Throughout Frida Kahlo’s life she suffered severe, chronic illness that impacted her in numerous ways. The story and details of her suffering often romanticize the artist’s pain in a way that only adds to the myth that surrounds her, rather than understanding the very real physical impact it had on her work and how it manifested itself in her paintings.
By working through the events that took place in Kahlo's life with the help of archive images and her artworks, we can begin to understand the relationship the artist had with her body and the ways in which her artistic career was sparked by her afflictions.
Many researchers believe Frida Kahlo was born with spina bifida, a condition that affects the development of the spinal column. The condition was the first of many ailments that would further complicate the pain and issues she had in later life.
At the age of 6, Kahlo was diagnosed with polio. It led to her right leg being thinner than her left and the decreased circulation to her leg caused chronic pain for all of her life. The illness also forced her to be isolated from her peers as she had to delay starting school for months.
While the experience made her introverted, she became Guillermo Kahlo’s (her father) favorite. During this time he taught her about literature, nature and philosophy. When she was well enough he encouraged her to play sports to regain her strength, like wrestling and boxing, though these sports were deemed unsuitable for girls at the time. Guillermo also taught the artist about photography and she began helping him retouch, develop and color photographs.
The lasting effects of polio meant Kahlo went into her adult years wearing long skirts to cover up her leg as the artist detested the way it looked. In November 1938 for instance, the artist had her first exhibition in New York City. When looking at the multitude of skirts she painted herself wearing, she was recalled saying: “I must have full skirts and long, now that my sick leg is so ugly”.
At 18 years of age on September 17, 1925, Kahlo and her boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias, were on their way home from school when the wooden bus they were on collided with a metal streetcar. Several people were killed and the artist suffered near fatal injuries from an iron handrail impaling her through her pelvis, fracturing the bone. She also fractured several ribs, her legs and her collarbone.
The accident meant she spent a month in the hospital and two months recovering at home. Though she tried to go back to normal life, Kahlo continued to experience fatigue and back pain and after x-rays, it was revealed that the accident had also displaced three vertebrae. Her treatment included wearing a plaster corset, which confined her to bed rest as part of her recovery.
Before the accident, Kahlo had dreams of becoming a doctor. While those plans had to be abandoned, her parents encouraged her to paint while on bed rest and it sparked a new passion within Kahlo.
The artist had a specially-made easel that enabled her to paint in bed, and a mirror was placed above it so she could see herself. As well as painting portraits of her sisters and school friends, she often turned her eye to herself, once saying: “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best”.
Painting became a way for Kahlo to explore questions of identity and existence on a new level. Reflecting on that time the artist said the accident and the isolating recovery period made her want to paint things “just as I saw them with my own eyes and nothing more”. Many of the paintings Kahlo made during this time drew inspiration from European artists, in particular Renaissance masters like Sandro Botticelli and Bronzino as well as avant-garde movements such as Cubism and Surrealism.
Over the years following her accident Kahlo, continued to suffer severe long-term pain and she endured 32 surgeries in total, some of which were disasters. The accident and subsequent operations had a huge impact on her fertility and she suffered multiple miscarriages.
One of the most difficult was during Kahlo’s time in Detroit with her husband Diego Rivera in 1932, where he was commissioned to paint several murals. She found out she was pregnant while there and decided to have an abortion, but the medication used was ineffective. The artist was ambivalent towards having children and had already had an abortion early in her marriage, but decided to continue with the pregnancy. The next month she miscarried, which caused a hemorrhage that required her to be hospitalized for two weeks.
Her painting Henry Ford Hospital, 1932 is directly inspired by this experience and depicts the artist bleeding on an enormous bed. Her belly is still swollen and six different elements, including a male fetus and an orthopedic cast of the pelvic zone, appear around her attached to her hand by red ribbons, as though they were umbilical cords. This painting is one of several that deal with Kahlo’s personal struggles surrounding her fertility and communicate her conflicting feelings of wanting children, her desire to have a family with Diego and the limitations of her body.
One of the many surgeries Kahlo had was on her spinal column. The operation left her bedridden and forced to wear a metallic corset, which helped alleviate the intense and constant pain she was in.
The Broken Column in 1944 was painted shortly after the operation and sees the artist standing in the middle of a barren, cracked landscape. Her torso is encased in metal belts lined with fabric to help her body from collapsing, which is emphasized by her exposed spine cracking in several places. Though her face is covered in tears in the painting, this is not a portrayal of pain rather of strength, with her defiant stare piercing the viewer. It’s this determined attitude that allowed Kahlo to continue painting even in her most agonizing times.
The artist continued having to wear plaster corsets for most of her life but took to painting intricate murals across them, turning herself into a canvas. Just as detailed as her paintings, the painted corsets were often covered in scraps of patterned fabric with drawings of tigers, monkeys, birds and streetcars like the one involved in her accident. The corsets remain in Kahlo’s house, and now museum dedicated to her, reminding us of her unique character.
In order to cope with the pain day to day, Kahlo resorted to a combination of strong prescription and non-prescription medication and alcohol. The artist's suffering was so extreme it not only manifested itself physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Painting proved to be an outlet for this, a way to separate herself from the pain and emotional stressors of her life, and create representations of her experiences of these traumas.
The impact of her illness allowed the artist to explore her ideas of feminism and womanhood and develop her own personal philosophy from a perspective different from her peers. It's important not to identify Kahlo by her pain, but rather celebrate the ways she used her afflictions to understand life and build a career as an artist.