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Frida Kahlo or the aesthetics of the suffering

Manuel Amezcua
Laboratory of Qualitative Research. Index Foundation, Granada, Spain

Index de Enfermería [Index Enferm] 2004; 46:64-68 (original version in Spanish, printed issue)








How to cite this document



Amezcua M. Frida Kahlo or the aesthetics of the suffering. Index de Enfermería [Index Enferm] (digital edition) 2004; 46. In </index-enfermeria/46revista/46_english_64-68.php> Consulted






Frida Kahlo (Mexico, 1907-1954) a recently popular person thanks to the cinema is better known for her singular life (being Diego Rivera's partner, communist and revolutionary, with stormy love stories and sexually ambiguous) rather than for the real contribution of her work. Her model used to be the one that she knew best: her own body, which becomes the scenario in which the story of her existence is told. This article analyses a dimension that has been little explored: the relationship between her painting and the long story of illnesses and suffering that she experienced. It tries to find out the cultural elements that compose the personal vision of the author about human suffering.









Dedicated to Ana Pinson Lane, who introduced me to the mysteries of Coyoacán


    The first time I heard of Frida Kahlo it was at her home town, Mexico and through some nurses that defined her as a dark women who had carried her suffering to the edge. After having visited the Blue House, the colonial Coyoacán has become my place of peregrination every time I travel to the Federal District. The blue house, named after the intense color of its walls, is the plot of ground where the painter spent most of her life. Somehow it reminds me of the Arab Kasbahs, or the Granadine Carmens, as the big blue walls open to an interior paradise: an ample garden with exotic vegetation animated with the presence of exotic little animals and this entire picture in the view of extravagant figures made of stone coming from millenarian cultures.
All the rooms of the house that once were reserved for the Kahlo family open to the garden. The house was a universe where the calm indulgence of mistress Matilde mingled with the noisy roam of the children and the world of oddities of the maids and wet nurses. Also facing the garden was the room where the studio of Mister Guillermo Kahlo, the father of European origins, and the person from whom Frida received much love as well as the first contact with the learning of arts.
     The house of Coyoacán is nowadays a museum of the painter and it hardly shows any of its eclectic and transgress atmosphere of old times. The amount of objects that holds inside (paintings, furniture, personal objects, books, archaeological figures, votive offerings.) seem to be paralyzed in the time in contrast with the still warm shadows of the outstanding personalities of the Mexican intellectuality (painters, poets, writers.) and political exiles that used to frequent the house.
     I found the figure of Frida Kahlo interesting from the very first moment because even though she had been a painter that had shaped like anybody else the complexity of the human reaction to pain, she was little known by the nursing world. This year is also the 50th anniversary of her death, so many expositions are being held on her memory. Nursing should also echo this celebration.
Diego Rivera, acknowledged painter of murals and companion of Frida, once said that "life contains elements of all the other lives". For this reason that I propose in this article to get closer to the universality of suffering and from the perspective of life that Frida Kahlo had - which could also be the perspective of other women- as an example for it. Like this I follow the narrative anthropologic tradition (Siles, 2000) as well as trends that establish a relationship between art (particularly in literature, but also in painting and cinema) and illness. In this case we will follow the thesis of Didier Anzieu, who defends that the artist portrays the image of his body in his art (Anzieu, 1981, cit. by Rico, 2000).

Steel and butterfly wings

     Frida Kahlo is one of the most important icons of the turn of the century in Mexico. The characteristic image of her face, which she liked to exaggerate with an incipient hirsutism (hairy frown and superficial moustache), illustrates dairy objects and you frequently find it in key holders, phone cards, t-shirts and even in the Mexican calacas of Halloween. She was less known outside Mexico and it was not until the movie of Salma Hayek that she has become more and more known to the non Mexican public. This movie has contributed to the sanctification of the character of Frida as a singular woman, rather than an artist or a determinant influence to Mexican culture in post-revolutionary Mexico.
     The importance of her life is such that it would be impossible to understand her ideas regarding aesthetic without referring to her bibliography. However, which are the constants of her life that she later depicts in her paintings? Let's see some reflections of the previous:
     a) Her stormy relationship (also her sexual ambiguity and her exacerbated sexuality), among all with the murals painter Diego Rivera. Her double marriage with Rivera has a neutral balance; on the one side, she beneficed thanks to the popularity she achieved with her relationship with the artist. On the other, she was eclipsed by the fame of Rivera and remained in the background.
     b) Her political militancy with revolutionary communism, which she lived with the passion that would characterize her life (including her romance with Leon Trotsky)
     c) Above all, her history of illness, which starts at the age of six when she suffers of polio in her right leg. This will stigmatize her for the rest of her life (Frida the cripple). At the age of 18 she is involved in a car accident which seriously damages her spine, her right leg and the pelvis, and forces her to spend long periods of her life in bed. She will have various miscarriages and had to undergo 34 operations, dying at the age of 47 years because of some complications.
Another constant feature of her life was her ambivalent personality, a determinant element in order to interpret the subliminal message of her paintings. This aspect of her personality, which attracted many of those who knew her, still fascinates those who contemplate her paintings. The person that maybe knew and stood her most, her eternal companion Diego Rivera, said of her " [she] was acid and tender, hard as steel, and delicate and fine as the wing of a butterfly, adorable such as beautiful smile, and deep and cruel as the bitterness of life" (Wolfe, 1914:412)

