Yo soy la Desintegracion:
Frida Kahlo’s Life of Pain and How It Strengthened a National Identity
Frida Kahlo is one of the most popular and influential painters to come out of Mexico in the twentieth-century. Her painting Self Portrait with Curly Hair (1935) sold for $1,200,000 and it is not even one of her most famous or provocative paintings. Frida’s paintings are unique, personal, and culturally important, but Frida was more than a painter. She lived through the Mexican Revolution, she helped shape a national identity in the subsequent years after the war, she fought for Communism and the rights of the working class, she housed the Russian exile Leon Trotsky, she became an iconic figure for women empowerment, and she traveled the world as a de facto female Mexican emissary. From wearing Tehuana costumes, Aztec influenced jewelry, and rebozos to criticizing America’s capitalism in her paintings, Frida shaped her identity by building Mexican nationalism.
Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, but Frida always claimed 1910 as her birth year because that was when the Mexican Revolution started. President Porfirio Diaz was highly unpopular in Mexico and widely regarded as a dictator. Diaz won his eighth rigged election in 1910, prompting Diaz’s opponent in the election, Francisco Madero, to rally dissatisfied Mexicans from the jail cell that Diaz threw him in right before the election. This was the spark that started governmental chaos for the next ten years. Madero won the fight against Diaz, became President, and was ousted from power two years later. Fighting continued to happen with the sides, opponents, and power constantly shifting. This revolutionary era left a major impact on Frida. She wrote about her memories watching Emiliano Zapata’s forces fight Venustiano Carranza’s troops right outside of her house during the “Tragic Ten Days.” These memories always stuck with her and are the reasons why she joined the Communist Youth at thirteen, staying active in politics all of her life. The plight of the working class was always something near and dear to Frida’s heart, even though Frida grew up in a middle-class family.
Her father’s photography work slowed as the fighting continued. Despite the slower work, Guillermo and Matilde Kahlo sent Frida to the National Preparatory School. Frida was a mischievous child who, along with several classmates, pulled pranks and caused trouble throughout the school. Unfortunately, this came to an end when she was eighteen and one of the most traumatic accidents of her life happened. On September 17, 1925, she was on a bus heading home when a runaway electric trolley collided with the bus. Due to the poor design of the bus and no safety features, the bus and trolley shattered into a barrage of wood and steel. Frida was the most injured, having an iron rod impale her back, through her abdomen, and out her vagina. When witnesses gave their statement, they said that she looked like a ballerina because her body was covered in blood and gold dust (most likely from a house painter). She was lucky enough to survive, let alone ever walk again. She would spend most of the next year in hospital beds, surgery, plaster body casts, back braces, and wheelchairs. The injuries she sustained from this accident would haunt her all of her life.
Frida began painting while she recovered from the accident, because being in a plaster body cast on bed rest allowed for few other activities. As she healed and began to walk again, her skills quickly developed. She sought out the famous Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, who was working on a mural for the Mexican Ministry of Public Education. She brought a few different paintings to ask his opinion and if her efforts were worth pursuing. Otherwise she needed to get a real job to help her parents financially. The paintings impressed Diego. He told her to continue painting and eventually had Frida model for the “Distributing Arms” panel of his Insurrection Ballad of the Proletartian Revolution mural at the Ministry of Public Education. This mural features Frida in the middle wearing a bright red shirt and black pants, a Communist uniform she often wore at the time, handing out guns to local farmers rising up against their oppressors. Diego Rivera’s was heavily involved in the Mexican Communist party. He arranged rallies, meetings, and organizations to push a far-left agenda. Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 inspired many Mexicans who felt that a similar people’s movement was happening during the Mexican Revolution. Frida became a perfect fit for the Communist intelligentsia that was happening in Mexico, due to her fiery spirit and desire to make sure that the state protected workers.
Besides being a famous painter and activist, Diego Rivera was also a well-known womanizer. By the time he met Frida, Diego had two ex-wives with several kids. He kept no secrets about the many women he slept with and had many extramarital affairs through all of his marriages. However, this did not dissuade Frida from becoming attracted to the larger-than-life figure. Despite being around three-hundred pounds and nearly twenty-one years older than her, Frida fell in love with Diego’s appetite for life and Diego fell in love with Frida’s “quick, unconventional mind.”
