“Peg-Leg Frida” – A Rebellious Girl

“Peg-Leg Frida” – A Rebellious Girl

Andrea Kettenmann

“I remember that I was four [actually, she was five] years old when the ‘tragic ten days’ took place. I witnessed with my own eyes Zapata’s peasants’ battle against the Carrancistas.”1

With these words Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), writing in her diary in the early 1940s, described her memories of the Decena Trágica, the "tragic ten days" of February 1913. Indeed, her identification with the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) was so strong that she always gave the year of her birth as 1910. Following the colonial era and the thirty-year dictatorship of General Porfirio Diaz, the Revolution aimed to effect fundamental changes in the country's social structure. Frida Kahlo apparently decided that she and the new Mexico were born at the same time. In truth, however, she was three years the elder: Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo Calderón was born on 6 July 1907 in Coyoacán, then a suburb of Mexico City, as the third of four daughters born to Matilde and Guillermo Kahlo.

In My Grandparents, My Parents and I (ill. p. 9), painted in 1936, the artist traces the history of her ancestry. She appears as a little girl standing in the garden of the Blue House in Coyoacân, today the Museo Frida Kahlo (ill. p. 93 and 94), in which she was born and was also to die. Her parents, who built the house in 1904, appear above her in a pose copied from a photograph taken on their wedding day in 1898 (ill. p. 8 top). The artist points to her pre-natal existence in the foetus shown in her mother's womb. In the motif of the pollination of a flower on the left, she traces her life right back to the moment of conception. In her right hand Frida holds a red ribbon: its two ends wind around her parents and lead up to her two sets of grandparents, their portraits growing out of a bed of clouds. Her maternal grandparents are shown hovering over a mountainous Mexican landscape and a nopal, a type of cactus that features in the myth of the foundation of the state of Méjico and is found in symbolic form on the Mexican flag, and which effectively represents the national plant of Mexico. Frida Kahlo's mother, Matilde Calderón y González (1876-1932), was born in Mexico City, the daughter of Isabel González y González, who came from the family of a Spanish general, and the photographer Antonio Calderón, who was of Indian descent.

The artists paternal grandparents float above the sea: they come from the far side of the ocean. Wilhelm Kahlo (1872-1941), Frida's father, son of jeweller and goldsmith Jakob Heinrich Kahlo and his wife Henriette, née Kaufmann, was born in Pforzheim in southwest Germany where his family achieved prosperity. Following the death of his mother and his father's remarriage, in 1891 the nineteen-year-old Wilhelm Kahlo sailed for Mexico, his passage paid with money given him by his father. There he changed his German forename for its Spanish equivalent, Guillermo, and found employment in a succession of different fields. After his first wife died giving birth to their second daughter, he married Matilde Calderón. His daughters from his first marriage were sent away to be raised in a convent. From his new father-in-law, Kahlo learned the art of photography, in order to set himself up in business as a professional photographer.

In a second version of this "family tree", the Portrait of Frida’s Family began in the early 1950s and was left unfinished at her death (ill. p. 8 bottom), the artist also includes her sisters: Matilde (1898-1951) and Adriana (1902-1968) on one side, and Cristina (1908-1964) between her two children Isolda (1929) and Antonio (1930-1974) on the other. Amongst these figures at the bottom of the picture, there also appears another, unidentified child.

During the rule of the dictator Díaz, Guillermo Kahlo was commissioned to compile a photographic inventory of the architectural monuments of the pre-Columbian and colonial eras. His pictures were to illustrate large-format books published in luxury editions and planned to coincide with the centenary celebrations of Mexican independence in 1921. Guillermo Kahlo was chosen for the project thanks to his experience as an architectural photographer; he thereby earned the appellation “first official photographer of Mexico's national cultural patrimony”.

The Mexican Revolution brought an abrupt end to this lucrative commission. “It was with great difficulty that a livelihood was earned in my house,”2 the artist later recalled, and it was for this reason that she used to work in shops after school even as a child, in order to supplement her family's meagre income.

In a conversation with art critic Raquel Tibol, the artist described details of her childhood: “My mother was unable to breastfeed me because my sister Cristina was born just eleven months after I was. I was fed by a wet nurse, whose breasts were washed immediately before I was suckled. In one of my pictures I show myself, with the face of a grown woman and the body of a little girl, in the arms of my nurse, milk dripping from her breasts as from the heavens.” The work in question is My Nurse and I of 1937 (ill. p 49). The Indian wet nurse, naked from the waist up, wears a pre-Columbian Teotihuacan stone mask in place of a face. Her figure, which recalls representations of indigenous mother goddesses and the wet-nurse figures of the grave art of Jalisco, also refers to the colonial, Christian motif of the Madonna and Child. In fusing these two different traditions, the nurse becomes a symbol of the artist's own mestiza origins. But whereas Western images of the Madonna and Child express the affection and intimacy binding mother and infant, the relationship shown here is distanced and cool, an impression heightened by the lack of eye contact. Although the baby is being fed, tenderness and loving care are not on the menu. “Since Kahlo’s wet nurse was employed solely for breastfeeding, she probably had no personal bond with the baby. Thus it is likely that breastfeeding proceeded exactly as Kahlo has painted it: lacking in all emotion.”3 This lack of emotional bond no doubt helps to explain Frida's ambivalent feelings towards her mother, whom she described as very kind, active and intelligent, but also as calculating, cruel and fanatically religious.

