Frida Kahlo: her pain through her paintings

Beatriz Freitas
7 min readNov 2, 2020

The strength and vulnerability of a woman with a tragic life

One of the most cherished painters of her generation, Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist known for capturing real elements of her life in unrealistic manners that accentuated the emotions she wished to translate into her canvases. Her story was marked with life-changing and brutal events that influenced her painting's aesthetics and expression.

In one of her journals, she wrote down she carried, and forever would carry, all the world's harms and hurts. That, however, never stopped her from translating so brutally and truthfully the trajectory of her existence.

The resilience Frida showed in so bluntly accepting pain as an unwelcome company, combined with her ability to capture raw emotion and transform it into an impactful statement, is one of the primary reasons she is a symbol of strength and power.

"Two Fridas" :

“Two Fridas” — via

Frida Kahlo was raised in Mexico by a bicultural family since her father was German and her mother was Mexican.

"Two Fridas" is a self-portrait in which the painter represented two versions of herself, the European (on the left) and the native Mexican (on the right). Their connection by hand and heart shows that one could only live as long as the other did.

However, the European Frida's bleeding vessel could represent the more intrinsic relationship Kahlo felt towards the Mexican culture and her deeper recognition as a Latina.

Fun Fact: The first self-portrait Frida ever did was heavily influenced by the European style, in which she represented herself with a long neck and lighter skin tone dressed in a sober burgundy velvet dress. Throughout the years, she seemed to become more comfortable with her native heritage, accentuating her facial features, such as her famous eyebrows, and using vibrant tropical colors.

"The Accident" and "The Broken Column":

“The Accident” — via

When Frida was 18 years old, she was involved in a traffic accident in which a metal bar transfixed her spine and uterus, causing several injuries that she would live with for the rest of her life.

She sketched the accident in which the train she was in collided with another vehicle. It is possible to see a woman lying down on a Red Cross's gurney in the drawing. As a result of the accident, she had more than 30 surgeries throughout her life and used a vest to restrain her movements and protected her spine.

“The Broken Column” — via

She later became addicted to morphine and alcohol due to the excruciating pain she was constantly in. Her anguish was partially represented by her vague facial expression and the tears hanging on her cheeks.

The screws perforating her skin and the metal plates surrounding her spine bring a new dimension to the heart-breaking and agonizing suffering she lived through.

Fun Fact: Before the accident, Frida was one of few girls in Mexico to pass an exam to study medicine. She wished to be a doctor, partially because of her experiences being care for when she had polio at 6 years old. After the accident, Frida spent a long time in bed, feeling trapped, which incited her to start painting and expressing herself. It is sad to think that maybe if the accident hadn't happened, Frida wouldn't have become the painter she is today. Perhaps her pain, no matter how devastating and unfair, is what made her a better artist.

"The Liberty" and “Marxism Will Give Health To The Sick”:

“Marxism Will Give Health To The Sick” — via

Frida was born in 1907, 3 years prior to the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, which latest until 1924 and changed Mexico's political and cultural system. Growing up in the midst of this process encouraged Frida to learn more about communist theories. She later became a fierce defender of Marxist communism and even affiliated herself to Mexico's Communist Party.

In the painting beside, we can see a portrait of Marx on the upper right side of the canvas holding the neck of a man, who appears to be Uncle Sam in the body of a mangled eagle. In the center, we can see Frida herself holding a red book, possibly the Communist Manifesto, and being supported by hands that make it possible for her to stand without her crutches. The title "Marxism Will Give Health To The Sick" translates her faith in the political ideology created in 1848, her desire to be cared for, and her hope for others to have access to healthcare attention.

Fun Fact: Frida, at the end of her life, could barely walk, attending her first exposition in Mexico laid on a bed. However, in 1954 she stood up and joined the protest against the United States' interferences in Guatemala.

“The Liberty” — via

Even though she lived at least 3 years in the U.S. and did many expositions in New York, she was always very open about her disapproval of North America's political and economic interferences in underdeveloped countries, especially those in Latin America.

In the sketch, we can see Uncle Sam behind the Statue of Liberty influencing her to hold an atomic bomb while wearing a necklace made of puppets (including rich capitalists, Franco, Hitler, President Truman, Mexican politicians, and the Pope). The statue stands on top of a podium composed of "common people", symbolizing the oppression and abuse the meaning of freedom was, in this case, attributed to.

"Henry Ford Hospital" and “Frida and Cesarean Operation”:

“Henry Ford Hospital” — via

As a result of her union with Diego Rivera, Frida got pregnant several times, suffering miscarriages on all occasions. Her difficulty in bringing her pregnancy to term was a consequence of the accident mentioned before, in which her uterus was permanently affected.

In a very vulnerable state, she captured the traumatizing operation. We can see her hemorrhaging on the bed, contorting her body with pain, illustrating the state of disconnection she was in. Based on an anatomy book, the fetus's drawing represents her and Diego's son, while the pelvic bone and the orchid represent her hips and uterus, respectively. The slug was her form of symbolizing the experience's slowness, which could have only increased her sadness and suffering.

"Frida and Cesarean Operation" — via

The second painting is another representation of the same miscarriage she endured in Detroit. However, this canvas is an alternative and hopeful version of what could have happened if the baby was born alive and healthy.

The paint remained unfinished due to the physical and psychological trauma it reminded Frida of.

"Memory, The Heart":

Frida's marriage was turbulent from beginning to end due to the numerous cases of mutual infidelity. The most significant was the affair Diego, her husband, had with her sister Cristina. Kahlo discovered the cheating scandal when she returned home and found them together in her house. Later, she also found out that the 6 children Cristina had given birth to were Diego's sons and daughters.

This revelation had a huge impact on the painter's emotional state since she could not be a mother herself. She cut ties with her sister, representing the end of her connection with Cristina through a painting called "Memory, The Heart".

“Memory, The Heart” — via

Analyzing the canvas, we can see a heart torn out and bleeding on the ground, while the void where Frida's heart should be is punctured by a wooden bar. The analogy between this event and the accident mentioned before shows that this emotional pain was as powerful as the physical one she endured as a teenager.

The two vestments hanging on different sides of Frida represent a separation between girlhood and womanhood. This could illustrate Frida's change of mentality and behavior, transitioning from an innocent girl to a confident woman. It could also mean concretely the rupture of bonds between her younger sister, metaphorically portraited by the schoolgirl's clothes, and herself, represented by the traditional Mexican skirt she was globally known for.

"Why Would I Want Feet When I Have Wings To Fly”:

“Why Would I Want Feet When I Have Wings To Fly”— via Pinterest

As a consequence of the deterioration of her health, Frida had to amputate her feet. She documented the event on a page of her journal with ink and aquarelle, writing below the drawing in Spanish, “Why would I want feet when I have wings to fly”.

More so than the drawing itself, this quotation embodies perfectly the resilience and perseverance of a woman that was given more than her fair share of lemons and somehow managed to make lemonade and share it with the world around her.



Beatriz Freitas

Brazilian. Fourth-year medical student. Love arts and social science.