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Frida Kahlo: The Wonders behind the Tragedies

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“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” expressed William Shakespeare. (G) Shakespeare knew not of Frida Kahlo when he made this statement, yet he wholly describes her by declaring this. For a woman who faced many hardships during her lifetime, she was not born one of the greatest Mexican painters of all time, but had it thrust upon her. She overcame the obstacles and struggles of her life by turning to art, as shown in her numerous famous paintings. Kahlo goes through many different problems in life and shares her feelings through her works of art.

Overtime, how effective is Frida Kahlo in displaying her life experiences and her emotions connected with them in her artwork through her use of symbolism? (GQ) Frida Kahlo portrays her life experiences throughout her artwork and the emotions connected with them using symbolism of people, color, and objects (C) in her paintings created in the 1930’s to the 1950’s. (O) Overtime, Frida Kahlo tries to make the best of her disadvantages and tribulations occurring in her life. Throughout her lifetime, she endured more than 30 operations and many betrayals, which allowed her to become familiar with the word “pain.” Through her paintings, she shares her experiences of pain with others as a way of connecting with them and creating bonds. In the long run, Kahlo copes in a way that could be shared with the whole world: Artwork. (S)

Birth of Greatness
Born Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón on July 6, 1907, in Coyocoán, Mexico City, Mexico, Frida Kahlo enjoyed life in her family’s “Blue House”, until she contracted polio at the age of 6, causing her to be bedridden. The polio that spread to her right leg caused it to become thin and made it shorter than the left. Kahlo’s classmates nicknamed her “peg-leg,” and teased her constantly. But after recovering from polio, Kahlo continued to live her life to fullest, attending a prestigious high school where she learned a variety of subjects, including English and German. It was not until a bus accident in 1925, at the adventurous age of 18, where she suffered greatly from many injuries. Including a broken spine, pelvic bone, and many more fractures, this accident caused Frida’s dreams of becoming a doctor and studying abroad to disappear. From this point on, Kahlo began to paint as a way of dealing with her pains and troubles in life. Through dealing with and overcoming her own troubles, Kahlo shares her emotions through art and in effect, assists others in overcoming their own difficulties. (CO)

Kahlo and the 1930’s
Married in 1929 to Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo’s post-marriage influenced much of the symbolism included in her paintings during the 1930’s. (V1) In 1932, Kahlo experienced her 2nd miscarriage in the Henry Ford Hospital. As her way of coping with the experience she painted “Henry Ford Hospital,” and “Frida and the Miscarriage.”

In “Henry Ford Hospital,” Kahlo is lying on her back on bloody sheets, unclothed, after her miscarriage. The bed frame bears the inscription “Henry Ford Hospital Detroit,” suspended in the air, floating in an “abstract space circled by six images relating to the miscarriage, all tied to blood-red filaments,” as described by Dr., John Woodcock. A retired professor from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, Woodcock currently serves on the Bloomington Hospital Medical Ethics Committee teaching humanities courses on medical issues and workshops in autobiography.

His knowledge of Frida Kahlo is not extensive, yet in his days of teaching and the date of this publication, Woodcock’s knowledge of Kahlo’s work was sufficient. (ES) By including these floating images, Kahlo uses these objects as symbols of “loss, loneliness, and exposure,” (Woodcock) and tells the story of her miscarriage through this. The lonliness Kahlo felt while in Henry Ford Hospital is depicted by her lying on the bed in “Henry Ford Hospital” naked and alone. The figures surrounding her allow a viewer to understand the significant times during her pregnancy and the ones that affected her the most. The central figure in “Henry Ford Hospital” is the fetus that floats almost directly above her, even though the other figures represent that she suffered a “loss” in her pelvis and uterus as a result of her accidents. Kahlo definitely is effective in portraying the idea that her “paintings carry with it the message of pain” (Kahlo).

Kahlo’s artworks “articulate states of mind, emotional states, psychological states, and cultural issues that we can all relate to,” (Zamudio Taylor), and through her paintings Kahlo creatively displays her states of mind. Through the description of the PBS interview of Zamudio Taylor, a well known lecturer of Latin American Art, Zamudio Taylor’s concise idea of Kahlo’s artwork is understood. His documentary “The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo,” presents Kahlo’s life tragedies and her ability to manage life through art.