Her father, on the other hand, she described as warm and affectionate: “My childhood was marvellous,” she wrote in her diary, “because, although my father was a sick man [he had attacks of vertigo every month and a half], he was an immense example to me of tenderness, of work [photographer and also painter] and above all of understanding for all my problems.”4 She also recalled how, when she caught polio at the age of six, her father took particular care of her during her nine-month convalescence. Her right leg grew very thin, and her right foot was stunted in its growth. Although her father made sure that she practiced the physiotherapy exercises designed to build up her wasted muscles, her leg, and foot remained deformed – an affliction that, as an adolescent, she sought to hide beneath trousers, and later behind long Mexican skirts. Having been cruelly nicknamed “peg-leg Frida” in her childhood - something that hurt her deeply - she attracted admiring attention in later life with her exotic attire. She often accompanied her father, an enthusiastic amateur artist, on his painting excursions into the local countryside. He also taught her how to use a camera and how to develop, retouch and colour photographs – experiences that were all very useful for her later painting. Her love and admiration for Guillermo Kahlo, whom she described as “very interesting, very elegant in his movements, in his walk”, as “quiet, industrious, brave”, is clearly expressed in the Portrait of My Father of 1951 (ill. p. 10). He is shown with the tool of his trade, a large-format plate-back camera. The banderole across the bottom of the picture, a typical feature of 19th-century Mexican portrait painting, bears the inscription: “I painted my father Wilhelm Kahlo, of Hungarian-German origin, artist-photographer by profession, in character generous, intelligent and fine, valiant because he suffered for sixty years with epilepsy, but never gave up working and fought against Hitler, with adoration. His daughter Frida Kahlo.”

Having finished her primary education at the Colegio Alemán, Mexico's German school, in 1922, Frida Kahlo became a student at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. The school had rigorous entrance examinations, served as a preparatory college for university, and rated as the best educational institute in Mexico. Frida Kahlo joined the first intake of thirty-five girls amongst a total of 2,000 pupils. She wanted to study natural sciences, in particular biology, zoology and anatomy, and hoped ultimately to become a doctor.

The school contained numerous cliques devoted to a variety of interests and activities. Frida Kahlo came into contact with several of them, and was herself a member of the “Cachuchas”, a group named after the peaked caps that its members wore by way of a badge. They read a lot and supported the socialist-nationalist ideas of Minister of Public Education José Vasconcelos, which led them to argue for reforms to their own school. Their ranks numbered several later leaders of the Mexican Left; six of them are captured in If Adelita ... or The Peaked Caps (ill. p. 12 bottom). The work consists of a collage-like compilation of elements representing the interests of the people gathered around the table in symbolic form - a domino, a jazz record, an envelope, the text of the folk-song “La Adelita”. The artist places herself in their midst, her pose and appearance very similar to her first Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress of 1926 (ill. p. 6). Below her appears a corner of the Portrait of Ruth Quintanilla, which she painted in 1927, shortly before this work. The figure in profile is that of author Octavio Bustamante, whose book Invitación al dancing appears in the upper left.

To the left sits the musician and composer Angel Salas, whose activities are symbolized in the sheet of music at the upper right. Next to him - in rear view - is the figure of Carmen Jaime, the only other female member of the group. On the far side of the table, the figure on the extreme left is that of Alejandro Gómez Arias, a law student, journalist, and Kahlo’s boyfriend. He went on to found a radio broadcasting station at the University of Mexico, which earned considerable admiration for its critical reporting, and became a respected intellectual. Lying on the table in front of his hands is a bomb, probably a reference to one of the many practical jokes that the “Cachuchas” played on their teachers. Next to him is the writer Miguel N. Lira, whom Frida Kahlo used to call Chong Lee in reference to his love of Chinese poetry. On a wooden board from the late 1940s, carrying inscriptions from various friends congratulating the poet on a recent success, Frida Kahlo is also immortalized. Beside a small self-portrait of herself wearing the cachucha peaked cap, she wrote: "Chong Lee, Mike, older brother, don't forget Cachucha No. 9" (ill. p. 12 top).

In the Portrait of Miguel N. Lira of 1927 (ill. p. 13), Lira appears holding a windmill as in the earlier group picture. He is surrounded by symbols, some of which play upon his name: the figure of the angel thus establishes a connection between his forename, Miguel, and the Archangel Michael, while the lyre behind represents his surname. Kahlo discussed the picture in letters to Alejandro Gómez Arias: "I am painting a portrait of Lira, totally ugly. He wanted it with a background in the style of Gómez de la Serna. [...] It’s so bad that I simply don't know how he can tell me he likes it. Totally horrible... the background is artificial and he looks like a cardboard cut-out, only one detail seems good to me (one angel in the background). Oh well, you’ll see it soon..."5

The work arose at the same time as other portraits of schoolmates and friends; some of these were destroyed by the artist herself, while others have simply gone missing. They represent her first attempts at painting. Up until 1925, her only artistic encouragement had come from Fernando Fernández, a friend of her father’s who taught her drawing. Fernández, a respected commercial printmaker who had his studio very close to Kahlo’s school, employed her as a paid apprentice as a means of helping her financially. He set her to copy prints by the Swedish Impressionist Anders Zorn, and was very surprised by her talent. Despite her interest in art, however, Kahlo herself stated that, prior to September 1925, she had never thought of pursuing a career as an artist. But her plans were soon to change.

