Hispanic Heritage Month: Facing Struggles and Pain, Frida Kahlo Painted Through It All
Frida Kahlo was a small woman who left a huge impact. She lived just 47 years and left behind 143 paintings, more than a third of them self-portraits.
In that brief span of time she lived a full life, with a stormy marriage to fellow Mexican painter Diego Rivera, affairs with Leon Trotsky and Josephine Baker, and a lot of pain.
Her pain stemmed from the polio she contracted as a young child, but also from a horrific trolley accident which broke her spine, collarbone, pelvis, and ribs, shattered her leg in 11 places, crushed her foot, dislocated her shoulder, and speared her uterus and abdomen. She endured multiple surgeries and months in a body cast.
Miraculously she one day was able to walk again, but not without pain. While bedbound she found her calling — painting. That’s where her practice of self-portraiture began.
Kahlo’s paintings — almost dreamlike in nature — are known for incorporating a touch of the macabre and featuring rich, vibrant colors. Her style in part may be due to her passion for indigenous Mexican culture, but the somewhat menacing quality of her art may have resulted from a lifetime of pain, as evidenced in paintings like The Broken Column (which, be forewarned, may be NSFW viewing) or Without Hope.
It’s impressive what Frida Kahlo overcame and what she produced. It didn’t come without a price, however.
Her struggles with the beating her body took in the trolley accident paired with mental illness (whether it was a result of the ordeal or not is not entirely clear, though a dual diagnosis of mental disorder and alcoholism seems reasonable) may have contributed to many years of heavy alcohol abuse.
In part her alcohol use was to self-medicate her physical and psychological pain, but such a shattering catalog of injuries no doubt left Kahlo with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some theorize she also suffered from bipolar disorder and possibly even dissociative identity disorder.
She died in 1954, however, so it can’t be stated with any certainty about the latter two illnesses, but the PTSD diagnosis definitely carries weight, considering Kahlo’s troubled marriage and the depression that she experienced — including several suicide attempts — in addition to decades of fallout from the trolley crash.
Kahlo’s sense of style and her artwork reflected her Mexican heritage. For that she deserves appreciation for Hispanic Heritage Month. But Latina or not — and she definitely was — her story is one many can relate to, especially women.
She lived in a male-dominated culture in a male-dominated time, dressed in drag, had affairs with both women and men, and put forth an impressive catalog of art that is beloved, copied, and co-opted near and far. Her struggles with PTSD, depression, a tumultuous marriage, and inability to bear children make her an authentic, relatable, and fascinating woman.
That she lived such a full life in spite of that — and some theorize she may have taken her own life (the verdict is out on that one, however, and the official cause is pulmonary embolism) — make her a woman worth remembering, both for what she expressed in her art and in her journals.
Most of us (fortunately) don’t have a horrific trolley accident in our pasts, but many still struggle with depression, PTSD, and other disorders, Latina or otherwise.
frida-kahlo-foundation.org – Biography of Frida Kahlo
frida-kahlo-foundation.org – The Complete Works
nami.org – The Power of Personal Stories
sunshinebehavioralhealth.com – Dual Diagnosis Addiction Treatment
nih.gov – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
nih.gov – Bipolar Disorder
nami.org – Dissociative Disorders
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