Later on, after her 2nd miscarriage, she painted “Frida and the Miscarriage,” a painting that more effectively displays the emotions and sorrow she experienced throughout her loss. In this painting, an unclothed female figure shown facing the viewer is surrounded by images displaying the human reproduction process. Drops of blood shaped like tears drip down the figure’s leg and, “soak into a dark mass in the earth, where they nourish the roots of several plants”, representing the idea that “death is part of a wider natural cycle of life and death and rebirth” (Woodcock). “Above her is a weeping crescent moon” (Woodcock), which expresses the tears she cried for the loss of her baby and displays Kahlo’s use of symbolism through objects.

Kahlo also displays an expression of color through the darker left side of the figure. By creating one side of the figure darker, Kahlo displays the theme of “survival,” and “suggests that art comes from the healing side” (Woodcock). This aspect of human nature displayed is her step towards coping with the situation. Part of her is trying to heal and become better, while the other part of her wants to hold on forever. Her immense use of symbolism in this painting allows Kahlo to, overtime, heal emotionally and overcome the miscarriage. As a result, many believe this painting is one of the pieces that kept Kahlo contained and stable during these devastating moments of her life. After her third miscarriage in 1934, Kahlo felt loss and separation from her mother once again and painted “My Nurse and I,” in 1937. The mother-daughter bond and relationship she lacked as a child was elicited and expressed in this image. Baby Kahlo painted here is shown being breastfed by a woman wearing a Pre-Columbian funerary mask because Kahlo could not remember her wet-nurse’s facial features.

Kahlo’s reasons for painting a native Indian wet-nurse symbolizes her loss of another child and brought about memories from her childhood. Mike Brooks, who received the paintings for his website from Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Art Collection, University of Texas, shows his use of many reliable sources in putting together his informative, educational site by citing distinguished authors with familiarity of Kahlo’s work such as Hayden Herrera. (ES) In the painting the relationship among the two is described as “distant and cold” and the wet nurse does not embrace Kahlo, but “displays her like a sacrificial offering” (Brooks). In this case, the wet-nurse, represents Kahlo’s mother and her longing for her as well. This lack of a mother-daughter bond as a young child led Kahlo to become so depressed during her miscarriages because she was never allowed the opportunity to create a lasting relationship with a child of her own.

Towards the end of the 1930’s, Frida Kahlo became more active in the Mexican Communist Party and started to lead a more independent life as displayed in “Las Dos Fridas”. Pamela Fraker, a student at Santa Monica College, displays great knowledge of Frida Kahlo in her views. Citing Art Historian Eleanor Schrader Schapa increased the validity of Fraker’s claims presented in the article. Schapa received her MBA from Loyola Marymount University. Schapa also studied and taught art at Sotheby’s Institute, London, New York, and graduate studies in architectural history at USC. (ES) In “Las Dos Fridas” sitting side-by-side, the traditional-minded “hurt and exposed” Frida holds the hand of strong, independent, cosmopolitan Frida, “the protector of the weaker, more traditional Frida” (Fraker). Kahlo shows how symbolic the change is from her as a traditional Mexican woman to an independent stronger woman in this painting. Making the distinctions among the two Fridas, she uses bold and bright colors in the loved and independent Kahlo and soft, dull colors in the unloved, obedient Kahlo.

The “strong Frida in Kahlo’s portrait…is the woman she became when she realized her society’s traditions and cultural expectations were unreachable and unrealistic” (Fraker). With such significance, this portrait even depicts the hearts of the two Frida’s connected together showing that even though the old Frida is leaving, the new Frida is still holding on to some aspects of her old self. Kahlo “sought deliberately to integrate her own pain and pleasure with the multiple religious traditions and cultures…that went into the making of Mexico,” (Cooey 120).