The Delicate Dove and the Fat Frog

On 17 September 1925, on their way home from school, Frida Kahlo and her boyfriend Alejandro Gomez Arias boarded the bus for Coyoacan. Shortly afterwards, there was a terrible accident: their bus collided with a tram, and several people were killed on the spot. Frida Kahlo suffered multiple injuries, leading the doctors to doubt whether she would survive. One year later, in the small pencil sketch Accident (ill. p. 18 top), she recorded the fateful event that was to change her life so greatly. In the manner of popular votive art - a genre so important for her later work - she portrays the scene with no consideration for the rules of perspective. In the upper half of the picture she sketches the moment of collision between the tram and the bus, pointing to its consequences in the bodies of the injured lying on the ground. In the foreground, and much larger than the figures behind, lies Frida Kahlo's own bandaged body on a Red Cross stretcher. Hovering above her is her own face, looking down on the scene with an expression of concern. On the left we see the front of the Blue House in Coyoacan to which she had been returning after school. This drawing is Frida Kahlo's only visual testimony of the accident; never again was she to return to the subject in her work. With one exception. In the early 1940s she came across a Retablo (ill. p. 18 bottom) whose subject so closely resembled her own accident that only a little retouching was needed to transform it into a representation of her own experience. She simply added the writing on the bus and tram, gave the injured woman the close-knit eyebrows so characteristic of her own face, and composed the dedication at the bottom: “Mr. and Mrs. Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde C. de Kahlo give thanks to Our Lady of Sorrows for saving their daughter Frida from the accident which took place in 1925 on the corner of Cuahutemozin and Calzada de Tlalpan.”

The accident left her confined to bed for three months. She spent one month in hospital. After initially seeming to make a full recovery, she began to suffer frequent pain in her spine and her right foot. She also felt permanently tired. Eventually, about a year later, she was readmitted to hospital. Her spine had not actually been X-rayed at the time of the original accident, and only now was it discovered that a number of her vertebrae were displaced. For the next nine months she had to wear a succession of plaster corsets. During this period when her freedom of movement was severely restricted and at times she even had to remain immobile in bed, she poured out her feelings in countless letters to Alejandro Gomez Arias. It was during these months that she began to paint, as a means of escaping the boredom and pain. “I felt I still had enough energy to do something other than studying to become a doctor. Without giving it any particular thought, I started painting,” she told the art critic Antonio Rodriguez.


“For many years my father kept a box of oil paints and some paintbrushes in an old jar and a palette in the corner of his photographic studio. He liked to paint and draw landscapes near the river in Coyoacan, and sometimes he copied chromolithographs. Ever since I was a little girl, as the saying goes, I'd had my eye on that box of paints. I couldn't explain why. Being confined to bed for so long I finally took the opportunity to ask my father for it. Like a little boy whose toy is being taken away from him and given to a sick brother, he 'lent' it to me. My mother asked a carpenter to make me an easel, if that's what you can call the special apparatus that could be fixed onto my bed, because the plaster cast didn't allow me to sit up. And so I started on my first picture, the portrait of a friend.”6

The bed was also given a canopy with a mirror covering its entire underside, so that Frida could see herself and be her own model. This saw the start of the self-portraits that dominate Frida Kahlo's oeuvre and which provide a virtually unbroken record of every stage of her artistic development. A genre of which she was later to say: "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best."7

Her words contain the key to the most striking characteristic of her paintings. In the majority of her full-length self-portraits, the artist portrays herself against a backdrop of vast, bare landscapes or empty, cold rooms, reflecting her own loneliness (ill. pp. 44/45). This same sense of solitude pervades her head and half-length portraits, too. Where she appears on the canvas in the company of her pets, she gives the impression of a child taking comfort from a teddy-bear or doll. Her head and half-length portraits are frequently accompanied by attributes with a symbolic meaning (ill. pp. 27-31). Her full-length portraits, on the other hand, which are often presented in a scenic setting, are predominantly linked to real biographical events: the artist's relationship with her husband Diego Rivera, her physical condition - her ill health following the accident, her inability to carry a child through a full term of pregnancy - as well as her philosophy of nature and life and her view of the world. With her highly personal images, she broke the taboos of her day, in particular those surrounding the female body and female sexuality. Already in the 1950s Diego Rivera was acknowledging her as “the first woman in the history of art to treat, with absolute and uncompromising honesty, one might even say with impassive cruelty, those general and specific themes which exclusively affect women.”8 During her time confined to bed, Frida Kahlo had the opportunity to make an intensive study of her own mirror image.

This self-analysis took place at a time when, having only recently escaped death, she was starting to discover and experience both her own self and the world about her at a new and more conscious level. “From that time, my obsession was to begin again, painting things just as I saw them with my own eyes and nothing more,”9 she told Rodriguez. The photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo observed that the artist had found new life through painting, and that the accident had been followed by a sort of rebirth, in which her love of nature, animals, colours, and fruits, of anything beautiful and positive, had been renewed.10 

Frida Kahlo's self-portraits helped her to shape an idea of her own person; by creating herself anew in art as in life, she could find her way to an identity. This may explain why her self-portraits differ in only relatively small respects. The artist looks out at the viewer with almost always the same mask-like face, in which feelings and moods can be read only with difficulty. Her eyes, framed by the heavy, dark eyebrows that met like the wings of a bird above her nose, are particularly impressive.

In order to express her ideas and feelings, Frida Kahlo developed a personal pictorial language employing its own vocabulary and syntax. She used symbols which, once decoded, offer insights into her oeuvre and the circumstances surrounding its creation. Her message is not hermetic: her works should be viewed as metaphorical summaries of concrete experiences. The rich imagery that fills Frida Kahlo's works is derived first and foremost from Mexican popular art and pre-Columbian culture. The artist also draws upon the stylistic vernacular of retablos, votive paintings of Christian saints and martyrs that have a permanent place in popular religious belief. She refers to traditions that, however surreal they may strike the European, continue to flourish in Mexican daily life even today. But although many of her works contain surreal and fantastical elements, they cannot be called Surrealist, for in none of them does she entirely free herself from reality. Her messages are never impenetrable or illogical. Fact and fiction fuse in her works, as in so many Mexican works of art, as two components of one and the same reality.

Frida Kahlo's first self-portrait, the Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress of 1926 (ill. p. 6), and her early portraits of friends and sisters are still oriented towards European-influenced Mexican portrait painting of the 19th century. Examples include the Portrait of Miguel N. Lira (ill. p. 13), the Portrait of Alicia Galant (ill. p. 14), and the Portrait of My Sister Cristina (ill. p. 15). These differ greatly from the artists later portraits, which reveal a clear trend towards Mexicanism, Mexican national consciousness. This sense of national identity was shared after the Revolution by the whole country.

