Viva la Vida: The Life Stories behind Frida Kahlo’s Best Paintings

Frida Kahlo

In celebration of Frida Kahlo’s birthday, July 6, explore the indomitable Mexican artist’s best paintings and the stories behind them.

Frida Kahlo’s art is haunting, from tortured self-portraits to surreal works blending magical realism with her distinct folk art style. Her paintings are intensely personal, like visual diary entries, and she doesn’t shy away from the gory details of her physical and emotional pain. Every painting tells a story, and each one is a brushstroke on the canvas of her legendary life.

According to Frida Kahlo scholar Hayden Herrera in her book Frida Kahlo: The Paintings, Frida was born — and died — in the “Blue House” in Coyoacán, Mexico, which is now the Museo Frida Kahlo (Frida Kahlo Museum). In her short life, Frida created 143 stunning — and sometimes disturbing — paintings.

Frida Kahlo had no formal training aside from a few high school art classes, and she didn’t start painting until 1925, when she had a near-fatal bus accident in which her spinal column was broken and her pelvis was fractured. Her most horrific wound, however, was from a metal rod, which Frida claims (in her medical record) penetrated her hip and came out through her vagina.

The injuries from the bus accident, combined with a childhood bout with polio and a diagnosis of scoliosis, left Frida with lifelong health problems, including chronic pain and the inability to have children. The excruciating aftermath of the accident also contributed to Frida becoming an artist. Turning to art because she was “bored as hell in bed,” she used a special easel to paint while lying down.

Frida Kahlo

If you’ve seen the 2002 biopic Frida (which was recently in the news again due to allegations of sexual misconduct made by the movie’s star, Salma Hayek, against producer Harvey Weinstein), then you know a bit about Frida Kahlo, even though the film wasn’t totally accurate. But if you take a closer look at Frida’s often autobiographical works of art, you’ll find the finer details of her complex life.

1. MY BIRTH (1932)

Frida Kahlo

In 1932 Frida set out to make a painting representing each year of her life, starting with this bloody birth scene. The year she created My Birth, Frida suffered one of many miscarriages, and her mother also died from surgery complications, two tragedies that inform this piece. A weeping Virgin of Sorrows hovers over the presumably dead mother and a baby with Frida’s unique facial features.

2. MY GRANDPARENTS, MY PARENTS, AND I (1936)

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo was of multiethnic ancestry. Her maternal grandparents (depicted over the land) were Spanish and indigenous, and her paternal grandparents (depicted over the sea) were German.

In 1922 Frida entered the National Preparatory School as one of only 35 girls in a student body of 2,000. Though she rarely studied, she was a promising medical student, which led to her later artistic use of clinical imagery, such as the sperm, ovum and fetus in this painting.

3. MY NURSE AND I (1937)

Frida Kahlo

According to Frida, “My mother could not suckle me because eleven months after I was born my sister Cristina was born. I was fed by a nana whose breasts they washed every time I was going to suck them.” In My Nurse and I, Frida depicts her nurse wearing a black stone funerary mask, and the strangely adult-looking baby Frida does not seem contented as milk drips into her mouth. This piece illustrates her feelings of abandonment and the misery of her own childlessness.

4. SELF-PORTRAIT (DEDICATED TO LEON TROTSKY) (1937)

Frida Kahlo

When Frida Kahlo married Mexican artist Diego Rivera in 1929, her parents said, “It was like the marriage between an elephant and a dove.” Frida herself said, “I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down…. The other accident is Diego.” The couple divorced and remarried in 1940. Through it all, Diego had many extramarital affairs, once claiming that his doctor declared him unfit for fidelity. But Frida had some affairs of her own, with both men and women, and one of those men was exiled Russian Communist Leon Trotsky, for whom she painted this beautiful self-portrait, possibly to make Rivera jealous. The letter her image holds says: “To Leon Trotsky, with all my love, I dedicate this painting on November 7, 1937. Frida Kahlo in Saint Angel, Mexico.”

5. HENRY FORD HOSPITAL (1932)

Frida Kahlo

Frida’s injured pelvis didn’t prevent conception, but it made her unable to carry a child to term. One of her most traumatic miscarriages happened in Detroit, where Diego Rivera was working on murals. She recalls, “I had such hopes to have a little Dieguito who would cry a lot,” but that never came to be. Instead, she gave birth to this disturbing piece, using symbols like a snail, a severed umbilical cord, and other medical imagery to express her loss.

6. MOSES (1945)

Frida Kahlo

This painting, sometimes called Nucleus of Creation, was made after Frida read Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud. This miniature mural contains so many small details that it’s impossible to take in everything at a glance: symbolism from world religions; portraits of Marx, Gandhi, Jesus Christ, Nefertiti, Hitler, Stalin and others; and in the middle of it all, baby Moses, who looks a lot like Diego Rivera. This masterwork, which struggles to synthesize the entirety of human existence onto one canvas, reveals Frida’s intellectual and revolutionary side.