Kahlo and the 1940’s
As time progressed after her divorce with Diego, Kahlo and Diego once again remarried, but continued to live lives apart creating experiences that impacted her paintings during the 1940s. In “Self-Portrait with Necklace of Thorns,” Kahlo paints herself facing the viewer in which Brooks states that it “enhances the immediacy of her presence” (Brooks). On her neck, an unraveled Christ’s crown of thorns is worn as a necklace, presenting Kahlo as a Christian martyr. By painting this object, and placing the thorns around her neck, it symbolizes “the pain she feels over divorce from Diego” (Brooks). By centralizing the meaning of this painting on her relationship with Diego, as she does with many others, proves that Kahlo felt a strong, unbreakable love for Diego, but did not take time to consider how he felt about her. As a result, she ended up in complete heartbreak once he expressed that he wasn’t happy with her anymore. Hanging from the necklace is a dead hummingbird, where in Mexican folk tradition represents “luck in love,” while the black cat in the background is shown as “waiting to pounce on the hummingbird” as a symbol of bad luck and death. Kahlo once said, “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst,” (Kahlo). Kahlo’s strong feelings towards Diego are expressed by the Kahlo in her art. She does not restrict her feelings towards him through her paintings in the 1940’s, present her emotions towards him as she begins to overcome Diego and his behavior.

On her right shoulder, Kahlo uses the “symbol of the devil, her pet monkey” to symbolize that her and Diego’s love was never really love because he was the one that gave her the monkey. Against a background of large tropical plant leaves, Kahlo displays butterflies as a sign of hope and “Resurrection” (Brooks) from everything she has been through with Diego. Kahlo uses a great amount of symbolism through objects in this self-portrait as she makes viewers aware that even though she and Diego are no longer together, she will continue to persevere and overcome anything to achieve greatness.

Additionally, in another self-portrait Kahlo painted in 1944, “The Broken Column,” she is nude, except for a sheet wrapped around her lower body. As a result of her many operations and fractures in her back, Kahlo was required by doctors to wear orthopedic corsets to support her spine. In this portrait she “personifies pain and…some level of tolerance for pain” (Aull). Felice Aull was awarded the M.A. from NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, where she studied in the John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought, Graduate Education. Her annotations and commentary on Frida Kahlo’s selected painting are based on real knowledge and facts considering her PhD and extensive study on art. (ES)

Pain is shown as an obvious symptom of the many operations and hurdles by the nails in Frida’s naked body. Her torso split in half “resembles an earthquake fissure”, and suggests surgery during this time in her life (Martinez-Lavin). Martinez-Lavin bases his research and information on his expertise and vast information obtained through his lifetime about the different areas of this certain medical issue allows him to successfully connect Frida Kahlo’s work with it. The Fibromyalgia Information Foundation is actively involved in research projects to further understand the cause of fibromyalgia symptoms and develop effective treatments. (ES) Shown in the painting, a white cloth Kahlo is wrapped in suggests Christian martyrdom, and she stares straight ahead with dignity against a background, illustrated as an immense and barren, plain, conveying “physical and emotional suffering.” Kahlo’s expression of her feelings through the background is additional evidence of the exact mood she experiences. Through her artwork, a viewer can step into Kahlo’s shoes.

Shortly after, in 1945 Kahlo painted “Without Hope” where she expresses her lack of toleration for everything she must go through while trying to improve her health, and has begun to lose hope. Many symbols are painted here, including the wooden oak easel that holds her canvases, now holding a funnel of “physical and emotional preoccupations erupting as vomit from her mouth” (Bertman). Sandra Bertman, a Distinguished Professor of Thanatology and Arts at the National Center for Death Education, Mount Ida College, specialize in cultivating the therapeutic imaginations of people through drawings and artwork, such as that of Frida Kahlo. (ES) Kahlo also displays her emotions through the colors in the background, as “barren , parched, and cracked”. The moon and red-orange sun, “suggest being trapped eternally, day and night” as do the skull and sun, symbols of the Day of the Dead (Bertman). Through all of these objects and colors, Kahlo’s frustration with her lifestyle is made obvious and her want to depart the world she can no longer live happily in.

Not so Kahlo and the Late 1940’s
Although Frida Kahlo expressed her feelings and emotions associated with her life in almost all her paintings, she did not symbolize her life in a few of her pieces painted in the late 1940’s. (V2) Kahlo also changed her normal methods and styles in “Tree of Hope” a painting created in 1946. In “Tree of Hope” two Kahlos are portrayed in different settings and different situations. This painting does not represent anything specific in Frida Kahlo’s life, yet it may signify Frida Kahlo’s struggle with her health as a whole. There are a variety of different messages sent through this painting, but one specific idea is not signified. Although the vague abyss in which the “the figures float above,” that is a “lifeless and deeply eroded desert landscape” may represent Kahlo’s loss of hope in her life and any chance of her health getting better, the painting contains much confusion and lacks a central message that can also be connected with her life.