The election of Alvaro Obregon as president (1920) and the foundation of a Ministry of Public Education under Jose Vasconcelos not only helped combat illiteracy, but also launched a comprehensive cultural reform movement whose aim was to achieve equal status and cultural integration for the Indian population and to re-establish their own Mexican culture. The attitudes that had led Indian culture to be repressed since the Spanish conquest, and encouraged a European-influenced academic art from the 19th century onwards, now found themselves challenged. Artists who had felt the previous conventional imitation of European models to be degrading called for an independent Mexican art free of all academic posturing. They argued for a return to the nation's roots and the reinstatement of Mexican folk art.

Frida Kahlo joined up with this circle of artists and intellectuals in 1928. Her health had recovered to the extent that, by the end of 1927, she was once more living a largely "normal" life. She resumed contact with her old school friends. Many of them had since left the Preparatoria and were now politically active at the university. At the start of 1928, German de Campo, a friend from her school days, introduced her to a group of young people centered around the Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella, who was currently in exile in Mexico. Mella was the lover of the photographer Tina Modotti, who was in close contact with progressive men and women artists.

It was through Modotti that Frida Kahlo met Diego Rivera. Kahlo had already seen Rivera once before, at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, where he had painted his first mural in the school's Simon Bolivar Amphitheatre in 1922. She now went to see the artist - who had since become famous - in the Ministry of Public Education, where he had been working on a new mural since 1923. She greatly admired both the man and his painting, and wanted to ask him what he thought of her own efforts and whether he considered her talented. Rivera was immediately impressed by the works she showed him: "The canvases revealed an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity. [...] They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own. They communicated a vital sensuality, complemented by a merciless yet sensitive power of observation. It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist."11 

Diego Rivera strengthened her resolve to pursue a career as an artist, and from now on was a frequent guest at the Kahlo home. He incorporated a portrait of Frida Kahlo into his Ballad of the Revolution mural in the Ministry of Public Education. She appears in the panel Frida Kahlo Distributes the Weapons (ill. p. 20), flanked by Tina Modotti, Julio Antonio Mella and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Dressed in a black skirt and a red shirt, and wearing a red star on her breast, she is shown as a member of the Mexican Communist Party (PCM), which she in fact joined in 1928. Together with her party comrades, she supported the armed class struggle of the Mexican people.

She herself portrays a very different Frida Kahlo in her second self-portrait, Self-Portrait "Time Flies" (ill. p. 28 bottom right) of 1929. A comparison between this and her Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress of September 1926 (ill. p. 6), a gift for her then boyfriend Alejandro Gomez Arias, makes clear the change in her style. The earlier work reflects her interest in the painting of the Italian Renaissance; she is portrayed in an aristocratic, somewhat melancholic pose, her neck manneristically elongated in the style of Amedeo Modigliani. In the second self-portrait by contrast, she offers a frontal view of her fresh, red-cheeked face, gazing confidently out at the viewer and wearing a positive, determined expression. The elegant velvet dress with its exquisite brocade has given way to a simple cotton blouse - a popular item of clothing that can still be purchased in markets throughout Mexico today. The gloomy Art Nouveau background of the earlier portrait, found also in the Portrait of Alicia Galant (ill. p. 14), is here flooded with light: the curtains have been tied back with thick red cords, and in the sky above the balcony railings we see a propeller plane looping the loop. The ornate stand behind Frida Kahlo's shoulder on the right carries an ordinary metal alarm clock, and not the precious objet d’art we might expect. In her inclusion of the airplane and the clock, she illustrates the proverbial expression: "Time flies".

On 21 August 1929, Frida Kahlo married Diego Rivera, twenty-one years her senior. His ideological influence upon her is reflected both in the picture of 1929 described above and in Frida Kahlos involvement in the circle of Mexican artists and intellectuals calling for an independent Mexican art. "Mexicanism" was to find its expression first and foremost in the mural paintings that were sponsored by the state as a means of educating the country's large illiterate population in the history of their nation. Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros won particular acclaim as mural artists. "Nationalist ideas" were not limited to monumental painting, however, but were also the subject of smaller canvases by leading artists such as Gerardo Murillo (known as Dr. Atl), Adolfo Best Maugard and Roberto Montenegro. Elements of folk art were to be reinstated in "fine" art, whereby works of popular art were not - as nevertheless still happened - simply to be removed from their practical context, brought into the cities and exhibited as works of art, but integrated directly into the new works created by modern artists.

In 1923 Adolfo Best Maugard wrote a book on the tradition, revival and development of Mexican art. It opened with a theoretical introduction to the social function of art and the significance of arte popular, and was followed by an essay with examples of elements and forms from Mexican popular art. His theories are illustrated in his own Self-Portrait, painted that same year (ill. p. 14 left). Here he invokes elements discussed in his book - the stylized, non-perspective method of representation, for example - to indicate the Indian sources of Mexican popular art.

He exposes the colonial sources of (often anonymous) Mexican 19th-century portrait painting in a similar manner; in depicting curtains tied back by cords, for example, he cites a typical feature of 19th-century portraits that can be traced back to works from the colonial era and that had also been incorporated into popular art. The hilly background terrain, the castle with the Mexican flag flying from its turret, the sun, the airplane, and even the decoration of the stage-like flooring in the foreground are similarly all employed in accordance with the ideas set forth in his book.

