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A Series of Unfortunate Events: Frida Kahlo's Tumultuous Journey


It is not uncommon to be able to ascertain general highlights of famous artists’ lives through their masterpieces. Picasso was a womanizer, Van Gogh was mentally ill, da Vinci was a Renaissance man. Many of Picasso’s works are feminocentric, with his two wives and six mistresses starring as muses. Van Gogh painted a self-portrait after he’d cut off his ear in a bout of severe mental instability. His world-renowned Starry Night was painted outside the asylum he was checked into in Saint-Remy, France. Da Vinci drew inventions like the helicopter and parachute, along with studies of human anatomy. While it is said that eyes are the windows to the soul, art is the window to an artist's life. However, despite these glimpses into personal lives, there is one particular artist whose entire life’s timeline can be pieced together through her art. Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist who derived her fame not just from her creations, but also from her tumultuous life story which she cataloged meticulously through her art. Each one of Kahlo’s works allows her audiences to tune into her personal journey and share in every visceral emotion elicited by turbulent events.



Figure 1: Photo of Frida Kahlo next to a cactus, Mexico (Bloch, 1932).
Figure 1: Photo of Frida Kahlo next to a cactus, Mexico (Bloch, 1932).

Misfortune 1: The Bus (1925)


The series of unfortunate events that was Frida’s life started almost immediately; at age six, she was stricken with a crippling case of polio that she eventually recovered from, but left her with a limp. At age eighteen, a bus that Kahlo was riding was slammed into by a trolley car. Among numerous grave injuries, her spinal cord was broken in three places and she was impaled through the abdomen by a metal handrail, which exited through her vagina and caused permanent damage to her reproductive organs. After a month’s stay in the hospital, she retired home to recover in a full-body cast. This marks the commencement of her artistic career, as her mother set up a customized easel that Kahlo could utilize while frozen in her permanent horizontal state (Mencimer, 2002). Her world became an endless loop of surgeries –of which she had over 30 throughout her life– and recovery periods. During these seemingly interminable periods of confinement, she would use her easel and mirror setup to document her life through art (Feldman, 1999). The vast majority of her works are self-portraits not because she was narcissistic, but because her access to outside subjects was severely limited. In her own words, she said that “I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best” (Mencimer, 2002). Henceforth, Kahlo’s diary was not the written word, but the painted art.


Figure: Photo of Kahlo painting while bed-ridden (1951)
Figure 2: Photo of Kahlo painting while bedridden (Malba, 1951).

Several years after the fateful accident in 1929, she painted the event that would change the trajectory of her life in The Bus. Depicting the calm before the storm, Kahlo shows an array of Mexican social classes sitting together on a bus bench. From left to right, there is a proper Mexican housewife, complete with a shopping basket. Next to her sits a blue-collar worker, wearing work overalls and gripping a wrench. A barefoot Indian mother cradles her baby while a little boy gazes curiously out the window. A white businessman clad in a suit and bowtie clutches a money bag, while a young woman –speculated to be Kahlo herself– sits primly with a red scarf flying around her neck, perhaps symbolic of the Communist party of which Kahlo was a participant. Showcasing all walks of life together just moments before tragedy exhibits the nondiscrimination of fate, death, and pain. Sinner or saint, shoeless woman or rich man, one cannot outrun this trifecta.


Figure 3: "El bus" ("The Bus") by Frida Kahlo (1929).

Misfortune 2: The Dove and the Elephant (m. 1929)

Frida Kahlo famously said that there were two accidents in her life: the first was the bus, and the second was Diego Rivera. She met the man, an influential artist himself, first in her youth when he was painting a mural at her school. They reconnected a few years later when Kahlo was 18 and married. With Rivera outweighing the petite Kahlo by at least 200 pounds, and dwarfing her five-two stature by almost a foot, her mother remarked that it was a wedding between a dove and an elephant. Kahlo captures the notorious 1929 wedding day a few years later in the 1931 painting Frida and Diego, the pair holding hands. In their free hands, Rivera holds a palette and paintbrushes, and Kahlo holds together a traditional Mexican shawl. Their roles are not set in stone, but rather captured in paint (Block, 1998).

Figure 2: "Frida y Diego" by Frida Kahlo (1931)
Figure 4: "Frida y Diego" by Frida Kahlo (1931).

Figure: Frida and Diego kissing, New Workers School (Bloch, 1933).
Figure 5: Frida and Diego kissing, New Workers School (Bloch, 1933).


