The body, scenery of life

     It is probably the History of Art specialist Araceli Rico, who has most intensely analyzed the intangible relation between the life and work of the polemic Mexican painter: "Talking of the work of Frida Kahlo is like going on a path full of sensations in which the universe of the women is the protagonist" (Rico, 2000:15). On the basis of gender, Rico defends that the thinking of women is strongly determined by the structure of their body, so that when they express that thinking through arts, the image of their body is present. The painting of Frida reproduces "silent bodies, unmovable, paralyzed with terror and suffering" (Rico, 2000:23). She tries to apprehend and illustrate on the painting what happens in the interior of her body, being it the end and beginning of her universe, the image of her existence, the image that opens to let others look penetrating her interior.
Some art critics underline the exhibitionism of Frida's paintings; however isn't the body there to be exhibited? Isn't the function of painting to exhibit? The painter gathers rather extreme characters and situations that incite those who look at them feelings always excessive, of confusion or distress; Frida shows her body as if it was a show.

Body and suffering

     The real body of Frida Kahlo is above all a bearer of illness, although her painting does not reflect this, as it happens with her anatomic drawings. Her paintings explain the consequences of the illness in her spirit, the way in which illness affects her life in all its existential complexity, transmitting the impotence and the human despair; that is, she tries to explain us her suffering, her illness (Amezcua, 2000).

In reality what Frida does with her painting is to threaten the Cartesian conception of the separation of body and mind (something that characterizes the medical system, which she frequently criticizes accusing it of her ailment) in order to present us what Françoise La-plantine defines as the "illness in first person". This expression refers to the subjectivity of the patient in the moment of interpreting the process of getting ill. (La-plantine, 1992). Thus, "illness in third person" would  refer to the biomedical understanding of the illness, something that Frida Kahlo represents in the form of torturing surgical instruments which are inefficient as the haemostatic forceps that can not safe the life of one of the Siamese Frida's in The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas. 1939). Even though this painting is formally a reflection about marriage crisis and separation, it is possible the piece of art that better expresses the duality of illness-suffering that the painter reflects in paintings that have her health as protagonist. The physical illness is presented as a Frida dressed at the European style, with a Victorian dress in a white color that shows up the open heart and the vessels that drain over her lap. Frida paints herself dressed with the traditional tehuana's dress holding in her hands a medallion with the portrait of Diego Rivera when he was a child. Frida painted this picture right after their separation. Is there any better way to express her suffering? There are no two Fridas, but only one spread opened as simulated by a long artery that connects both hearts, reaffirming that they both are one only essence (Kettenmann, 1992).
If we continue looking at her paintings, we discover some of the cultural elements that esthetically compound the private suffering of Frida Kahlo.

Mysticism and mythology

Illness in general, and chronic illness in particular, strengths the metaphysic feeling of existence. In contrast to her mother, Frida was not a person of deep religious faith, but a convinced agnostic. However, her dual personality shows again some contradictions: even though she avoids introducing religious images on her paintings, her work reflects an almost mystic religiosity in connection with the incarnation of her body (André Bretón, cit. by Rico, 2000:47).
     In her Self-portrait with Thorns (Autoretrato con Espinas, 1940) various traditional elements of the Christian symbolism are represented. The necklace made out of thorns that tightens her neck to the point of making her bleed, recalls the crown of thorns that Jesus wore during his passion. A monkey playing with the thorns, an irritated cat and a dead bird hanging from the necklace, symbolize the cruelty of the damaged and mutilated bodies' frequently present in the work of Frida.
     In this painting, the neutral or complacent expression of her face reminds of the figures of the Christian mystic as painted by the artist of the Renaissance. They are figures capable of suffering and accepting the pain, a pain that sometimes becomes pleasure. It is the joyful suffering of the martyrs who exhibit their own martyrdom with direct and dauntless expressions. The stoicism of the martyrs is the aesthetic expression of suffering.
In My Nanny and Me or Me Suckling (Mi Nana y Yo o Yo Amamantando, 1937), the artist shows another autobiographic episode: her feeding by a nanny because her mother had stopped breast feeding her in order to breast feed her new born sister. In this picture Frida presents lactation as mere physiological instrument lacking any sort of maternal feeling. In contrast to the tenderness of the paintings of the breast feeding virgins, she presents now two figures without any sensibility, both of the masked, the wet nurse with a pre-Columbian mask and she herself with a mask signifying the face of a mature women, which emphasizes her expressionless.

