I’ll never forget the first time I came face-to-face with Frida Kahlo’s 1932 painting Henry Ford Hospital. The image has stayed with me ever since. Kahlo lies helplessly on a blood-splattered hospital bed, floating strangely against a barren landscape. Around her naked body, six images are tied to her swollen belly with umbilical cords like cryptic balloons: the foetus who will never exist (her longed-for son, “Little Diego”); a snail representing the slow horror of miscarriage; an autoclave, a device for sterilizing surgical instruments, a clinical symbol of infertility; one limp orchid, a hospital gift from her husband; and the pelvis and uterus, two anatomical signs of her broken body.
Eighty-five years after Kahlo painted her pregnancy loss, her canvas still shocks art-goers with a frank depiction of womanhood we continue to find difficult to talk about, let alone look at. When the time came for me to process my own miscarriage, Kahlo’s radical honesty would give me the strength to write about my body and challenge the status quo that censors it. In so many ways, Frida Kahlo has been my beacon in the dark, lighting my path as I write. Her strength and resilience in the face of repeated adversity is a lesson for us all.
As Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera once said of her: “Through her paintings, she breaks all the taboos of the woman’s body and of female sexuality.” On July 4 1932, the Mexican artist’s second pregnancy ended in miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Two years earlier, she had experienced an unwanted termination due to foetal complications. With this second loss came the painful realisation that she would never be physically capable of carrying a baby to term. It was a diagnosis she had feared since a tram struck her school bus when she was 18. In addition to suffering a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs and a broken pelvis, a metal handrail pierced her abdomen, exiting through her vagina, irreparably damaging her reproductive organs. She responded by creating a birth certificate for an imaginary son she called Leonardo. It was at this moment, seesawing between reality and make-believe, that Frida Kahlo began painting seriously for the first time.
Whether Frida Kahlo ever identified herself as a feminist is ambiguous, but what is certain is that feminists have always identified with Frida Kahlo
To understand Kahlo is to understand her message of pain. That doesn’t make her a victim or her paintings narcissistic. “I paint self-portraits because I am the person I know best,” Kahlo once wrote. After her horrific accident, Frida’s mother asked a carpenter to make a special easel that could fix to her canopy bed as she convalesced. A mirror was added above, so she could see herself and, in turn, be seen with the help of her palette. Through the traumas of her life, Kahlo would create another Frida, an emancipated Frida – one who weaved surrealist fantasy like a cocoon around her broken body. Imprisoned by the limitations of her physicality, it was only by painting that she was able to seize control and set herself free.
One of the most audacious depictions of childbirth and child-loss was painted by Kahlo in 1932, the same year as Henry Ford Hospital. My Birth is a surrealist depiction of both Kahlo’s birth and her miscarriage entwined. A sheet covers the mother’s head forcing our gaze southwards to the baby’s lifeless head stuck between splayed limbs and blood stains. For every person who struggles to look at her outstretched legs, the painting’s power and significance is multiplied. It’s gruesome, but it’s real. How we choose to engage with My Birth says so much about how far we’re willing to engage with the reproductive realities that so many women experience on a daily basis.
As Germaine Greer wrote for the Tate back in 2005, Kahlo is “idolised for having revealed essential truths about all kinds of female experience – about disablement, rejection, miscarriage, suffering, Mexican-ness, Jewishness, homosexuality, revolution, subversion and devotion”. Whether Frida Kahlo ever identified herself as a feminist is ambiguous, but what is certain is that feminists have always identified with Frida Kahlo. Without the second-wave feminist art movement of the 1970s, this Mexican artist’s work would have remained an obscure footnote in her husband’s biography, the mural painter Diego Rivera. The Tate Modern now ranks Kahlo as one of the most significant artists of the twentieth century.
It's an accurate and deserving accolade. “I don't paint dreams or nightmares,” Kahlo once wrote, “I paint my own reality.” One hundred and ten years since her birth in Coyocoán, Mexico City, her reality continues to challenge, beguile and inspire us.
I, for one, would be lost without her.