There was a shift in Frida’s identity that happened around the time of their marriage. Growing up, Frida was always pushing the boundaries of social acceptability. In family portraits, she wore men’s suits and generally wore men’s clothes in public. This ties into her passion for the working class and challenging gender roles, albeit the level of consciousness of this role is unknown. Yet, once she married Diego, she began to wear Tehuana costumes, which are typical Mexican dresses that are common in Tehuantapec, a region of Mexico that Diego regularly visited to paint the indigenous women. Some Frida researchers believe this change happened specifically because Diego preferred traditional clothes. Others believe that Frida chose this dress because of the Mexican national identity that was forming during the time. Both of these arguments have validity and it is quite possible that both were a factor for Frida. However, it is more likely that the change first happened because of Diego and then became a symbol of Mexican heritage for Frida.
The latter explanation is the most possible for two reasons. First, Frida’s obsession over Diego was well known. The couple separated many times, divorced in 1939, remarried in 1940, and each of them had affairs through both marriages. Frida loved both men and women. Frida’s bisexuality was something that Diego encouraged because he was either aware of his young bride’s insatiable appetite for sex or it occupied her and he could pursue his own affairs. However, Diego had a much different attitude when it came to Frida’s male lovers. He chased sculptor Isamu Noguchi out of the house after catching them in bed together and Diego was never afraid to pull out his gun to make a point. Despite his boisterous attitudes, Frida began to wear the traditional costumes starting on the wedding day to please him and also learned to cook his favorite foods from Diego’s ex-wife, Lupe Marin.
In the diary that Frida kept over her last ten years of life, she wrote many passages, poems, confessions, hopes, and personal accounts about her life, but most regularly, her thoughts about Diego Rivera. Frida states that “Nobody will ever know how much I love Diego. I don’t want anything to hurt him.” She goes on saying, “Don’t let the tree get thirsty, you are its sun, it treasured your seed, ‘Diego’ is the name of love.” Also, that “I give what remains of my courage to Diego. Everything for Diego.” This is the same woman who said, “Why do I call him my Diego? He never was or will be mine. He belongs to himself.”  And that she “suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down…the other accident is Diego.” Both Diego and Frida knew that their relationship was complicated and tumultuous, but each felt that they needed the other. This level of devotion and desire the argument that Frida would change her dress to please Diego easier to believe.
Secondly, Frida’s Tehuana dresses became an identifier as her celebrity grew. As Frida began to travel the world and have art shows in Detroit, New York, and Paris, her traditional Mexican costumes became her trademark look. Frida would later recall seeing women in New York and Paris attempt to emulate her clothing. This would be an additional benefit to any artist who was trying to find their place in the art world. Bright, simple Tehuana costumes paired with big, colorful jewelry was a way for Frida to build upon her personal ties to Mexico. Even though Frida grew up in the city, adopting the classic Mexican created a permanent link to Frida’s half-indigenous side and allowed her to abandon her European-half. This was a balance that Frida seemed to be aware of all of her life. This is reminiscent of the cultural struggle of post-revolution Mexico. She uses Aztec imagery in her paintings and Tehuana costumes in her daily life to prove that Mexico was no longer going to hide its indigenous heritage. Too long did Porfirio Diaz choose European and America cultures over Mexico’s. As Frida became more famous for her art, her celebrity status allowed her to make statements and to push an agenda that promoted a true Mexican culture. By accepting both of these possibilities in order, it provides a more well-rounded description of Frida’s character. It is hard to believe that she was just a wife obsessed with her husband’s approval or that she was deliberately and actively setting the standard for Mexican identity.
Frida’s personal pain is evident in many of her paintings. As an artist, Frida Kahlo had the opportunity to explore every realm of her reality. In Henry Ford Hospital (1932), Frida clearly puts her emotions into the painting. The painting was Frida’s way of dealing with a traumatic miscarriage while she and Diego were in Detroit. It depicts Frida naked in a hospital bed that is set in a vast emptiness with medical equipment, her own physiology, a snail, a flower, and the male fetus that she lost. Even with a depiction of urban Detroit set far off on the horizon, it is clear that the basis of this painting is personal loss and pain.