It is highly probable that Frida Kahlo was familiar both with Best Maugard's book and his self-portrait when she joined the artists' circle. Her Self-Portrait "Time Flies" of 1929 employs a corresponding symbolism. In such details as her simple clothing, colonial earrings and a pre-colonial jade necklace, Frida Kahlo points to pre-Columbian and colonial cultural influences. She thereby acknowledges the roots of Mexican culture and declares herself a mestiza, a "true" Mexican woman whose veins run with a mixture of Indian and Spanish blood. The picture becomes the expression of her national consciousness, dominated by the colours green, white and red of the Mexican flag. Differences in technique aside, motifs such as the small propeller plane and the curtains symmetrically framing the scene (which serve as backdrop in other portraits, too), further suggest that Frida Kahlo may have modelled her Self-Portrait 'Time Flies" on Best Maugard's earlier self-portrait.

With reference to the "Mexicanism" in Frida Kahlo's art, Diego Rivera remarked that: "Different critics from various countries have described Frida Kahlo's painting as the most forceful and the most Mexican of the present day. I entirely agree with them. [...] Of all the well-known painters on the art market at the spearhead of national art, Frida Kahlo is the only one who is drawing, closely and without hypocrisy or aesthetic prejudice, but rather, one might say, for the sake of the thing itself, upon this pure product of popular art [votive painting]."12 

From popular art Frida Kahlo borrowed her palette and certain of her motifs, such as the skeleton-like "Judas figures" that accompany her in some of her self-portraits. She took elements from the votive paintings of anonymous amateur artists, and at the same time drew inspiration from pre-Columbian culture and Mexican 19th-century portraiture. The objects of folk art that Frida Kahlo incorporated into her work were simultaneously gaining access to the homes of Mexican intellectuals as decorative handicrafts. The Kahlo-Rivera household, too, had its own collection of rustic furniture, lacquer-painted objects, masks, papier-mache Judas figures and votive panels.

In her self-portraits Frida Kahlo usually shows herself wearing very simple, unsophisticated clothing or Indian costume - garments through which she expressed her identification with the indigenous population and thus her own national identity. "In another period I dressed like a boy with shaved hair, pants, boots and a leather jacket. But when I went to see Diego, I put on a Tehuana costume.”13

The artist did indeed wear men's clothing for a while, establishing her image as an unusual, independent woman. She subsequently reinforced this image by donning the richly decorative dress of the women from the isthmus of Tehuantepec. This became her preferred clothing after her marriage to Rivera, not least because the floor-length skirt enabled her to hide her physical deformity - her somewhat shorter, thin right leg. The Tehuantepec region in southwest Mexico is one in which matriarchal traditions survive even today, and its economic structure reflects the dominant role of women. This fact seems to have had particular appeal for many intellectuals, and in the twenties and thirties Tehuana costume was adopted by many educated Mexican city women. It perfectly matched the growing spirit of nationalism and the revived interest in Indian culture. "The classic Mexican dress has been created by people for people," according to Diego Rivera. "The Mexican women who do not wear it do not belong to the people, but are mentally and emotionally dependent on a foreign class to which they wish to belong, i.e., the great American and French bureaucracy."14

In Frida Kahlo, who wore Mexican costumes, Diego Rivera saw "the personification of all national glory."15 It was with similar ideological ends in mind that the artist designed the backgrounds to her self-portraits and selected the attributes that accompanied her. Thus she shares the limelight with the flora and fauna of Mexico, with cacti, plants of the primeval forest, volcanic rock, parrots, deer, monkeys and Itzcuintli dogs - animals that she kept as pets and which appear in her pictures as the companions of her solitude.

A Mexican Artist in "Gringolandia" 

In November 1930 Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera moved to the USA for four years. San Francisco was their first stop. Diego Rivera had been commissioned to paint murals for the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Arts, today the San Francisco Art Institute.

His decision to live and work in the United States for such a lengthy period was based on both artistic and political considerations. The Americans were very interested in the cultural development - the so-called Mexican Renaissance - of their southern neighbours. At the same time, the USA represented a powerful magnet for Mexican artists, a number of whom moved to America to profit from its more strongly developed art market.

Under the presidency of Plutarco Elías Calles, head of state from 1924 to 1928, the situation of mural painters in Mexico had steadily worsened. His new cultural and educational policies no longer included unlimited funding for mural projects; painting contracts had been terminated with the dismissal of Minister of Public Education Vasconcelos in 1924. The number of commissions subsequently fell, and some frescos were even destroyed, among them The Creation, which Rivera had painted in the Simón Bolívar Amphitheatre in the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria.

The years between 1928 and 1934, spent under a successor government still controlled by Calles, saw repressive moves against political opponents. The PCM was banned and numerous communists thrown into jail. The situation precipitated a "Mexican invasion" of the United States. The decision by the recently wed Kahlo-Riveras to go abroad must also be seen in this light.

In San Francisco Frida Kahlo met artists, clients and patrons, amongst them Albert Bender, an insurance agent and art collector who had already purchased a number of works from Diego Rivera during earlier trips to Mexico. It was Bender, through his extensive network of contacts, who had succeeded in procuring for Rivera the United States entry visa which had initially been denied him on the basis of his communist sympathies, despite the fact that the artist had left the Communist Party in 1929 because of its trend towards Stalinism.

In gratitude, Frida Kahlo painted for Bender the first of a series of double portraits of herself and her husband, Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera (ill. p. 23). The composition is kept deliberately traditional, oriented in form and style to the Mexican portraits of the 18th and 19th centuries. Possibly based on their actual wedding photograph, the difference in height between the couple appears exaggerated, but was in fact the case. The artist's dainty feet hardly touch the ground. She appears instead to float beside her corpulent husband, whose big feet are planted firmly on the ground. Identified as an artist by his palette and brushes, Rivera looks confidently out at the viewer, while Frida Kahlo, her head inclined almost shyly to one side and her hand placed timidly in Riveras, presents herself as the wife of the brilliant painter. Although she spent most of her six-month stay in San Francisco at her easel, Frida Kahlo clearly did not yet have the courage to portray her own self as an artist.

