Frida KahloBMJ 2005; 331 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.331.7511.297 (Published 28 July 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:297
The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54) is well known through her self portraits, which defiantly integrate the personal and the political. In recent years she has become an iconic figure, a “film star,” a tourist attraction.
Kahlo grew up in a mix of cultures, having a catholic mother of Spanish and Mexican Indian origin and a German father, and during the Mexican Revolution she embraced the national pride in indigenous arts and traditions. Her life is closely related to medicine for a number of reasons. At the age of six poliomyelitis forced her to bed for nine months, after which she always walked with a limp. She attended the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, with the goal of studying medicine at university. The bus crash that almost took her life when she was 18 forced her to abandon her dream of becoming a doctor. She had multiple bone fractures, and for the rest of her life Kahlo experienced severe, widespread pain. She needed long periods of confinement in a plaster or metal corset, and it was during this time that she turned her talent to painting. Years later she wrote, “Feet what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?” Her resilience through art gave her the wings to cope with the 32 operations she had through her life. In one of her most shocking self portraits, The Broken Column, she expresses her pain by showing nails driven into her naked body. Her torso is split wide open—revealing a cracked spinal column—and tears dot her cheeks.
Kahlo admired Diego Rivera, the revolution's muralist, whom she described as “her other accident,” because of the turbulent relationship the couple had. Becoming pregnant while they were living in the United States, Kahlo reacted with ambivalence. Two months into her pregnancy she almost bled to death during a traumatic miscarriage. In her attempt to understand what had happened to her she asked medical staff for books after they refused to show her the fetus. It was Rivera who provided the anatomy books that inspired Henry Ford Hospital, which shows a naked Kahlo on a hospital bed amid a massive haemorrhage that stains the white sheets. She holds strings attached to six elements symbolising her pregnancy and miscarriage, among them a female abdomen, a pelvic bone, an autoclave (this probably symbolising sterility, which she linked with infertility), and a fetus. Her miscarriage marked a turning point in her artistic self: not only did she try to rationalise it by surrounding herself with books and pictures, she went one step further through an introspection of what it meant in the Mexican society of the time not to have children and to be unconventional.
It is moving to see how Kahlo portrayed her relationship with her orthopaedic surgeons and communicated with them through metaphorical paintings. In her self portrait dedicated to Dr Eloesser she wears a thorn necklace that makes her bleed, and in her self portrait with Dr Farill her palette is transformed into an image of her heart.
I still wonder what has made her face into a fashion symbol, used to sell T shirts and accessories, this being so opposite to her ideology. But as I moved through the exhibition, thinking about her life, her suffering, and her determination, I was clear that Frida Kahlo was much more than the media persona she has been turned into.
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