Another painting based on Frida’s personal feelings includes A Few Small Nips (1935). Painted shortly after one of the couple’s many separations, A Few Small Nips depicts the true story of a woman stabbed twenty times by her boyfriend. During the trial, the boyfriend used the defense was that “I only gave her a few small nips.” This story obviously made an impact on Frida, but it was her separation from Diego that made her realize that she felt the same way emotionally. To Frida, Diego seemed like that boyfriend, one who continuously hurt Frida emotionally until she felt broken and alone.
Just because she painted her emotional state does not mean that she could not simultaneously paint with a political or nationalist purpose. It also does not mean that she could not combine the two by creating paintings that help her express herself while also promoting a Mexican identity. Diego Rivera loved visiting New York, Detroit, San Francisco, and other large metropolitan cities. Judging by his character it most likely had to do with the level of status and celebrity he received in these cities. He worked on high status projects, most notably in the lobby of the Rockefeller Center in New York. Frida, however, did not like the cities. She enjoyed them, but she preferred Mexico over anywhere else.
In My Dress Hangs There (1933), Frida painted her depiction of New York and America. With a solitary Tehuana dress hanging on a clothesline in the center, the viewer sees Frida’s view of the industrialized city surround the dress. In the rest of the painting, smokestacks and skyscrapers line a coastline in the upper right, a church with a dollar sign stained glass window instead of a cross in the upper left with a billboard of Mae West just below, an overflowing trashcan and gas pumps in the lower right, a federal styled building is on fire in the lower left, and the entire bottom is full of people filling the streets. Holding the clothesline is a toilet on a column, mocking the American obsession with amenities, and a gold trophy on a different column, representing America’s obsession with competitive sports. These are just some of the bigger details in a painting that is rife with nuance.
Frida painted this painting for several reasons, most importantly that she wanted to leave “Gringolandia” and go back to Mexico. While in San Francisco and New York, Frida’s primary role was of the dutiful wife. She visited his scaffolds at the Rockefeller Center while Diego worked. She accompanied him to fancy, bourgeois parties. She found some time to paint, like My Dress Hangs There, but rarely finished any of the paintings in New York. Diego enjoyed New York immensely. He enjoyed being the controversial, foreign artist that everyone was talking about. This trip to New York gives an indication that Frida’s convictions to Communism and to the people were stronger than Diego’s. Frida did not feel comfortable in New York, hence why she painted her feelings into My Dress Hangs There. Diego seemed to follow whichever way the popular wind was blowing. It seems that he did believe in Communism’s message, but he was willing to be a socialite in upper class Manhattan if it meant he would be the center of attention. This is one probable explanation of why he became a Trotskyite in the 1930s.
Leon Trotsky worked with Vladimir Lenin during the October Revolution and through Lenin’s reign. After Lenin’s death, Joseph Stalin rose to power and Trotsky worked with Stalin. That is until Trotsky could not stand Stalin’s bureaucratic form of socialism and the elimination of Russian dissenters. Stalin ousted Trotsky, forcing him to flee execution and seek political asylum in whatever country would take him, always having to wonder if someone was out to kill him. Diego and others began to support Trotsky and in 1936 pressed Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas to permit Trotsky asylum. Cardenas agreed, not because he is sympathetic to Communism or Trotsky, but to prove to America and other superpowers that Mexico does not take orders from Russia. On January 9, 1937, Leon and Natalia Trotsky, along with their security detail, arrived in Tampico, Mexico.
Frida was there with American Trotskyites, journalist, and local and federal authorities to greet the exiled Communist leader. Frida arranged for Trotsky’s entire entourage to stay at the Blue House, Frida’s childhood home. It was in this house that Leon Trotsky would write and record his thoughts for his new book, lively political conversations led to a generally good time, and that Frida and Leon would start a love affair.