Despite Kahlo being a strong, outspoken, and colorful woman, she juxtaposes these “traditionally unladylike” qualities with a life that is shockingly traditional. The primary motifs of her life prove to be love, marriage, and pain, an extremely well-blazed trail for Mexican women in the 1930s (Borsa, 1990). Their union played a central role in her life. It was one of the most volatile and tempestuous relationships in the artistic world, punctuated with infidelity, betrayal, and two larger-than-life personalities. In a love letter to Rivera, Kahlo eloquently expanded on the phrase “takes one to know one,” with the quote “Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain.” She also wrote that he was “the violent light from lightning” (Popova, 2014). Based on the events of their stormy marriage, perhaps it would have been more apt to describe him as the lightning itself; deadly to whomever it strikes.



Misfortune 3: An Artist, Not a Mother (1930-1934)

A subcategory of the motif of marriage is the bearing of children and the inevitable role of the “mother.” On the day of her marriage to Rivera on August 21st, 1929, she donned a rebozo, a Mexican emblem of female daily life, a dressing habit that she would carry into their marital life. It is clear from Kahlo’s chosen wardrobe of traditional Mexican garb that her culture and roots were important to her. This decision to wear indigenous clothing shows a deep respect not just for her culture, but her desire to be a good wife who carries out the duties dictated by society (Block, 1998). Naturally, the most significant of these duties would be motherhood. Unfortunately due to the catastrophic magnitude of damage left by the streetcar accident, only Kahlo’s mind was fit to fulfill such a role, not her body. She suffered two terminated pregnancies due to complications, and two miscarriages, one of which she relived in her painting Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed), 1932. Due to the aforementioned values of Mexican society, it is believed that Kahlo’s apparent anguish at failing to see any of her pregnancies through has less to do with a woman’s desire for motherhood, and more to do with “woman’s disappointment in fulfilling a natural, biological female role” (Borsa, 1990). However, this speculation does not diminish Kahlo’s pain but simply demonstrates the catalyst of pain from a cultural angle instead of a personal one. Her painting shows the subject, Frida, in a hospital bed soaked with blood, holding her swollen stomach. The backdrop is stark, alluding to the abject isolation the loss of a child leads to. In Mexican culture, miscarriages are “shameful,” as they fail to fulfill an expected role and lead only to death. Thus, there is no ceremony or ritual to assist the grieving mother to properly mourn (Lomas & Howell, 1989). As a result, Kahlo creates her own therapeutic ritual through art, commemorating her miscarriage the way she commemorates all of her impactful life events.


Figure 6: "Henry Ford Hospital o La cama volando" ("Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed)") by Frida Kahlo (1932).


Misfortune 4: The Dove, the Elephant, and the Sister (1935)

Kahlo was fully aware of Rivera’s philandering tendencies and wandering eyes (among other body parts). However, the leniency in their vows came to a crashing halt at the duplicity of Kahlo’s own sister, Cristina, and her husband. She produced only two paintings that year, both reactions to the treachery. Portrait with Curly Hair (1935) presents Frida’s short new hairdo, an act of spite against Rivera's love for her flowing locks. She paints the aftermath of the betrayal in A Few Small Nips (Passionately in Love) (1935). Kahlo lays naked and dead on a bloodied bed, stabbed many times by an indifferent, knife-wielding Rivera who hovers above her. His knife lies loose in his right hand, his other hand casually in his pocket. Above the scene, two respectively black and white birds fly a ribbon that reads “A few small nips!”This phrase not only conveys the nonchalance of Rivera’s moral corruption and lack of compassion but references a murder report Kahlo had heard about. A man had killed his girlfriend, but vehemently claimed in front of the court “It was just a few nips!” (FridaKahlo.org, 2023). Her decision to use this incident as fodder for Kahlo's creative work provided an analogy that she deemed fit for her situation, and showed she was a proponent of dark humor. Rivera's infidelity had killed her, and much like the actual murderer, he did not care. Instead of masking her husband's sins, Kahlo bravely immortalized this particularly low point and brashly announced to the world that her own world was falling apart. Her humor continued with her alternate title Passionately in Love. No stranger to pain, Kahlo coped with emotional pain the same way she coped with physical pain: through her art.


Lightning had struck Kahlo’s mountain, but they were a match set. Kahlo and Rivera divorced in 1939, only to remarry the following year.