After Rivera had finished his work in San Francisco in June 1931, the couple made just a brief visit to Mexico before moving on to New York, where Rivera had been invited to attend a comprehensive retrospective of his works. In April 1932 the couple then went to Detroit for almost a year. Rivera was to paint a fresco on the subject of modern industry for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In 1930 Frida Kahlo had had to undergo an abortion for medical reasons. In Detroit she became pregnant a second time, even though she had been told after her bus accident that she would probably never be able to carry a child to term; her pelvis, which had been fractured in three places, would no longer allow a correct foetal position or a normal birth. In San Francisco in December 1930 she had met Dr. Leo Eloesser, a well-known surgeon with whom she became good friends; in 1931 she painted him in the Portrait of Dr. Leo Eloesser (ill. p. 34). At the start of her second pregnancy, on his advice, she consulted a doctor at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. "He told me [...] that his opinion is that it would be much better if instead of making me abort with an operation I should keep the baby and that in spite of the bad condition of my organism, bearing in mind the little fracture of the pelvis, spine, etc., etc., I could have a child with a Caesarean operation without great difficulties," she wrote [in English] to Dr. Eloesser, whom she trusted implicitly on the subject of her health and whose advice she frequently sought. "Do you think that it would be more dangerous to abort than to have a child?"16 

In the same letter she also discussed other complicating factors that made her feel that a pregnancy was perhaps not the best idea. She also mentioned that Rivera was not interested in having children. Before the doctor had had a chance to reply, however, she seems to have made up her mind to go through with the pregnancy. As she later told him: "At that time I was enthusiastic about having the child after having thought of all the difficulties that it would cause me."17 

Her disappointment must have been all the greater, therefore, when on 4 July that year she had a miscarriage and lost the baby she so desired. The artist began recording the traumatic experience of her miscarriage in a pencil drawing even during the thirteen days she spent recovering in hospital. The sketch later became the model for the oil painting Henry Ford Hospital (ill. p. 39). The painting shows the artist lying naked in a hospital bed that is far too big in relation to her body. The white sheet beneath her lower abdomen is soaked in blood. Over her belly, still slightly swollen from the pregnancy, she holds three red artery-like ribbons in her left hand, with six objects tied to their ends - symbols of her sexuality and her failed pregnancy. The ribbon branching out above the pool of blood surrounding her pelvis becomes an umbilical cord, and leads to an outsize male foetus in embryonic position. It is the child lost in the miscarriage, the little “Dieguito”” whom she had hoped to carry a full nine months.

A snail floats over the head of the bed on the right. According to Frida Kahlo herself, it is a symbol of the slow course of the miscarriage. The snail also appears in other of her works (ill. pp. 69 and ill. p. 76/77) as a symbol of vitality and sexuality. Its protective housing led Indian cultures to see the snail as a symbol of conception, pregnancy and birth. In its emergence and withdrawal into its shell, it is linked to the waxing and waning of the moon, which in turn stands for the female cycle and thus female sexuality itself.

The salmon-pink anatomical model of the lower part of a body over the foot of the bed, like the bone model at the lower right, indicates the cause of the miscarriage, namely the damaged backbone and pelvis that made it impossible for Frida Kahlo to have a child. The piece of machinery at the lower left may also be understood in this context. It probably represents part of a steam sterilizer, as employed in hospitals in those days. It is a mechanical component which serves to seal gas or compressed-air tanks and thereby to regulate the pressure within. Lying in hospital, Frida Kahlo may have seen a parallel between this sealing mechanism and her own "faulty" muscles, which prevented her from keeping the child in her womb. The purple orchid in the center below the bed was brought to her in hospital - according to Frida Kahlo - by Diego Rivera. For her, the orchid was a symbol of sexuality and emotions.

The loneliness and helplessness evoked by the small figure of the artist, so utterly vulnerable in an enormous bed before a vast plain, surely reflect Frida Kahlo's own feelings following the loss of her child and during her stay in hospital. This impression is reinforced by the desolate industrial landscape on the horizon, against which the bed appears to float. It is the Rouge River complex in Dearborn/Detroit, part of the Ford Motor Company. The Riveras had visited it together, since Rivera wanted to undertake studies there for his Man and Machine mural for the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Rouge River complex indicates the city in which the traumatic event took place. A symbol of technological progress, it stands in crass contrast to the human fate of the artist.

Although the individual motifs within the picture are rendered in accurate detail, true-life realism is avoided in the composition as a whole. Objects are extracted from their normal environment and integrated into a new composition. It is more important to the artist to reproduce her emotional state in a distillation of the reality she had experienced than to record an actual situation with photographic precision.

The extraction and re-integration of essential, meaningful elements is a characteristic feature of Mexican votive art. Indeed, many parallels can be drawn between the style, size, and materials employed by Frida Kahlo and those of ex-voto painting. Like most votive pictures of the 19th and 20th centuries, Henry Ford Hospital (ill. p. 39) is executed in oil on metal and has a small format. But while ex-votos generally depict the saints to whom they are dedicated in the upper, sky region of the composition, surrounded by an aureole of fluffy cloud, here they are omitted altogether. Their place is taken instead by the floating symbols with a quite different significance. The work nevertheless represents, like a votive image, the depiction of a calamity. And just as Frida Kahlo has done here, votive paintings commonly portray specific objects, textiles and decorative elements in precise detail, and employ landscapes and architecture purely as backdrop, without perspective depth. Although the work bears no dedication from a donor or written description of the accident, it makes reference to such votive inscriptions in the date and place of events given on the sides of the bed.