After arriving back to Mexico from New York, Frida found out that Diego was having an affair with her sister, Cristina. This revelation led to another one of their many separations. Separated but still married, they found that they needed to come together to provide a safer environment for Trotsky, as the work of the party was more important than their personal problems. Trotsky was already known for having a “vigorous interest in sex,” so it was not surprising that putting him near Frida who shared the same enthusiasm for passion resulted in an affair. While there is no indication that Diego knew about the affair, Natalia Trotsky was aware. After a few months, the entire Trotsky entourage left to stay at a farm outside of Mexico City. The affair mostly died after the move, but there were still letters sent back and forth. Through these letters it seems that Frida broke it off with Trotsky, as she enjoyed the affair but did not love the Russian. On Trotsky’s birthday, Frida gave him a self-portrait. It is unclear the intention of the painting because Frida is dressed in colonial aristocratic dress as opposed to the Tehuana costume she typically wears in her paintings. This could be an attempt to provide a painting to Trotsky depicting Frida in a dress that complemented someone of Trotsky importance or she was teasing the man she dumped by wearing aristocratic dress for a socialist activist fighting for the working class. Either way, the painting was left behind when the Trotskys left the Blue House. 
Frida supported and promoted Communism in her paintings, diary, and even on her plaster casts later in life. Her passion only intensified as she aged. She wrote in her diary that “I’m still eager to live. I’ve started to paint again. …I feel uneasy about my painting. Above all I want to transform it into something useful for the Communist revolutionary movement, since up to now I have only painted the earnest portrayal of myself, but I’m very far from work that could serve the Party. I have to fight with all my strength to contribute the few positive things my health allows me to the revolution. The only true reason to live for.” While she had previously stated that she painted self-portraits because she was often alone and she knew herself the best, it is clear that being on bed rest had an impact on the legacy that Frida wanted to leave behind.
Frida painted Frida and Stalin (1954), which presents a self-portrait of Frida sitting in front of a portrait of Stalin. In Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick, Frida depicts herself with an upper body cast. The painting also has Karl Marx as a saint in the clouds, a hand strangling a bald eagle, a mocking portrait of Uncle Sam, a white dove flying over a red continent (most likely Russia), and two hands, one of which has an “eye of wisdom,” hold Frida up as she lets go of her crutches. The message is almost blatantly clear, Communism will set you free physically and mentally. During this time, Frida was in several body casts and painted on almost all of them. The most famous is a cast that she painted a red sickle and hammer, Soviet Russia’s symbol, on the front. There are numerous pictures of her in this cast and the cast is preserved at Frida’s house, which became a museum after her death.
As important as Communism was for Frida, she did not include it in her art until later in life. Frida’s expression of her Mexican heritage, however, was prominent from nearly the beginning. One example is her Self Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States (1932). In this painting, Frida stands in the middle wearing a pink dress, holding a small Mexican Flag. On the right, America in all of its industrialized glory. Skyscrapers, lights, speakers, and smokestacks emitting exhaust that engulfs an America flag, basically everything that epitomizes America’s capitalism from Frida’s perspective. On the left side, Mexico is represented by natural color, an Aztec pyramid, the sun, the moon, flora along the bottom, indigenous totems, and a skull next to some crumbling stones. This last detail potentially meant that Frida was aware that Mexico has a bloody history, but that their history was not based on profit, corruption, or exploitation. At least, it was not until the Spanish came along.
While she wore many Tehuana costumes and Aztec jewelry in her paintings, her expressions were not superficial. In several paintings, she depicts the moon and sun out simultaneously. These are important symbols in Mexican mythology. The sun represents life-giving masculinity and the moon is the “mother of gods and men.” Frida also used this imagery to depict her own duality, often her dual parentage and/or her identity with Diego as the Tehuana-wearing Mexican or the forward-thinking, pusher of social norms.
After Frida lost her first pregnancy, she painted My Birth (1932). Frida worked through the loss by painting a representation of her own birth. It has a woman on the bed, covered from the waist up with a sheet, and a child being born, right in the center. While based on personal loss, she modeled the painting on an Aztec sculpture of a woman giving childbirth, an act that the Aztecs revered highly.
My Nurse and I (1937) has Frida’s head on a child’s body, nursing from a woman with a Teotihuacan stone mask over her face. This was one of Frida’s favorite paintings because it shows Frida being nursed by Mexico’s past and heritage, that despite the “ritual savagery of the Mexican past,” growth is possible for the future.
