When she had a miscarriage in 1931, Frida Kahlo asked her physician to see the dead fetus; he adamantly refused but he gave her a medical textbook where she could learn about fetal growth. She had three traumatic miscarriages during her lifetime, and she carried an emotional burden. She wrote in her dairy that: “ I am not sick, I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” Her profound angst and suffering were positively sublimated in her artistic creation.
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born on July 6, 1907 in Coyoacán, a small city in the outskirts of Mexico City, to Guillermo Kahlo, a German-born photographer, and Matilde Calderón y Gonzales, a homemaker of mestizo (mixed-race)origins. Her childhood was particularly sad as her parents did not love each other and the Mexican revolution bankrupted the father’s photography business; at age 6 she contracted polio, which made her right leg shorter and thinner than the left one. She became a recluse at her home where she was mentored by her loving father in art, literature and photography. She started school later than her sisters and did not follow them to a convent school ( her mother was a religious fanatic) and went to a German school. After being expelled from it, she went to a vocational school where she was sexually abused by a female teacher. She was accepted in the National Preparatory School that fostered the indigenismo—the assertion of the cultural values of native people to counteract the European colonizing influences of the elite classes. When she was about to enter medical school, a traffic accident disabled her.
After a slow recovery, she began to socialize in an artistic circle with overtly leftist leanings; she joined the Communist Party and in 1928 she married Diego Rivera, a famous painter who was twenty years her senior and had two common-law wives. In 1929, Kahlo and Rivera moved to Cuernavaca, which had been the theater of some of the worst fighting in the Civil War; there Frida’s sense of Mexican identity surfaced as she dressed with the traditional colorful dresses of the Mexican peasantry, especially from the matriarchal society of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. In 1930 the couple moved to San Francisco, California, where Diego Rivera was commissioned with several high-profile murals and they were entertained by the polite society of the time. Extremely annoyed by her husband’s frequent infidelities, Frida started her agitated life as a lover of many men and women, a fact she never cared to conceal to anyone, including Diego himself. In 1931 the couple returned to Mexico but soon left for New York City for the opening of Diego Rivera’s retrospective in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) Being very fluent in English and a good communicator, Frida interacted naturally with the American press, unabashedly claiming that she was in fact the best painter of the two. Brave girl.
In her self-portraits, Frida used many images and symbols of Pre-Columbian people like the Aztecs and the heavily Christian-influenced colonial culture; her work is embedded with Superstition. In order to search for her true identity and gender, she used different costumes and masks with a troubling surrealist perspective, mixing life and death in her work. Her painting evoked the strong yet protective matriarchal figures of tehuanas, mythical goddesses of Ancient Times in Mexico. In her well-illustrated book, Suzanne Barbezat said: “as a teen and young adult, Frida experimented with different styles of dresses. She was clearly aware of the power of clothing in crafting her identity and enjoyed making a statement and even shocking people with her different looks.” The symbology of roots is present everywhere as both a testimony to her heritage and her feelings of entrapment. She considered that trees were the natural agents that linked us humans through the different generations and that they were a symbol of hope.
Frida bared her soul and body in her paintings in order to “exorcise” the profound angst that she felt all her life due to her many physical disabilities and her three failed attempts at motherhood. Her canvas is brutally splattered with human tissue and drips warm blood, one drop at a time. She was branded as the feminine voice of Surrealism. When she arrived in a traumatized Paris in January 1939, due to the looming signs of war, she had difficulty to retrieve her tableaus from the Customs Agency and the gallery’s owners that agreed to show her work vetoed all of them except two for the exhibition because they considered her work “too shocking for the Parisian public.” In spite of the limited exhibition, she was admired and the Musée du Louvre bought The Frame, the first time that the haughty European institution acquired a painting from a Mexican artist.
As a physician that delivered several babies with the aid of midwifes and nurses during many stints as an Emergency Ward attending, we can attest to the bloody brutishness of the birthing process. It is a terribly stressful experience for all of those present, foremost for the mother, but yet fabulously exhilarating. Our first delivery occurred in a Saturday night shift in the city hospital of San Miguel del Monte in the Provincia de Buenos Aires of Argentina. Fast asleep in the on-call room, we were suddenly awakened by the on-duty nurse: “Doctor, a pregnant woman just came in…It’s happening.” Half-awake, we jumped into our shoes from the bunk and we followed her, shaking, to the Obstetrics ward.
There we found two scrubbed-up nurses , at the ready, staring at us, waiting for our instructions. It must have been one of the scariest moments of our life. By far. Gently, the nurses lead us through the tried-out routine from the clinical protocols that we have learned in Medical School, which allowed us to put our knowledge into action . Suddenly our mind’s dense fog cleared out and we found our purpose as a physician. After a few minutes of gentle coaching to the mother and a timely episiotomy to open up the canal (the midwife slammed the knife on our hand and showed us where and how to cut), so the baby could have more space to pass, she was able to push the baby in our hands. In that instant we knew that there was a much higher entity that had enabled that miracle. Bedazzled by the first cry of the newborn, we showed him to the sweaty, happy mother.
–“What is his name?” we asked her.
-“Federico,” she whispered.
That same night we prepared a long letter to our dear grandmother Yolanda who always reminded us of the feat. It was, and still is, one of the proudest moments of our whole medical career.
What do you think? Please tell us.
Don’t leave me alone.