Learn more about this artwork and how it became a part of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's collection.
As a result of the visit, Breton became an avid promoter of her work and encouraged the New York City gallerist Julien Levy to show Kahlo’s first—and only—solo exhibition in the United States later that year, an exhibition in which Pitahayas was included.
Breton penned an essay for the accompanying catalogue in which he referenced Kahlo’s pitahayas: “I did not imagine that the world of fruit could extend to such a marvel that is the pitahaya, whose skin has the color and the coiling of rose petals, the pitahaya with gray flesh like a kiss blended of love and desire.”
From New York City, Kahlo would travel with Pitahayas to Paris to take part in Breton’s surrealist exhibition Mexique in 1939.
Kahlo described the sweet fruit as such: “It is fuchsia on the outside and hides the subtlety of a whitish-gray pulp flecked with little black spots that are its seeds inside. This is a wonder! Fruits are like flowers: they speak to us in provocative language and teach us things that are hidden.”
Like her words, the embedded iconography and provenance of the painting reveal the intimate events of Kahlo’s private life and highlights the start of her career as an internationally renowned artist. That career, much like the journey of Pitahayas had just begun.
Upon the close of the Mexique exhibition, Pitahayas remained unsold and returned with Kahlo to Mexico in April 1939. Upon her return home, Kahlo learned that her husband, Diego Rivera, wanted a divorce. An early photograph of Pitahayas depicts the skeleton wielding the scythe with big, round eyes and smiling.
The current version, with its downturned eyes and frown was changed by Kahlo after hearing about the divorce. Kahlo and Rivera’s divorce was finalized in November. The skeleton gestures towards the pile of pitahayas resting on the soil.
Kahlo often depicted vegetation as a symbol of fertility and regeneration. She drew directly from medical textbooks such that they often resembled scientific diagrams. Here the pitahaya is sliced directly in two and mirrors a dissected female reproductive cell, an ovum. The depicted cell is undergoing cellular division or meiosis. Errors in this reproductive process are the leading cause of miscarriages. Kahlo suffered multiple in her lifetime, indicating this unassuming still life is in fact a very personal allusion to these traumatic life events.
Just one year after the divorce, in December 1940, the couple reconciled and remarried in San Francisco. Rivera was painting a mural and Kahlo was exhibiting her work at the Palace of Fine Arts as part of the Golden Gate International Exhibition. Pitahayas was displayed in the Contemporary Mexican Painting and Graphic Art exhibition at the fair.
During the course of the exhibition, Pitahayas caught the eye of oil heiress, Aline Barnsdall, who purchased the work along with Diego Rivera’s Modesta Sewing, and sent the paintings to the former Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art Exposition Park for long term loan in 1940. Barnsdall was known for her art collection and was friends with Frank Lloyd Wright, who built Barnsdall’s famous Hollyhock House in Los Angeles. Upon Aline Barnsdall’s death in 1946, her art collection went to her estate which was managed by her grandson.
The works were eventually dispersed to various art galleries for sale. In 1952, Pitahayas was sent to Kende Galleries in New York City where it was purchased by Professor Rudolph Langer and his wife Louise of Madison, WI. Kahlo’s Pitahayas hung in Rudolph Langer’s home office until it was given to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in 1969.
The Langers traveled the world searching for art and visiting artists they admired. They were instrumental in establishing the museum, then known as The Madison Art Center, by instituting a building for the center and eventually willing their entire art collection. This gift transformed the modest Madison Art Center into a full museum with a permanent collection.
Much like the pitahaya fruit, with its delicate, fleshy center concealed inside its bright pink exterior, Kahlo embedded a deeply personal history in this vibrant still life. The personal iconography and extensive exhibition history of Pitahayas—one that even changed death’s smile to a frown—suggests the work is not only a still life, but an intimate self-portrait of Frida Kahlo herself.
Essay: Mel Becker Solomon