VIDEO: Frida Kahlo: The woman behind the legend - Iseult Gillespie * 2024
VIDEO: Frida Kahlo: The woman behind the legend - Iseult Gillespie * 2024

She is known for painting about her experience of chronic pain

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón or Frida Kahlo born on July 6 of 1907, and dies on July 13 of 1954, was a Mexican painter known for her many portraits, self-portraits, and works inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico. Inspired by the country’s popular culture, she employed a naïve folk art style to explore questions of identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society. Her paintings often had strong autobiographical elements and mixed realism with fantasy. In addition to belonging to the post-revolutionary Mexicayotl movement, which sought to define a Mexican identity, Kahlo has been described as a surrealist or magical realist. 

Work in the United States and return to Mexico City

Even as Kahlo was gaining recognition in Mexico, her health was declining rapidly, and an attempted surgery to support her spine failed. Her paintings from this period include Broken Column (1944), Without Hope (1945), Tree of Hope, Stand Fast (1946), and The Wounded Deer (1946), reflecting her poor physical state. During her last years, Kahlo was mostly confined to the Casa Azul. She painted mostly still lifes, portraying fruit and flowers with political symbols such as flags or doves. She was concerned about being able to portray her political convictions, stating that “I have a great restlessness about my paintings. Mainly because I want to make it useful to the revolutionary communist movement… until now I have managed simply an honest expression of my own self… I must struggle with all my strength to ensure that the little positive my health allows me to do also benefits the Revolution, the only real reason to live.” She also altered her painting style: her brushstrokes, previously delicate and careful, were now hastier, her use of color more brash, and the overall style more intense and feverish.

In 1954, Kahlo was again hospitalized in April and May. That spring, she resumed painting after a one-year interval. Her last paintings include the political Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick (c. 1954) and Frida and Stalin (c. 1954) and the still-life Viva La Vida (1954).

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“Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?”

In 1950, Kahlo spent most of the year in Hospital ABC in Mexico City, where she underwent a new bone graft surgery on her spine. It caused a difficult infection and necessitated several follow-up surgeries. After being discharged, she was mostly confined to La Casa Azul, using a wheelchair and crutches to be ambulatory. During these final years of her life, Kahlo dedicated her time to political causes to the extent that her health allowed. She had rejoined the Mexican Communist Party in 1948 and campaigned for peace, for example, by collecting signatures for the Stockholm Appeal.

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 wrote in her diary in February 1954, “They amputated my leg six months ago, they have given me centuries of torture and at moments I almost lost my reason. I keep on wanting to kill myself. Diego is what keeps me from it, through my vain idea that he would miss me… But never in my life have I suffered more. I will wait a while…”

In her last days, Kahlo was mostly bedridden with bronchopneumonia, though she made a public appearance on 2 July 1954, participating with Rivera in a demonstration against the CIA invasion of Guatemala. 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, which biographer Hayden Herrera interprets as the Angel of Death. It was accompanied by the last words she wrote, “I joyfully await the exit – and I hope never to return – Frida” (“Espero Alegre la Salida – y Espero no Volver jamás”).

The demonstration worsened her illness, and on the night of 12 July 1954, Kahlo had a high fever and was in extreme pain. At approximately 6 a.m. on 13 July 1954, her nurse found her dead in her bed. Kahlo was 47 years old. The official cause of death was pulmonary embolism, although no autopsy was performed. Herrera has argued that Kahlo, in fact, committed suicide. The nurse, who counted Kahlo’s painkillers to monitor her drug use, stated that Kahlo had taken an overdose the night she died. She had been prescribed a maximum dose of seven pills but had taken eleven. She had also given Rivera a wedding anniversary present that evening, over a month in advance.

On the evening of 13 July, Kahlo’s body was taken to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where it lay in state under a Communist flag. The following day, it was carried to the Panteón Civil de Dolores, where friends and family attended an informal funeral ceremony. Hundreds of admirers stood outside. In accordance with her wishes, Kahlo was cremated. Rivera, who stated that her death was “the most tragic day of my life”, died three years later, in 1957. Kahlo’s ashes are displayed in a pre-Columbian urn at La Casa Azul, which opened as a museum in 1958.

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