Even if the ex-voto elements of Henry Ford Hospital were not employed in their original spirit, the painting is nevertheless closely related to votive images. This emerges most clearly, as in many of her other pictures, in its combination of biographical fact and fantasy. Like the amateur painters of votive pictures, Frida Kahlo did not paint her reality as it was seen, but as she felt it. The outside world is thereby reduced to its essentials, and a sequence of events condensed into a powerful climax.

The artist owned a large collection of ex-voto panels. These came from churches closed by the authorities following the Revolution, where they had once been hung by the faithful in supplication or thanksgiving to the Virgin and other saints. Of the older works of this kind, originally painted on wood or canvas by anonymous, untrained artists, only a small number still survive today. The cheaper and more durable material of metal did not come into use until the 19th century.

Frida Kahlo began employing the small-format metal panels common to ex-votos from 1932 onwards, above all for her self-portraits, where the problems she portrays share the individual and highly personal character of votive pictures. She thereby employs a similar compositional structure, adopts the same simplicity of form and reduces her subject to its essentials. A centralized perspective and correct proportioning are neglected in favour of scenic dramatization. There are no borders in her portraits between the real world, the objectively visible, and the world of the irrational and the imagination.

In March 1933, Diego having completed his murals, the couple left Detroit and spent the next nine months in New York, where Rivera had been awarded another commission. They had now been in America for almost three years, and Frida Kahlo was growing homesick for Mexico. She had already made clear her ambivalent feelings towards "Gringolandia" in her Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States (ill. p. 35) of 1932.

In an elegant pink dress and long, white lace gloves, she stands like a statue on a pedestal on the borderline between two different worlds. On the left, we recognize the ancient Mexican landscape, governed by the forces of nature and the natural life cycle, while on the right we see the dead, technology-dominated landscape of the United States. Frida Kahlo finds herself torn between these two opposites. She holds a Mexican flag in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Despite her admiration for its industrial progress, the Mexican nationalist felt very uncomfortable in the New World. "I don't particularly like the gringo people," she wrote to a friend in Mexico. "They are boring and they all have faces like unbaked rolls (especially the old women)."18 
And in a letter to her friend Dr. Eloesser, she complains:

"High society here turns me off and I feel a bit of rage against all these rich guys here, since I have seen thousands of people in the most terrible misery without anything to eat and with no place to sleep, that is what has most impressed me here, it is terrifying to see the rich having parties day and night while thousands and thousands of people are dying of hunger... Although I am very interested in all the industrial and mechanical development of the United States, I find that Americans completely lack sensibility and good taste. They live as if in an enormous chicken coop that is dirty and uncomfortable. The houses look like bread ovens and all the comfort that they talk about is a myth."19

The fact that her admiration for American technology was not uncritical, and that she was aware of the disadvantages of such "development", is reflected in her portrayal of the dead, cold world of industry in predominantly greys and blues. The Mexican world, on the other hand, is depicted in warm, earthy and natural colours; flowers burst forth, and even the man-made products of sculpture and pyramid are built of natural materials. This contrast between the natural and the artificial appears throughout the composition. Thus the clouds in the Mexican sky have their counterpart in the smoke billowing from the factory stacks of the Ford works, while the rich flora on the left gives way on the right to various items of electrical equipment, whose trailing cables become the roots through which they suck energy from the ground. Whereas the American industrial world appears lifeless, on the Mexican side two fertility dolls and a death’s head together symbolize the cycle of life and death. In contrast to the gods of the USA, the industrialists, bankers and factory owners who dwell in skyscrapers, the modern-day city temples, we find on the left the ancient Mexican gods of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, here represented by the sun and moon over the ruins of a pre-Columbian temple.

There is just one link between the two worlds: an electricity generator standing on American soil draws its power from the roots of a Mexican plant, which it then supplies to the socket on the pedestal on which Frida Kahlo is standing. Her figure thus appears to receive its energy from both worlds. This may be understood as an indication that the picture is more than just a statement of her current state of mind, her torn loyalties and homesickness for her native land; at another level, Frida Kahlo becomes the personification of Mexico itself, building upon its history and exploiting technological progress as it steers its own course between the two poles.

Serious disagreements arose between the couple before their return to Mexico. While Frida Kahlo had had enough of America and the Americans, Rivera remained fascinated by the country and did not want to leave. In reaction to the conflict, Frida Kahlo began work on My Dress Hangs There (ill. p. 36), which she later completed in Mexico. The only collage in the artist's oeuvre, it represents an ironic portrait of American capitalism. Filled with symbols of modern American industrial society, it points to social decay and the destruction of fundamental human values.

In an irony of fate, Rivera was released from his contract before its official expiry. He had given the figure of a workers' leader in his fresco the face of Lenin. In December 1933 he gave in to Frida's pressure and returned to Mexico with her. The couple moved into a new house in San Angel, then a southern suburb of Mexico City, which Rivera had commissioned from a friend, the architect and painter Juan O'Gorman. It was made up of two cuboids: Frida Kahlo lived in the smaller, blue one, while Diego Rivera set up a spacious studio in the larger, pink one. Having done little work during her last year in America, Frida Kahlo - at last back in the surroundings she had yearned for - was ready to throw herself into painting. But health problems forced her back into hospital, and another pregnancy had to be terminated.

In 1935, too, she was only to produce two works, of which A Few Little Pricks (ill. p. 41) is particularly striking for its bloody nature. It represents the visual transcript of a newspaper about a woman murdered in an act of jealousy. The murderer had thereby defended his actions before the judge with the words: “But it was just a few little pricks!”

As in the case of most of her work, this gruesome representation of a murder must be viewed in the light of her own personal situation. Her relationship with Rivera during this period was so troubled that she was apparently only able to find release through the symbolism of her painting. Rivera, who had had repeated affairs with other women since their marriage, had now become involved with Frida's sister Cristina, who had modelled for him in two of his murals (ill. p. 15 right).

