Frida Kahlo in Detroit

Detroit Institute of Arts

The painter created some of her most significant works in Detroit between 1932–1933.

Working in Detroit
Frida Kahlo arrived in Detroit in the spring of 1932. She accompanied her husband, Diego Rivera, who had been commissioned to create a mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). In this photo, Rivera and Kahlo arrive at Michigan Central Station. From left to right: Rivera’s chief assistant Clifford Wight, Frida Kahlo, DIA director William Valentiner, and Diego Rivera.

Diego Rivera was one of the most famous artists in the world in 1932. Kahlo was unknown and eager to start her own career as an artist.

Kahlo spent time sketching and observing Rivera and his assistants at work. Here she watches Andres Sanchez Flores, one of Rivera’s assistants, test pigments for use in the murals.

She also accompanied Rivera to Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant, the largest factory complex in the world at the time—and the main subject of the DIA murals. Kahlo would also use images of the River Rouge plant as a subject in her Detroit work.

Kahlo set up an art studio of her own, but she was not as productive as she had hoped to be. Newly pregnant and feeling ill, she had deep concerns about the lingering pelvic, stomach, and foot injuries she suffered during a bus accident years earlier. Her health—and the decision to terminate her pregnancy or have a baby—distracted her from work.

Kahlo created only one painting during her first few months in Detroit—a depiction of a July Fourth window display she saw while on a walk. The festive, patriotic scene perhaps provided some comfort for the homesick artist. She said of the display, "It was like Mexico, with the flower garlands and the papier-mâché figures!"

Kahlo and Rivera respond to loss
After writing a letter to her personal doctor for advice on whether to pursue an abortion or proceed with her pregnancy, Kahlo decided to try and have a baby. But late in the night of July, 3, 1932, she and Rivera rushed to Henry Ford Hospital because Kahlo was bleeding profusely. Doctors prevented her from bleeding to death, but the pregnancy was lost.

Kahlo worked with intense focus while she recovered. Vivid details from the event and her personal struggles with pregnancy became the subject for her next works of art.
Rivera also threw himself into his work. His plan for the murals had been approved by museum officials and it was time for him to begin painting.

Kahlo began to examine what had happened through drawing and painting. In this image, you will find realistic and surreal imagery based on the physical and psychological aspects of her pregnancy loss.

The River Rouge Plant sits on the horizon, placing the scene in Detroit and referencing her husband’s mural project.

Kahlo diligently copied anatomical illustrations from medical books in an attempt to understand the inner workings of her body. Her accurate, scientific depictions are layered with emotion. Each carefully painted fetus, cell, and pelvic bone speaks to her conflicting feelings toward pregnancy and deep concerns about her health.

Kahlo represented the subconscious workings of her mind by including imagery seemingly unrelated to her pregnancy loss. A snail and a purple flower, for example, symbolize particular memories, physical sensations, and the emotional aftermath of the traumatic event.

After Kahlo was released from the hospital, she and a good friend began teaching themselves lithography, a type of printmaking. She printed this image a number of times, making it part of the first and only known set of prints she created.

Kahlo depicted herself mourning with tears rolling down her cheeks. At the bottom left, she drew a healthy fetus attached to her by an umbilical cord, suggesting her unfulfilled role as a mother. On the right, an arm holding a heart-shaped palette for paint emerges from behind her body, as if to assert her role as an artist.

Rivera also had a creative reaction to the pregnancy loss and made major change to his approved mural plan after the event. With the near death of his wife and lost pregnancy on his mind, he reworked the mural’s central image on the east wall. Instead of depicting a Michigan agricultural scene, he created an image of a healthy infant protected and nourished by the earth.

The scenes of Michigan industry—from chemical production to car manufacturing—are all accompanied by images of natural structures and processes. And in a prominent position facing the museum’s Woodward entrance, Rivera painted an infant in the bulb of a plant, nourished by the earth.

Rivera wrote a chapter about Kahlo’s pregnancy loss in his autobiography, "My Art, My Life". In the book, he describes the work Kahlo created in response to the pregnancy loss.
"Immediately thereafter, she began work on a series of masterpieces with had no precedent in the history of art—paintings which exalted the feminine qualities of endurance to truth, reality, cruelty, and suffering. Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas as Frida did at this time in Detroit".

Kahlo’s intellectual and artistic interests hinged on examining her personal experiences and asserting her own identity. She wanted to return to Mexico, where her sense of self was rooted. In this painting, Kahlo depicted herself on the border between two worlds. On the right, we see the industrialized United States represented by the Ford River Rouge plant, sky scrapers, and modern inventions; and on the left, ancient Mexico is represented with verdant plant life, examples of indigenous art, and Aztec iconography. Kahlo stands defiantly between the two countries, perhaps asserting herself as a product of both the modern world and ancient heritage.

Kahlo’s time in Detroit was one of the most productive periods of her career. Although it would be another fifty years until she became a household name and feminist icon, she took a small step toward fame in Detroit.

One of the first reviews of her work was published in the Detroit News. In the article, she establishes herself as an artist apart from her husband. She stated, "Of course he [Rivera] does well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist".

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