Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Frida Kahlo: Painting through Chronic Pain and PTSD

 I was excited to learn more about Frida Kahlo this year at the Creativity and Madness conference, I have been drawn to her self portraits since becoming a regular visitor to Santa Fe.  Ms. Tanya Radic, RN had some terrific slides some of which I could not locate for this post, but I will do my best to represent contextual information about this remarkable painter.

"My painting carries with it the message of pain." Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo was one of the most famous Mexican artists. She is remembered as a prolific painter, political activist, outspoken feminist, and strong personality.  Her paintings have bright cultural colors, and intense subject matter.  Although she did not consider herself a surrealist painter, her work has been praised within that genre.

The early years:  Frida Kahlo's was born in Mexico City, Mexico  (1906) in a house built by her father called Casa Azul (the Blue House).  Her early childhood was impacted by the Mexican revolution, so much so, that Frida sometimes changed her birth date to further associate with the beginning of the war. Her mother reportedly fed soldiers who jumped over the stone wall surrounding the house, before they returned for battle in the streets.  Kahlo suffered from polio at age 6, which disfigured her right leg and confined her for nine months of recovery. She was a bright student who had dreams of becoming a doctor and was one of very few females accepted into an exclusive preparatory school.

"I am not sick.  I am broken. I am happy as long as I can paint."
Post Traumatic Stress: Life changed instantly for Frida at age 18 when she was riding a bus that was hit by a trolly train.  Many people were killed in the accident and Frida was not expected to live.  Her injuries were the cause of chronic pain, multiple surgeries, and many miscarriages throughout her life.  While recovering for months in the hospital Frida began to paint with watercolors her father brought her during one of his visits. 

The shift from pain to painting was significant in the emotional healing of Frida Kahlo.  Her work is graphic and provokes an emotional response.  Of her 145 known paintings, 54 are self portraits.  It would seem she was perpetually trying to understand herself in relation to her physical and emotional injuries.
When she returned to the preparatory school following her accident she met Diego Rivera, 20 years older than Frida, who was already a famous muralist. Their friendship turned into a difficult marriage marked with infidelity, separation, divorce, and remarriage to each other. Their relationship was the inspiration of many paintings throughout their marriage. As a couple they were active in the communist party, and famous for their art during their lifetime.
As a psychologist I admire Kahlo's courage in sharing her emotional experience so openly with others.  By translating her pain into paint, Kahlo made a bold move from victim (of polio, war, train wreck, infidelities) to survivor.  She invites us to understand the triumph of the human spirit over tragedy through her deeply personal story. 
“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it's true I'm here, and I'm just as strange as you.”
Frida Kahlo
Kahlo died in Casa Azul at age 47 from surgical complications following the partial amputation of her leg.  In 1958 Casa Azul became a museum filled with her original artwork and artifacts of her life.
Where to read more:
  • A Biography of Frida Kahlo (1983)  Hayden Herrera
  • Frida (2002) a film starring Salma Hayek nominated for six Academy Awards and won for Best Makeup and Original Score.
  • The Lacuna (2009) Barbara Kingsolver


  1. Wow - she had some serious challenges! Love her quote - it's a concept many of us can relate to. I hope she connected with the other strange person she sought.

    1. I enjoyed these quotes too- obviously she connected with strange me! Thanks for reading :)

  2. These posts continue to fascinate me, Lisa. And I hadn't realized The Lacuna by Kingsolver was about Frida Kahlo.

    1. It was an unusual Kingsolver book, not like others I'd read but I enjoyed the tie in with fascinating Frida! Appreciate your comment.