Pitahayas (1938) by Frida KahloMadison Museum of Contemporary Art

Frida Kahlo infused her still lifes with complex spiritual and personal references. Through these paintings, Kahlo projected her innermost feelings and memories while continuing to explore her preoccupation with the notion that “death fertilizes life.”

The title of the work comes from the five large pitahayas grouped in the center of the composition. Native to Central America, pitahayas are the bright, red-skinned fruit that the pitahaya cactus produces. The fruit are more than three inches long with a grayish-white, fleshy center that is dotted with black seeds. Despite the brown patches on the fruit’s skin, these pitahayas are not rotten. When the skin of the fruit begins to brown it is ripe and ready to be eaten.

Kahlo would often include vegetation in her work as a symbol of fertility and regeneration. Here the pitahaya is sliced directly in two and mirrors a dissected female reproductive cell, an ovum. The depicted cell is undergoing cellular division also known as meiosis. The leading cause of miscarriages in women is due to errors in this process. Kahlo suffered multiple miscarriages in her lifetime indicating this unassuming still life is in fact a very personal allusion to those traumatic events.

Kahlo cultivated and designed an exquisite garden at her home and studio, La Casa Azul, in Mexico City. The garden included pitahayas and was punctuated with “old man” cacti, which are coated in furry white hairs. Several of her paintings contain these distinct cacti suggesting her garden was an extension of her artistic practice.

Resting on the ground is a young, immature leaf from a philodendron plant. The plants grew in her family’s garden. A photo that features several generations of her family, including her grandmother, mother, aunt, and young cousin, is framed by two large philodendrons. Kahlo considered herself a hybrid and was interested in her family’s background—her father was German and Hungarian and her mother was Mexican. The inclusion of this small leaf, with its crossed lobes, likely references the artist herself. Kahlo featured the philodendron plant in other works that highlighted her blended genetic background.

At the time of this painting, the area south of Mexico City was a vast field of lava rock. The land, El Pedregal, attracted many artists, including Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, due to its mythical status as a prehistoric site. Kahlo painted some of the lava rocks that lined her garden in this still life. The rock’s stark outline against the blue sky is reminiscent of the mountainous skyline of Mexico City.

A small skeleton made of clay and springs is perched atop the brown volcanic rock. The figure wields a scythe, often associated with the grim reaper—the personification of death. The playful rendering of the skeleton is a gentle reminder of the inevitability of death—there is a time everything will ripen then begin its decay—so enjoy it while it lasts. In 1939, upon her return from France, she learned Diego wanted a divorce. Kahlo changed the expression of the skeleton in the painting from a smile to a frown.

While Kahlo’s still life appears to be a simple arrangement of plants and vegetation from her studio and home, a closer look reveals this painting is more of an indirect self-portrait than a still life.

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