Pitahayas: more than a still life–a self-portrait of Frida Kahlo

Learn more about this artwork and how it became a part of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's collection.

André Breton (1938) by Man RayMuseo Frida Kahlo

In April 1938, André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, visited Frida Kahlo at her studio and home in Mexico and stayed for several months. Breton’s stay overlapped with the start of the pitahaya harvesting season in May. The title of the painting, Pitahayas, refers to the five, bright, pink fruit resting in the center of the composition. Breton certainly saw the browning, ripe fruit in Kahlo’s garden and possibly the arranged still life from which she worked and even, perhaps, the final painting.

Invitation to the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York Invitation to the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New YorkMuseo Dolores Olmedo

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.

Invitation to the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York Page 3 of 4 (1938) by André BretonMuseo Dolores Olmedo

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.

Pitahayas (1938) by Frida KahloMadison Museum of Contemporary Art

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.

Pitahayas (photograph) (1938) by Frida KahloMadison Museum of Contemporary Art

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.

Pitahayas (1938) by Frida KahloMadison Museum of Contemporary Art

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.

Diego Rivera (in his studio at San Angel) (1940) by UnknownMuseo Frida Kahlo

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.

Pitahayas (1938) by Frida KahloMadison Museum of Contemporary Art

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.

Rudolph LangerMadison Museum of Contemporary Art

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.

Louise and Rudolph Langer travelingMadison Museum of Contemporary Art

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.

Pitahayas (1938) by Frida KahloMadison Museum of Contemporary Art

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.

Credits: Story

Essay: Mel Becker Solomon

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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