In “The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Senor Xolotl” Frida Kahlo displays aspects of Mexican mythology. Included are the “Aztec Earth Mother, Cituacoatl, made from clay and rock” embracing a human couple. The outermost figure, “the Universal Mother, embraces Cituacoatl,” and in the foreground, “the Itzcuintli dog, Senor Xolotl, is more than simply one of the artist’s favorite pets: it represents Xolotl, a being in the form of a dog who guards the underworld” (Brooks). Kahlo’s use of these mythological beings has its origins in traditional Mexican folklore and not Kahlo’s life. However, the animals could be symbols of something much, much deeper in Kahlo’s life that has not yet been discovered. This affects Kahlo and the way her artwork is viewed because people begin to believe she is at a confusing point in her life and is undertaking new techniques in her art.

In this painting, Frida presents “life, death, night, day, moon, sun, man, and woman all in a recurring dichotomy which is deeply intertwined and all is held together by two powerful mythological beings” (Brooks). Kahlo who is usually known for using symbols relating to her life in her artwork takes a different approach in this painting in 1949. She displays many meaningful characters in this painting yet they have no connection to her life, and only display a connection to Mexican mythology.

Kahlo’s presentation of many symbols of Mexico demonstrates her love for her country and her pride in Mexico. “The Mexican Revolution, which began three years after Frida’s birth, had inspired a dynamic new sense of nationalism throughout the country” (Zamora 19). When Frida Kahlo changed her birthday from 1907 to 1910 she shaved three years off her age, and with that began her life with the start of the Mexican Revolution. Kahlo’s pride in her country is portrayed in this painting in that she uses many references to Mexican mythology in an attempt to connect them to her own life. Others can edit their paintings and works of art, but through her different art styles in the late 1940’s, Kahlo presents the idea that she, and only she, can edit her life by changing her birthdate. Kahlo and the 1950’s

Unfortunately, during the last years of Kahlo’s life in the 1950s, she became dependent on certain people because her health issues caused a deterioration in the quality of her life. After being diagnosed with gangrene in her right foot, Kahlo spent nine months in the hospital and had several operations during this time. She continued to paint and support political causes despite having limited mobility. Deeply depressed, Kahlo was hospitalized again in April 1954 because of poor health, or, as some reports indicated, a suicide attempt. She returned to the hospital two months later with bronchial pneumonia. Furthermore, Frida Kahlo, who usually symbolizes Diego Rivera in her many paintings, did not do that in “Self-Portrait with Dr. Farill.” In this painting she paints herself with heavy eyebrows as in all of her self-portraits. Her heavy eyebrows represent a “deeper androgynous” mind, as Simon Abrahams describes. Independent art historian Simon Abrahams additionally intertwines the use of medical allusions in his conclusion on Frida’s painting. (ES) He discusses a connection and the symbolism of her apparel with the work and life of a doctor or her doctor in particular. Included in this painting is Dr. Farill, the doctor that became her caretaker during the last years of her life.

He represented her “alter ego” as she displays by also making his eyebrows one significant eyebrow. In a way, she displayed the idea that “he becomes like her but she becomes like him” (Abrahams) as well. The white colored physician’s coat resembles the doctor’s coat that Dr. Farill wears. Each person in the painting has “taken on an aspect of the other” where Dr. Farill has Frida Kahlo’s eyebrow and Kahlo dons the apparel of a doctor. From past paintings, it is assumed that Kahlo only illustrates people who have made an impact or have been significant in her life. By Kahlo using Dr. Farill as a subject in her painting, she implies that he is of great importance. Also shown, in Frida Kahlo’s hand, an artist’s palette symbolized a human heart. This use of the human heart symbolizes how, like surgeons, “they use their hands to manipulate the human figure…using paint in place of flesh and blood” (Abrahams). The representation of this object and its comparison to an artist illustrates the fact that Kahlo sees herself and her doctor as having the same purpose, and same goal. According to Kahlo, her life and her health became less and less valuable in her eyes. She embraced the inevitable, writing in a diary entry, “I hope the leaving is joyful and I never return” (Kahlo). About a week after her forty-seventh birthday, Kahlo died on July 13 in her beloved Blue House.

