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Frida Kahlo, the famous Mexican artist, was known as much for her outlandish and bold self-portraits laden with hidden details and rich symbolism, as she was for her tragic life full of physical and emotional ordeals. Called a ‘natural surrealist’ by some because of her symbolic art that was often bizarre and dreamlike, she considered herself a ‘realist’ painter, wherein most of her artworks were tools of expression and representations of her own tragedies, life and emotions.

Here we explore eight of Frida Kahlo’s most significant works of art to uncover the hidden meaning and story within them.

  • Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937

This painting was a gift to Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary leader and also commemorates the brief affair that Frida Kahlo had with him shortly after his arrival in Mexico in 1937.

It’s a flattering self-portrait of Kahlo, where she stands confidently holding a bouquet of flowers and a letter of dedication to her lover Trotsky. She presents herself in the painting dressed elegantly in a long embroidered skirt, fringed shawl and gold jewelry. Flowers and red yarn coils adorn her well-coiffed hair and the makeup highlights her facial features. Her traditional clothing draws attention towards the nationalistic fervor among Mexican artists working during the Revolutionary decade, wherein they rejected European influences and returned to their country’s roots and native traditions. This influence is also visible in the composition of the painting where Kahlo stands on a curtained stage, these elements are reflective of Mexican vernacular paintings ‘retablos’.

  • Marxism Will Give Health to the III, 1954

In this oil painting, we see Kahlo displaying her trust in communism wherein she embraces the utopian conception of political belief that she, and everyone else in the world, can be freed from pain and suffering by the ideas and convictions of Marxism.

Here, Kahlo is wearing a leather corset and standing in front of a divided background, with the left half of the canvas representing good times and peace, and the other crowded with symbols of evil, suffering and destruction. Alongside the two hands of Marxism hold and cure her, she is seen holding the red book of Marxism in her hand.

Fully supported in her ideology, Kahlo can be seen getting rid of her crutches, alluding to the ‘giving health to the ill’ part of the painting’s title.

This artwork is one of Kahlo’s last self-portraits but was never completely finished. However, she reworked this painting several times and even changed its title, with its original name being ‘Peace on Earth so the Marxist Science may Save the Sick and Those Oppressed by Criminal Yankee Capitalism’.

  • Diego and I, 1944

Kahlo painted this portrait of her with her husband Diego Rivera on their 15th wedding anniversary. This magnificent creation provides an insight into the deep love she had for him. In fact, her marriage to the famous Mexican artist had a great and lasting impact on her art and this is one of many paintings that visualized her deep love and connection with him, despite their tumultuous relationship leading to divorce for a brief period.

This double portrait of the two represents Kahlo and her husband, Rivera not as a couple but as one, with his face on the left of the canvas while hers on the right bound together by lots of branches. The preciousness of the artwork is highlighted by the shell frame, painted like jewels around the portrait. The sun and the moon in the painting represents another great pairing, and the conch and scallop also symbolizes their love union.

  • La Columna Rota (The Broken Column), 1944

Kahlo painted this work shortly after her spinal column surgery, which left her bedridden and enclosed in a metallic corset to alleviate her constant pain.

In this painting, she can be seen standing in a completely arid and desolate landscape with a huge opening running through her torso to reveal her broken spine encased in metal belts lined with fabric . Hundreds of nails are embedded in her entire body are a symbol of the constant chronic pain she faced, with tears falling down her eyes but it doesn’t reflect a sign of pain. Though displaying her solitude, the attitude she presents in the painting is the one she always showed to her tragic life: strong and defiant.

  • Las Dos Fridas (Two Fridas), 1939

Kahlo created this oil painting on her return to Mexico following her divorce from her husband, Diego Rivera. She depicts two identical Fridas with contrasting personalities in this painting, with Frida on the left wearing a European style white lace dress (seems more independent and modern) while another Frida is traditionally dressed in a Tehuana attire (which her husband Rivera loved). Further, the hearts of both the Fridas are exposed and connected to each other.

The Frida dressed in white has cut her main artery with scissors and stained her skirt with blood and the other one holds a small portrait of  Rivera with her heart whole and intact. The background has clouds which imbue the scene with a sense of pain and doom.

  • Retrato de Miguel N. Lira, 1927

This is a portrait of the Mexican poet and a close friend of hers, Miguel N. Lira, which was requested by the subject himself. It is based on a photograph she was given by Lira and though she supposedly was not too pleased with the final portrait, he liked it very much.

The artwork is full of details that capture Lira’s personality and highlights his achievements and landmarks. The brightly colored pinwheel in his hand and the hobbyhorse in the background refer to his childhood, and the book in his right hand has an image of guava on it with the word ‘you’ which were the titles of his first two published books. Other details placed alongside an actual portrait of Lira include an angel (may be archangel Michael or Miguel, which is Lira’s first name), the lyre is the direct nod to his last name and his work,  the painted alphabet ‘R’ in red, which many believe could correspond to the name of Lira’s then-girlfriend, Rebeca Torres.

  • The Bus, 1929

This vividly coloured painting has two distinct themes captured within it. The first is where Kahlo is expressing her demurring and anguish over the disproportion of wealth. She painted people belonging to different economic classes of Mexican society sitting side by side and travelling by the same means of transport. From left to right she has depicted, a simple housewife dressed in white frock holding a shopping basket, a blue-collared man in work overalls holding an equipment, a barefoot indigenous woman breastfeeding her baby, a little boy looking outside through the window, a well-dressed rich businessman holding his money bag (which symbolizes capitalism) and a young girl, which many believe is Kahlo herself.

The second theme is about the fatal bus accident she had in 1925. She was on a bus to Coyoacan on the way back home from her school, wherein the bus collided with a trolley car. A metal handrail pierced into her abdomen, changing her life forever and causing disability, extreme pain and eventually infertility.

Kahlo never painted the accident directly in any of her artworks, but in this one she elaborates on the moments before the life-changing accident. The little boy can be seen enjoying a landscape full of tranquility while on the left-hand side of the painting is a small shop named La Risa (The Laugh). This detail is a perfect example of Kahlo’s black humour, where she captured the moments before her accident this way.

  • El venado herido (The Wounded Deer), 1946

Also known as ‘The Little Deer’, this oil painting was created by Kahlo wherein she shares her enduring physical and emotional suffering, as she did throughout her creative oeuvre. In this case, she replicated the suffering of her own body by drawing a deer with her face on it.

This innocent animal’s body is fully pierced by arrows with blood oozing out. It is standing alone injured in the middle of the forest which symbolizes her isolation. However, despite the deep wounds on the body of the innocent deer, Kahlo did not paint a face full of anguish and agony, but of strength.

This was painted after major spinal surgery that would supposedly lessen her unbearable pain, but on the contrary, it brought even more suffering for her. In the lower-left corner of the artwork after her signature, she has scrawled the word ‘karma’ (meaning fate).

Wrap Up

Kahlo's magnificent artworks placed Mexican art on the international stage. Her style was figurative and self-taught, with bold elements of her personal life and cultural heritage, which she curated carefully with an emphasis on her own individual, biographical perspective. Her self-referential art became her most effective tool for expressing her unbearable pain and a certain unease about exploring her own personality.