7. A FEW SMALL NIPS (1935)

Frida Kahlo

In late 1933, Diego had an affair with Frida’s younger sister, Cristina. Unlike his other affairs, this one was not easily forgotten, and as a result, a disconsolate Frida produced no paintings in 1934 and only two in 1935, one of which is this disturbing piece. It’s based on a newspaper article Frida read in which a drunk man stabbed his girlfriend and explained to the judge, “But I only gave her a few small nips!” She added the blood splotches to the frame later, several of which look like fingerprints, making this the goriest painting Frida Kahlo ever made.

8. WHAT THE WATER GAVE ME (1938)

Frida Kahlo

When André Breton visited Mexico in 1938, he said, “My surprise and joy was unbounded when I discovered, on my arrival in Mexico, that [Frida’s] work had blossomed forth, in her latest paintings, into pure surreality, despite the fact that it had been conceived without any prior knowledge whatsoever of the ideas motivating the activities of my friends and myself.” Though Breton’s praise advanced her career, Frida rejected the notion that she was a surrealist. “I never knew I was a surrealist,” she slyly said, “till André Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.” Still, What the Water Gave Me is perhaps Frida Kahlo’s most bizarre and dreamlike painting.

9. SELF-PORTRAIT WITH CROPPED HAIR (1940)

Frida Kahlo

Of Frida’s 143 paintings, 55 are self-portraits, which is a testament to the personal nature of her art. Herrera writes, “To judge from her more obviously feminine prettiness in photographs, it is clear that she exaggerated her mustache and gave her features a somewhat steely cast.” This self-portrait, created shortly after her divorce from Diego Rivera (and before they remarried), is Frida at her most conventionally masculine. She’s cut off her long black hair (the scissors hover uncomfortably close to her genitals), and she appears to be wearing one of Rivera’s massive suits, which dwarfs her. This piece was likely an act of revenge against Diego Rivera, who preferred her hair long.

10. THE BROKEN COLUMN (1944)

Frida Kahlo

In the 1940s, Frida Kahlo’s health worsened, and she had to wear a string of orthopedic corsets. For five months in 1944, she wore a steel corset, which is when she painted this agonized self-portrait, depicting her spine as a shattered column, nails piercing her flesh, and desperate tears on her face. Her pain is laid bare in this piece, reflected in the desolate landscape behind her.

11. WITHOUT HOPE (1945)

Frida Kahlo

This disturbing piece, also painted during Frida’s period of declining health in the mid-1940s, shows her once again confined to her bed, spewing gore onto the easel that allowed her to paint while lying down. On the back of the canvas, she wrote, “Not the least hope remains to me.”

12. VIVA LA VIDA (1954)

Frida Kahlo

As Frida Kahlo’s health faded in her later years and she became reliant upon painkillers, her work suffered. She added the last brushstroke to her final painting only eight days before she died. This seemingly simple still life of watermelons may not be her best or most compelling work, but it is remarkable that she wanted her last message to the world to be Viva la Vida: long live life.

“I HOPE THE EXIT IS JOYFUL — AND I HOPE NEVER TO COME BACK”

These were the last words Frida Kahlo wrote in her diary, leading many of her friends to believe that she killed herself, but her cause of death was officially ruled to be pulmonary embolism. Frida passed away in her bed at the Blue House in Coyoacán on July 13, 1954. She was 47.

Frida’s body was cremated. According to Hayden Herrera, “As she entered the oven, friends recall, the intense heat made her sit up, and her hair formed an aureole around her head. Four hours later, when her ashes emerged from the oven, they retained for an instant her skeletal shape. Rivera pulled a sketchbook from his pocket and drew his wife one last time.”

¡VIVA FRIDA!

I’ve only scratched the surface of Frida Kahlo’s amazing body of work and her remarkable life. I strongly suggest that you seek out her other paintings and learn even more about the woman behind them.

To get you started, here’s a list of my favorite Frida Kahlo paintings that didn’t make it into this article. Follow the links to check them out and learn more:

​Because the finer details in the paintings aren’t as visible on a screen, I also suggest that you check out her paintings in person, or at least in a book like Hayden Herrera’s Frida Kahlo: The Paintings. (Most of the facts in this article are from Herrera’s book, by the way, and there’s a lot more where these came from!)

Can’t get enough of Frida? Follow the official Frida Kahlo pages on social media: Facebook @fridakahlo, Instagram @fridakahlo and Twitter @fridakahlo. end

 

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