A Legacy Concluded
After carefully reading and analyzing six different reliable sources ranging from Interviews to General References and Databases regarding Frida Kahlo’s use of symbolism throughout her artwork through objects, people, and color during her lifetime, the conclusion has been reached about the validity of the sources obtained. Mike Brooks has credible information, yet similar to Pamela Fraker, he has a possible bias of being a fan of Frida Kahlo which would influence his commentary on her artwork. Brooks’ and Fraker’s love for the artist do not contradict their statements though because they have received some of their knowledge from reading the works of several intelligent, educated authors of Frida Kahlo books. Manuel Martinez-Lavin and the many authors and commentators of the NYU Database are completely reliable sources considering their extensive studies, knowledge and background. The fact that they have an widespread variety of knowledge makes their information more factual and trustworthy.

Victor Zamudio Taylor shares similar interests and beliefs as that of Brooks and Fraker in that he has taken a great interest in Kahlo’s works. All of the sources used have used facts and information that can be trusted for any discussions on Kahlo’s art. The NYU Database and the works of Martinez-Lavin if needed for anything regarding the health of Frida Kahlo can be used with great significance. Alongside these many authors and writers, Paula M. Cooey and author Martha Zamora include their extensive knowledge from years of schools into their books. These authors integrated studies and vast information on the mindset of Frida Kahlo come together to create books analyzing her paintings and well-being. All of the sources presented acceptable and trustworthy information that was of immense importance and well-used throughout. Throughout her life Frida Kahlo suffered long-lasting health problems, issues in her marriage, pain from surgeries, and many more barriers that kept her from becoming what she wanted to become, a doctor.

After the first accident Kahlo realized that her dream would never be achievable and by accepting this, opened the door to the greatness that awaited her as a result of her struggles. She dedicated her whole life to her paintings and effectively used symbolism of people, colors, and objects to display the many experiences and emotions she encountered throughout her lifetime. (C) The complicated, struggling life Kahlo endured has presented her to the painters and artists of today as a strong, perseverant woman who has made an impact of the lives of many through her paintings. (N) Through this extensive review of Kahlo’s artwork and its symbolism, Frida Kahlo underwent more than 30 operations that allowed her to produce 143 paintings, 55 of which are self-portraits, during the course of her life. The intense techniques used in her artwork may have led many to questioning Kahlo’s sanity. (Q) But simply when asked why she painted so many self-portraits, Frida replied: “Because I am so often alone….because I am the subject I know best” (Frida). (Word Count: 3,829)

Works Cited

Abrahams, Simon. “Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Portrait of Dr. Farill (1951).” Every Painter Paints Himself. N.p., 30 Oct 2010. Web. 27 Jan 2012. <http://www.everypainterpaintshimself.com/article/frida_kahlos_self portrait_with_portrait_of_dr._farill/>. Bertman, Sandra L., Felice Aull, and John A. Woodcock. Frida Kahlo 2000-2008. n.pag. NYU Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database. Database. 31 Jan 2012. <http://litmed.med.nyu.edu/People?action=view&id=1373>. Brooks, Mike. “Self-Portrait of Necklace of Thorns (1940).” Frida Kahlo Fans. N.p., 2005. Web. 1 Feb 2012. <http://www.fridakahlofans.com/c0350.html>. Cooey, Paula M. Religious Imagination and the Body: A Feminist Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 184. Fraker, Pamela. “Las Dos Fridas.” . Voices, n.d. Web. 1 Feb 2012. <http://www2.smc.edu/voices/forerunner/fall2001/directories/focusonsmc/lasdosfridas.htm>. Kahlo, Frida. “Frida Kahlo Quotes.” 2012. Web. 14 Jun 2012. <http://thinkexist.com/quotes/frida_kahlo/>. Martinez-Lavin, Manuel. “Fibromyalgia in Frida Kahlo’s life and art.” Fibromyalgia

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