Profoundly hurt, Frida Kahlo left the couple's home at the beginning of 1935 and took an apartment in the centre of Mexico City. She contacted a lawyer friend, one of her former "Cachucha" comrades, in order to ask his advice about a possible divorce. Viewed in this light, A Few Little Pricks may be seen as an illustration of the artist's mental state. The wounds caused by brutal male violence seem to symbolize her own emotional injuries.

In the middle of 1935, Frida Kahlo escaped to New York with two American women friends to get away from her burdensome situation. When the relationship between Rivera and Cristina Kahlo ended, at the end of 1935, she returned to San Angel. The slate was wiped clean, although this did not mean that Rivera ceased his extramarital philandering. Instead, Frida Kahlo now started having her own affairs with other men, and - particularly in the later years of her life - with other women, too.

From 1936 Frida Kahlo renewed her political activities. July 1936 saw the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War; together with other sympathizers, she founded a solidarity committee in aid of the Republicans. Her political work gave her new drive and also brought her closer to Rivera, who had been sympathetic towards the Trotskyist League since 1933, when Leon Trotsky had started building up the Fourth International. That same year, the couple petitioned the Mexican government to grant asylum to Leon Trotsky, who had been expelled from Norway as a result of pressure from Moscow. President Lazaro Cardenas, who had been seeking to establish democratic conditions in Mexico since taking up his post in 1934, granted the asylum request.

On 9 January 1937, Natalia Sedova and Trotsky docked in Tampico, where they were met by Frida Kahlo. The artist placed at their disposal the Blue House, the Kahlo family home in Coyoacan, where the Trotskys lived until April 1939. The two couples spent many hours together, and a brief love affair flourished between Trotsky and Frida Kahlo. After their relationship ended in July 1937, the artist gave Trotsky the Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (ill. p. 42) for his birthday on 7 November, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Dedicated "with all love", the work is executed in bright, friendly colours and exudes a fresh, positive atmosphere, prompting Andre Breton, six months later, to describe it in the following euphoric terms: "I have for long admired the self-portrait by Frida Kahlo de Rivera that hangs on a wall of Trotskys study. She has painted herself in a robe of wings gilded with butterflies, and it is exactly in this guise that she draws aside the mental curtain. We are privileged to be present, as in the most glorious days of German romanticism, at the entry of a young woman endowed with all the gifts of seduction."20 

Jacqueline Lamba and Andre Breton arrived in Mexico in April 1938 and stayed for several months. For some of that time they lived with the Kahlo- Riveras in San Angel. Breton, one of the leaders of Surrealism, had been sent to lecture in Mexico by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He, too, sympathized with the Trotskyist League and was very eager to meet Trotsky. He saw Mexico as the embodiment of Surrealism, and he also interpreted Frida Kahlo's works as Surrealist.

It was through this contact with Breton that Frida Kahlo was offered her first large exhibition abroad that same year. The difference between her art and that of the Surrealists was noted after this exhibition by Bertram D. Wolfe, who observed in an article published in Vogue: "Though Andre Breton [...] told her she was a surrealiste, she did not attain her style by following the methods of that school. [...] Quite free, also, from the Freudian symbols and philosophy that obsess the official Surrealist painters, hers is a sort of 'naive' Surrealism, which she invented for herself. [...] While official Surrealism concerns itself mostly with the stuff of dreams, nightmares, and neurotic symbols, in Madame Riveras brand of it, wit and humour predominate."21

Kettenmann, Andrea. Frida Kahlo: 1907-1954. Pain and Passion. English edition. Cologne: Taschen, 2016.



1Diary entry, quoted from Hayden Herrera, Frida, A Biography of Frida Kahlo, London 1989, p. 11

2Diary entry, quoted from Herrera 1989, p. 12

3From Salomon Grimberg, in: Helga Prignitz-Poda, Salomon Grimberg, Andrea Kettenman, Frida Kahlo: das Gesamtwerk, Frankfurt/Main 1988, p. 18

4Diary entry, quoted from Herrera 1989, p. 20

5From Raquel Tibol, Frida Kahlo, Una Vida Abierta, Mexico City 1981, p. 48f.

6From Antonio Rodríguez, “Frida Kahlo heroína del dolor”, in: Hoy, Mexico City, 9 February 1952

7From Antonio Rodríguez, “Una Pintora extraordinaria”, in: Así, Mexico City, 17 March 1945

8Tibol 1983, p. 96

9From “Homenaje a Frida Kahlo”, in: Mexico City, no. 330, 17 July 1955, p. 1; quoted from Herrera 1989, p. 74f.

10Lola Alvarez Bravo, in: Karen & David Crommie, The Life and Death of Frida Kahlo, 16 mm documentary film, San Francisco 1966 

11From Diego Rivera/Gladys March, My Art, My Life. An Autobiography, New York 1960, p. 169ff.

12Tibol 1983, p. 95f

13Bambi, “Frida dice lo que sabe”, in: Excelsior, Mexico City, 15 June 1954, p. 1; quoted from Herrera 1989, p. 109

14Diego Rivera, in: “Fashion Notes”, in: Time, New York, 3 May 1948, p. 33f

15Tibol 1983, p. 97

16Herrera 1989, p. 138

17Ibid., p. 142f.

18Tibol 1983, p. 53: quoted from Herrera 1989, p.119

19Herrera 1989, p. 131

20André Breton, “Frida Kahlo”, from: André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, London 1972, p. 143 (translated by Simon Watson Taylor from the original French edition, Le Surrealisme et la Peinture, Paris 1945)

21Bertram D. Wolfe, “Rise of Another Rivera”, in: Vogue, New York, vol. 92, no. 1, Oct/Nov 1938, pp. 64, 131