Figure 7: "Unos cuantos piquetitos (Apasionadamente enamorado)" ("A Few Small Nips (Passionately in Love) by Frida Kahlo (1935).

Misfortune 5: The Slow Trudge Towards Death (1944-1945)

After countless surgeries, Kahlo’s 1944 Broken Column shows her spine replaced with a metal column, exhibiting that she is more bionic than human at this point in her life. Delicate tears adorn her cheeks, yet despite this mark of pain and sadness, her expression is stoic and calm. She is a dually strong hero and martyred human, subjected to the cruel whims of fate. The background is a barren scene of earth and sky, with fissures in the earth akin to the fissures that rip through her body (Gunderman & Hawkins, 2008). Nails riddle her body as if nailing her in place, which her long periods of recovery had often done throughout her life. The topic of her steadily deteriorating health had been a point of obsession throughout her life. The unyielding pain she lived with every day was a constant reminder which naturally bled into her work.


"La column rota"/"Broken Column" by Frida Kahlo (1944)
Figure 8: "La column rota"("Broken Column") by Frida Kahlo (1944)

Figure 5: "Sin esperanza"/"Without Hope" by Frida Kahlo (1945)
Figure 9: "Sin esperanza" ("Without Hope") by Frida Kahlo (1945)













In her 1945 painting Without Hope, a work whose title needs no elaboration, Kahlo is once again bedridden with her easel contraption above her. She vomits into the sky various shades of red and brown – colors of death. The contents of this vomit sit atop the easel; dead fish, turkey, chicken, with the only pop of color being a white skull painted with traditional Mexican markings alluding to Día de los Muertos. Her bed’s duvet is covered with planets and comets. These items, found only in space, suggest she believes herself not to be far from a celestial ending. In one of her sketchbooks, she drew a marionette that had tumbled from its pedestal. Kahlo is a mere puppet, not in control of her own life, and now her strings have been cut in order for her to move onto her next life. She wrote above the drawing “I am DISINTEGRATION” (Lomas & Howell, 1989). The usage of the noun “disintegration,” is far more powerful than if she wrote the verb “disintegrating.” She is the very process of disintegration; it is her, and she is it.


Conclusion


It is always possible to catch snippets of artists’ thoughts and emotions through their masterpieces, however, oftentimes they are fragmented and fail to reveal a bigger picture. Frida Kahlo is in a lane of her own as she has created a comprehensive roadmap of her life with highways leading directly to her heart and mind. Kahlo’s road was cut short when she passed away at only 47 years old (1954), but the documentation of her life through each piece of art she painstakingly produced has successfully immortalized the very essence of the strong and proud Mexican woman, artist, and person that she was.


Bibliography

Block, R., & Hoffman-Jeep, L. (1998). Fashioning National Identity: Frida Kahlo in “Gringolandia.” Woman’s Art Journal, 19(2), 8–12. DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/1358399


Borsa, J. (1990). Frida Kahlo: Marginalization and the critical female subject. URL: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09528829008576276?journalCode=ctte20


Feldman, G. C. (1999). Dissociation, repetition–compulsion, and the art of Frida Kahlo. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 27(3), 387-396. https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/jaap.1.1999.27.3.387?journalCode=jaap.1


FridaKahlo.org. (2023). "A Few Small Nips, 1935 by Frida Kahlo" [blog entry]. URL: https://www.fridakahlo.org/a-few-small-nips-passionately-in-love.jsp


Gunderman, R. B., & Hawkins, C. M. (2008). The self-portraits of Frida Kahlo. Radiology, 247(2), 303-306. URL: https://pubs.rsna.org/doi/abs/10.1148/radiol.2472061459?journalCode=radiology


Lomas, D., & Howell, R. (1989). Medical imagery in the art of Frida Kahlo. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 299(6715), 1584. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1838787/


Mencimer, S. (2002). The Trouble With Frida Kahlo. Washington Monthly. URL: http://www.dalestory.org/LATINAMERICA/Mexico/KahloAndRivera/Kahlo,FridaTheTroubleWithFridaKahlobyStephanie%20Mencimer.pdf


Popova, M. (2014). How Diego Rivera Met the Fierce Teenage Frida Kahlo and Fell in Love with Her Years Later. The Marginalian. 1(1). URL: https://www.themarginalian.org/2014/05/22/diego-rivera-frida-kahlo-meeting/


Visual Sources

Author Photo

Elena Miceli

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