one side and traditional Mexican dress on the other. The hearts of both Fridas are exposed, but one beats strong while the other bleeds openly. She painted this double self-portrait shortly after divorcing Diego Rivera, a time of intense emotional vulnerability. In the hand of the traditionally dressed Kahlo, she holds a tiny portrait of Rivera. The open bleeding is a stark representation of the heartache and pain she went through during the ending of their marriage.

The Holding

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Kahlo's focus on fertility extended to her engagement with maternal imagery. "The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me, and Senor Xolotl" depicts a series of holding. The universe holds the earth, holds Kahlo who is holding her husband, Diego Rivera. Similarly, Dos Desnudos en el Bosque (La Tierra Misma) shows a simultaneously romantic and maternal embrace between two women. It was a gift Kahlo gave to her friend and perhaps lover, Dolores del Rio. The holding in both works challenge assumptions around intimacy and sexuality, and make room for different kinds of tenderness. 


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Kahlo and Diego Rivera's decade long marriage was tumultuous. Between Rivera's love affair with Kahlo's sister Cristina, and Kahlo's love affair with Marxist revolutionary theorist Leon Trotsky, their unbounded love faced many tests. Ultimately, though they had moments of intensity, anger and separation. Rivera frequently shows up in Kahlo's work, in realistic and surrealistic ways. Sometimes she painted him by her side, and sometimes she painted him on her own forehead as a kind of third eye. The pain and joy of their relationship is visible throughout her work. Kahlo’s life ended by Rivera’s side. Upon her death, Rivera looked back with extreme sadness, “too late, now I realized that the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida.”

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