Frida Kahlo is best known for the pain that permeated her life and her art. Born in Mexico in 1907, she endured personal tragedies, a stormy marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera, and physical disability throughout her relatively short life. She frequently painted herself and her own agony because as she said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” Classified as a surrealist, Kahlo questioned the designation, “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.” Through the most famous paintings by Frida Kahlo, one begins to understand her life and her anguish.
The Bus (El Autobus). Painted in 1929, four years after a bus accident that left her permanently damaged, The Bus (El Autobus) appears to be a simple painting of a cross section of Mexican society. Women and men of all social classes sit along the bench seat on the wooden bus. A young boy kneels on the bench next to his mother who is breast feeding an infant. When you look deeper, this painting seems to reference the accident in which the bus that Kahlo was riding on in 1925 collided with a street car. The woman on the far right is probably Kahlo and the working man in blue overalls represents the man who pulled the handrail from Kahlo’s body after the accident. This accident along with the polio she had contracted as a young girl left her physically damaged for the rest of her life and led to many surgeries to repair the damage to her frail body.
A Few Small Nips. In 1935, Kahlo used a newspaper story about a murdered woman as a venue for releasing her own pain regarding her marriage. Kahlo depicts the woman lying naked on a bed with her murderer standing over her. With several stab wounds, the woman’s blood stains the white bed linens, floor, and her attacker’s white shirt. Above his head, two doves bear a ribbon inscribed “Unos Cuantos Piquetitos!” These same words were used by the murderer to defend himself in court. Kahlo’s underlying inspiration was her husband’s year-long affair with her younger sister Cristina. Her own pain being too much to paint, Kahlo used this woman’s demise to channel her agony.
The Two Fridas. Painted in 1939 during a time when Kahlo was divorced from her husband Diego Rivera, the artist portrays two sides of herself. Two women sit closely on a green bench clasping hands. With hearts exposed in their chests, the woman on the left has a broken heart and represents the woman that Rivera rejected. The woman on the right clasps a small locket with Rivera’s photograph; her heart intact, she represents the woman that Rivera still loves. Rivera and Kahlo remarried the following year, though they continued with mostly separate lives.
Diego on my Mind. In 1940, Kahlo and Rivera reconciled and remarried after their short separation. Kahlo painted her self-portrait dressed in a traditional Mexican Tehuana costume with only her face exposed. Above her signature dark brows, across her forehead, she placed a portrait of her husband, Diego Rivera. Despite his many love affairs and the emotional distress he caused her, Kahlo could not forget her love for him.
Without Hope. In 1945, Kahlo created “Without Hope.” On the back of the oil on canvas painting she inscribed, “Not the least hope remains to me….Everything moves in tune with what the belly contains.” The painting depicts Kahlo lying on a bed located in the desert with the sun and moon overhead lighting the landscape brilliantly. Kahlo, only her head exposed, is covered by white linens covered with cells or organisms, possibly representing the infections that plagued her physical body. To facilitate her painting after the tragic bus accident earlier in her life, her father had a large wooden easel created so that she could continue painting from bed. In “Without Hope,” the same easel supports an unappetizing array of animals and entrails representing the forced feeding she received during a recent illness. Atop it all is a sugar skull bearing her name. These skulls are traditionally created and consumed by family members on the Day of the Dead to remember those who have passed away.
The Little Deer. By 1946, Kahlo had become interested in Eastern religions and mysticism. In this painting she combines the ancient Aztec symbol of the deer with the Eastern word “Carma” inscribed on the painting. The deer in Aztec mythology symbolizes the right foot. Kahlo depicts the deer with several arrows. The deer likely represents her right leg which had been affected by both polio and the terrible bus accident. By the time of her death, she lost part of her right leg to amputation due to gangrene. The arrows represent her ongoing physical pain and the emotional trauma caused by Rivera’s many love affairs.
Tree of Hope. Kahlo painted “Tree of Hope” in 1946 for her patron. Kahlo endured many surgeries due to the constant physical pain she endured. In this case, she had been to New York for surgery on her spine. Kahlo shows her bod on a hospital gurney, scarred and mutilated, on the left side of the painting under the sun, which in Aztec mythology is fed by the blood of human sacrifice. Sitting on the right side of the gurney, sits a beautiful Kahlo, resplendent in a red dress holding a flag in her crossed arms that reads “Tree of Hope, Remain Strong.” This strong, confident Kahlo is under the light of the moon, the symbol for womanhood. Kahlo had hoped that this surgery would be among her last, but unfortunately it resulted in many complications that increased her frailty in the later years.
For a woman who portrayed her naked pain so well in her art, she hoped for a more peaceful passage into the after life. The last months of her life she suffered gravely with bronchial pneumonia. Before her death at the age of 47 in 1954 from a pulmonary embolism or possible suicide, Kahlo created nearly two hundred works of art, most of which were autobiographical.
Sensing the end was near, her last diary entry reads, “I hope the exit is joyful – and I hope never to return. – Frida.”