The painting Four Inhabitants of Mexico (1938) has Frida as a small child encountering four different pieces of Mexico’s history and heritage. The inhabitants are a Judas, a pre-Columbian idol from Nayarit, a clay skeleton, and a straw man riding a donkey. The first represents Mexican machismo and Diego, a man in coveralls standing alone, without regard of the small child representing Frida. The broken idol is modeled after an Aztec god and represents Mexico’s past, imperfect. The skeleton is death and a representation of the Day of the Dead festival, a regular feature in other paintings by Frida. The strawman “capture the fragility and pathos of Mexican life.” All of these figures ignore Frida, but, with exception to the Judas, the other three are in Frida’s line of sight. She sees the path that Mexico is on and is at least aware that only consensus, not factionalism, is going to preserve Mexico’s culture and history. Acknowledging each piece of history, allows Mexico can look to the future.
Towards the end of her life, Frida was in near constant pain. Through her short life she overcame childhood polio, a nearly debilitating trolley crash, thirty-two surgeries, an amputated gangrenous foot, twenty-eight body casts, and almost innumerable tests, x-rays, and spinal taps. As with any artist, Frida Kahlo put a lot of her own emotions, trauma, and experiences in to her works. After However, Frida’s works quickly stood apart from her contemporaries due to the subtle but powerful nuances in her paintings. Frida used her pain and love to help promote a bigger idea than herself, a Mexican identity. She helped define and unite a people divided by corruption and revolutions. By using Aztec and Mexican imagery in her paintings, she tied the past to the present, reminding Mexicans and the world that there is no Mexico without its indigenous history. Frida also supported and promoted a Communist philosophy, and while it never had any long-term influence, the movement is part of Mexico’s history and did help unite the working class. Her paintings questioned, shocked, and provoked a conversation about the self, as well as the broader Mexican identity. Frida Kahlo’s life and works are a testament to the notion of trying to understand the present through the past. One cannot ignore the past if one wants to move forward.
1. The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo, MP4, Directed by Amy Stechler, USA: Public Broadcasting Service, 2005.
2. Charles Curtis Cumberland, Mexican Revolution: Genesis under Madero (New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1952), 3.
3. Cumberland, Mexican Revolution, 114-115, 185-190.
4. Phyllis Freeman, ed., The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1995), 282.
5. Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1983), 12-13.
6. Herrera, Frida, 47-50.
7. Hayden Herrera, Frida Kahlo: The Paintings (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), 3.
8. Margaret A. Lindauer, Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo. (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999), eBook, 23-25.
9. Robert J. Alexander, Trotskyism in Latin America, (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1973), 182-185.
10. Patrick Marnham, Dreaming with his Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998),79-85, 196-199.
11. Herrera, Frida, 94-99.
12. Herrera, Frida Kahlo: The Paintings, 112-115.
13. Corrine Andersen, “Remembrance of an Open Wound: Frida Kahlo and Post-revolutionary Mexican Identity,” South Atlantic Review, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Fall 2009): 122-123.
14. Herrera, Frida, 199-201, 98-101, 103.
15. Freeman, Diary, 234, 270, 277, 235.
16. Herrera, Frida, 106-107.
17. Andersen, “Remembrance of an Open Wound,” 122.
18. Andersen, “Remembrance of an Open Wound,” 119-125.
19. Herrera, The Paintings, 70-73.
20. Herrera, Frida, 180-181
21. Marnham, Dreaming with his Eyes Open, 238-240.
22. Andersen, “Remembrance of an Open Wound,” 121-122.
23. Alexander, Trotskyism in Latin America, 182-185. Interestingly, this book does not have one mention of Frida Kahlo that I could find. While it is a book based on the politics of Trotskyism, Diego receives all of the credit for Trotsky’s stay in Mexico.
24. Donald L. Herman, The Comintern in Mexico (Washington D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1974), 130-131.
25. Herrera, Frida, 204-205.
26. Herrera, Frida, 209-213.
27. Freeman, Diary, 252-253.
28. Herrera, The Paintings, 212-215.
29. Janice Helland, “Aztec Imagery in Frida Kahlo’s Paintings: Indigenity and Political Commitment,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Autumn 1990-Winter 1991), 9.
30. Bertram D. Wolfe and Diego Rivera, Portrait of Mexico (New York: Covici Friede, 1937), 49.
31. Helland, “Aztec Imagery,” 9.
32. Herrera, Frida, 218-220.
33. Herrera, The Paintings, 23-25.