The painter recreates the myth of the great wet nurse (which makes me personally remember the impassivity of nurses when they are feeding the baby born that have been set aside of their mothers in the hospital where I work). The painting refers to the indigenous culture, to the mother land, with milk falling out of the sky as rain drops that feed the fields, a clear representation of fertility, the origin of nature.

Popular and erotic

One of the most singular pieces of the blue house is a space under the stairs that connects both floors. All four walls in this space are covered with a collection of the altarpieces that Frida collected over her life time. These altarpieces are also known as votive offerings or miracles, popular paintings very valued by the people until the middle of the past century that used them as testimony of the favors received by a particular religious image. Frida will frequently use the technique of painting votive offerings as a way to expose her personal problematic, as for example in Henry Ford Hospital o The flying Bed (La Cama Volando, 1932), which portrays the miscarriage she had in Detroit in 1932.
This painting stresses simplicity in the form, reducing the action to what is essential: the painter lays helpless on a bed suspended in the air while loosing blood. Her hands hold thin strings that connect her with various elements that represent her problem and that go around her body. She also emphasizes what is common among female artist that trend to paint closed spaces: the narrowness of the place. Once again she displays the theatre where she stages her own life, painting the "miracle" of an existence that is threatened by the destruction of her body (is the body and not the face what evokes the artes morendi of the XVI and XV centuries). The absence of a perspective and thus the mixture of real and imagined world, with a horizon representing an industrial view, suggest the feeling of solitude and helplessness that the author experienced after the lost of her baby as well as her hostile stay at the hospital.
     As a consequence of the accident she had during her adolescence, she was forced by the end of her life to wear an orthopedic corsets made of stuccoes or steel. In The Broken Spine (La Columna Rota, 1944), she portrays the state of distress and excitation that would cause her injured vertebras and the methods to cure them. This is one of the more singular paintings of Frida as is the story of an exhibited body: "The desire to be seen, to be watched, is as primitive as the wish to see", says Paul Schilder (cit. by Rico). Like in other paintings, she proposes eroticism together with an expression of cruelty and violence, thus suggesting the idea of the eroticism of suffering. Also here she shows her body as the Christian iconography represents martyrs, and with a clear connection to the martyrdom of San Sebastian (In comparison with the paintings of Greco).
     Frida exhibits her nude body open in two to reveal a broken column in place of her spine: The pain and distress are represented by the metal rods supporting her broken spine and by the steel belts that constrain her, while the desolated and cracked landscape in the back alludes to solitude and abandonment.
We must clarify that by referring to religious and Christian elements she was not trying to be coherent but to connect the aesthetic of the people, while portraying her as a martyr.

For reflection

     Frida Kahlo shows in her paintings her cultural, interpersonal and personal experience of illness under her subjective perspective. She thus provides us with a great information regarding suffering.
     Never before Frida Kahlo's case could it be said that "art is a reflection of the state of the soul". In this case, it is the state of the soul of a tortured woman while also an amazing woman because of the way she faced her distressing and traumatic existence to the point of transforming those feelings into aesthetic expression. "I paint myself because I spend a lot of time alone and because I am the motive I know best." she once said (Lowe, 2001).
We will now end with the words used to describe her by someone that knew how to penetrate into the fantasies of a hurt woman, Araceli Rico: "a women with black bird's eye that shouts and cries because she does not want to leave life, because she tries to explore her passion, her love , her body and her eroticism; a woman, so, that did not accept the option of being an anonymous and poor person in the calm of her house but to take paintings as the way to accomplish her own freedom" (Rico, 2000: 21).


Amezcua M (2000). Enfermedad y padecimiento: significados del enfermar para la práctica de los cuidados. Cultura de los Cuidados, 7-8:60-67.

Anzieu D (1981). Le corps de l'oeuvre: essai psychanalytique sur le travail créateur. Paris: Ed. Gallimard.

Kettenmann A (1992). Frida Kahlo 1907-1954. Dolor y pasión. Köln (Alemania): Benedikt Taschen.

Laplantine F (1992). Anthropologie de la maladie. Paris: Editions Payot.

Lowe SM (ed) (2001). El Diario de Frida Kahlo. Un íntimo autorretrato. Madrid: Debate y Círculo de Lectores.

Rico A (2000). Frida Kahlo. Fantasía de un cuerpo herido. México: Plaza y Valdés ed.

Siles González J (2000). Antropología Narrativa de los Cuidados. Alicante: Consejo de Enfermería de la Comunidad Valenciana.

Wolfe BD (1941). Diego Rivera, su vida, su obra y su época. Santiago de Chile: Ercilla. Principio de pgina 


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