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The art of Frida Kahlo was far ahead of its time. Born in 1907 and died in 1954, all of her art was made between the 1920s and the 1950s, and it depicted many things that were considered taboo at the time, some of which still are. Some of the most prominent of these include Henry Ford Hospital, A Few Small Nips, Self Portrait With Cropped Hair, The Broken Column, and Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick. These paintings showcase miscarriage, grief and loss, internal struggle, independence, denial of gender roles, depression, disability, and political/economic beliefs.
It is no surprise that her art is so progressive. As a child, she had polio and was bedridden for nine months. Once she was well again, her father encouraged her to play sports like soccer and wrestling, which were extremely uncommon for girls at the time, and in some places, they still are. She was one of few female students to study at the National Preparatory School, and she studied to become a doctor there. Unfortunately, she was in a severe bus accident while there, and was impaled through the pelvis by a pole. While she was in the hospital recovering, she learned to paint, also due to her father’s encouragement. She benefitted greatly from learning to paint while there, but was also impacted for life with health issues as a result of the accident, and many of these issues are reflected in her art.
Frida Kahlo painted Henry Ford Hospital in 1932. She had suffered her second miscarriage and was distraught over it, as well as the operation to remove the dead fetus. She was hospitalized at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit for this, as she was living there with her husband Diego Rivera at the time. This oil painting, with a metal sheet used for support, depicts a crying Frida in a hospital bed, twisted uncomfortably with a pregnant belly and six things connected to it through an umbilical cord: A fetus, a flower, a machine, a snail, a model of the female reproductive system, and a pelvic bone. The bed is on a barren yard with the Detroit cityscape in the background. It is clear the Kahlo was deeply troubled by her miscarriage, and the items make it more clear.
The snail was representative of how slow the operation felt, according to Kahlo herself. The flower is symbolic of a uterus. The model of the reproductive system symbolizes Frida’s own reproductive system, as the spine in the model references her spinal problems that resulted from the bus accident she was in at age 18. The pelvic bone is also representative of this. The fetus is pretty self-explanatory, as it represents the child she wishes she had. After the miscarriage, she even asked to be brought the fetus so she could paint it in this painting. Denied that wish, Diego, as well as some of her doctors, provided her with illustrations for reference. Lastly, the machine represents her feelings on living in Detroit. She felt trapped by the city and the industry there.
There is a lithograph Kahlo created in 1933, Untitled, that is often referred to by scholars as The Miscarriage or The Abortion. It uses similar imagery to Henry Ford Hospital. A nude, crying Kahlo is seen with two sides: the first side, tied to a fetus once again, and the second, a third arm holding a paint palette. It could be suggesting her role as an artist took over the role of a mother she was never able to fulfill due to her inability to give birth.
This lithograph, which was temporarily on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts, had a plate next to it that read “Kahlo depicted herself mourning with tears rolling down her cheeks. At the bottom left, she drew a healthy fetus attached to her by an umbilical cord, suggesting her unfulfilled role as a mother. On the right, an arm holding a heart-shaped palette for paint emerges from behind her body, as if to assert her role as an artist.”
A Few Small Nips, created in 1935, is different than some of Kahlo’s other work. About a third of her art consists of self-portraits. This painting is not a self-portrait, but still portrays a personal expression of Kahlo’s feelings about herself and her marriage. A Few Small Nips show a woman, bloody, naked, and dying, in bed, while a man, her boyfriend, stares down at her in disgust, covered in her blood.
The frame is also splattered in red paint to look like blood, to make the violence and despair of it all seem more real to the viewer. This painting was based off a news story Frida had read about a man drunkenly stabbing her to death after discovering she had cheated in him. In court, the man proclaimed that he only gave her “a few small nips”, which is where the title of the painting is derived from.
The year prior, Frida had discovered her husband’s affair with her sister, Cristina. While he had numerous affairs, she was unbothered by most, as she had multiple affairs with men and women. However, it hurt her that he had an affair with her sister. Metaphorically, this painting could depict the murder victim as Frida’s psychological torture from Diego’s affair, and Diego as the murderer, the one who brought on the pain. The murderous boyfriend in the painting even bears a slight resemblance to Rivera, in his facial features as well as his clothing style.
There’s other elements of symbolism in A Few Small Nips, as well. The birds holding the banner with the title, one black and one white, contrast each other in that white symbolizes the good in the relationship and black symbolizes the bad, which is the predominant image of this painting.
Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, painted in 1940, depicts Kahlo sitting, with short hair in a men’s haircut, wearing a men’s suit, imposed over a barren landscape covered in her hair with a musical staff and lyrics at the top. Translated into English, the lyrics say “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.” This is fitting towards the situation, as Diego loved Frida’s long hair, and in this painting, with her hair cut off and strewn all about, is defiant of him. This painting is commonly interpreted as her declaring her independence from Diego Rivera. It was painted after they were divorced (only to eventually get remarried).
Frida normally wore very bright and flowy clothes, but in this picture, she’s wearing the opposite: a dark colored men’s suit. This can be seen as a show of sadness, or as her taking power over herself, and essentially saying she doesn’t need a man, she can be the man in her life and still be herself. After all, she still has earrings and her lips painted red. This painting defies the 1940s gender roles, and it also shows Frida taking control over herself.
This is not the only painting Frida Kahlo made that challenges the idea of how women are portrayed in art. In fact, almost all of hers do, with her famous unibrow and facial hair. She refused to shave it and was even said to have darkened it with a makeup pencil. In her self-portraits, she also made her eyebrow and upper lip hair noticeable. In addition, she has a lot of nontraditional nudity in her art. For most of art history, woman in art were shown with smooth, perfect bodies, and, when nude, were usually bathing, lounging, or posing.
In Kahlo’s work, however, the less beautiful is shown. In Henry Ford Hospital and Untitled, she is shown naked and in pain, both physically and emotionally. A Few Smalls Nips shows the subject of the portrait dying and nude. The way that Kahlo uses nudity is generally to show vulnerability, not sexuality or beauty for the observer to admire. She wants the observers to try to feel how the subject of the painting, often herself, feel. The Broken Column also uses nudity similar to Henry Ford Hospital and A Few Small Nips in that it shows suffering and imperfection.
The Broken Column was painted in 1944, after Kahlo had a surgery done on her spine due to complications from her bus accident in her younger years. She is crying, similar to in Henry Ford Hospital, but in this painting her body is much more distorted. Her body, split vertically along the spine, is exposed and bleeding around the wound. She is also wearing a brace, and her body and face are being pierced by dozens of small nails.
It is also worth noting that this painting has a dull, empty landscape. There’s an empty blue sky and cracked green earth, but no plant life or buildings or other people in the background. This shows how alone Frida felt in this, as well as the brokenness she felt.
After all of her physical health problems, it’s no wonder that they started to effect Kahlo mentally as well. The Broken Column is very similar to Henry Ford Hospital because both depict her very personally and also in a very vulnerable fashion, and they both show her suffering from her health problems as well as emotionally.
Not all her paintings feel hopeless, though. Late in her short life, she painted Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick. This oil painting, done in 1954 but never completed due to her untimely death, showed her faith in Communism. Kahlo was an active communist, and so was her husband. She was first introduced to the political ideology at the National Preparatory School, and was very politically active, especially as she got older. She even temporarily housed the infamous Communist leader, Leon Trotsky, and had an affair with him.
Kahlo held so much faith in this that she believed it would heal her. Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick is much brighter and more optimistic than many of her paintings. In it, Kahlo is shown rising up, and crutches on either side of her falling to the ground. She also had part of her leg amputated around the time this was made, due to a health issue. Large hands around her seem to be healing her.
On the upper right corner, Karl Marx’s face is next to a hand that appears to be crushing Uncle Sam’s face on an eagle’s body, the ultimate American patriotic symbol, which could also be interpreted as a symbol for capitalism as well. Frida was very vocal about her dislike for the United States while she lived there, and was eager to return to Mexico.
On the left side of the painting is a large white dove, which symbolizes peace. The Earth is also depicted, and it appears that it is being reborn. Frida is staring proudly and strongly at the viewer, so different than many of the distraught paintings of herself. In this painting, she has found health through the political belief that she saw as utopia. She stated about this painting “For the first time, I am not crying anymore.” Later in her life, Frida felt that her art should be more political so she could spread her belief in Marxism.
To conclude, Frida Kahlo’s art was far ahead of its time. She was not afraid to make her art personal, and she was not afraid to break traditions or depict things that most people didn’t want to look at. It brought attention to things that weren’t considered socially acceptable to talk about, like miscarriages, murder, infidelity, depression, politics, and women who didn’t fit a certain beauty standard. She painted what she truly experienced, and her art displays themes that are still relevant today, and some of them still aren’t themes considered part of “polite society”. With the re-birth of many movements that were just starting when she was alive, like feminism and anti-capitalism, it is to be expected that her art will stay just as relevant as it was when she first created it all.
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