It is not always a comfortable experience to view the art of Frida Kahlo: her paintings have been described alternately as bewitching, bizarre, brutal, surreal, self-indulgent, seductive, unfathomable, and defiant.1 Howsoever exasperating or provocative her paintings, there can be no doubt that Kahlo confronts her audience with all the complexity, confusion, anguish, and anxiety of the human condition, which she articulates often with representations of the female human body as it is visited by physical trial and trauma. Kahlo does not accord insignificance or even finality to such trauma: on the contrary, her depictions of corporeal distortion and bodily disfigurement are more akin to visual meditations on the inevitable dissolution of physicality, especially human physicality, and on the pervasive reality of death, the omnipresence of which Kahlo insists on revealing in her art as the signature foundation of all human experience and the preternatural essence of all material existence. Having come close to death (if not actually having died, briefly, to which Kahlo herself alluded in her work) after an horrific accident, as well as having experienced in her life other forms of intractable human mortality such as difficult miscarriages and daily physical pain and emotional distress, Frida Kahlo was sensitive to the lingering trace of death everywhere.2
- Yellow Flower
- Gold Powder
- Mexican Culture
- White Cloud
- Physical Trial
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The critical reception of Kahlo’s work has been fraught with ambiguity, personalism, and contradictory impulses. For more than a generation after her death, Kahlo was not even included in the notables of Mexican art: a standard text such as Justino Fernandez’s A Guide to Mexican Art (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1969), for example, does not even name her as a painter, although her husband, Diego Rivera, receives several laudatory sections. The publication of writings about Kahlo, her life, and her art by art historian Hayden Herrera in the 1980s generated a renewed interest in Frida Kahlo, in North America as well as in her native Mexico: nevertheless, even then, analysis of her work inevitably became suffused with emotional responses to her as a person, as a woman, and to the life she so defiantly chronicled in her art. Thus, no less a comrade, fellow-Mexican and artistic luminary as Octavio Paz described in a single essay Frida Kahlo as “limited and intense,” “brave and narcissistic,” “an intense visual poet” whose visions were “often incorrect” (sic) and “a perverse little girl.” He additionally described her art as “sumptuous violence,” revelatory but “blood-drenched, and “poetic fuel” that, in the end, he admitted, wearied him, repelled him, and convinced him that what he viewed was not art but complaint.
See Octavio Paz, “Loners and Independents,” in Essays on Mexican Art (New York, San Diego, and London: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1987), 243–245.
A more complete discussion of the diverse reactions to Kahlo’s work can be found in Elizabeth Garber, “Art Critics on Frida Kahlo: A Comparison of Feminist and Non-Feminist Voices,” Art Education 45. (March 1992): 42–48. Garber ruefully notes that much of the scholarship on Frida Kahlo and her work falls along gender and political lines.
The term “near-death experience” was of course not prevalent in Kahlo’s time but her sense of having undergone a transformative physical, cognitive, and spiritual experience during the accident is evident in much of her work which is where she best expressed her perceptions. For example, a retablo that Kahlo repainted as her “description” of the accident shows her damaged and inert body lying lifeless under a trolley car while on the upper left corner of the painting appears an image of the Virgin Mary (in this case, the Virgin of Sorrows) encased in a beatific aureole and seeming to be about to raise Kahlo out of the twisted wreckage and into the light of life. It is a small tableau but clearly heartfelt and clearly alludes to a transposition of sense and spirit just after the event of the accident. As is traditional with Mexican retablos, the holy personage who has been represented—in this case, the Virgin Mary—is addressed and thanked for a benefice, and in this case, Kahlo’s parents give thanks to the Virgin for having saved their daughter from final death. See Hayden Herrera, Frida Kahlo: The Paintings (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002), 34. On Frida’s sense that she had died during the accident,
see Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (1984; reprint New York: Perennial, 2002), 50.
Terri Hardin, Frida Kahlo: A Modern Master (New York: Todtri Book Publishers, 1997), 30.
Herrera, Frida Kahlo, 29. On retables, see Gloria Fraser Giffords, Mexican Folk Retablos (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992).
Nicholas J. Saunders, “Predators of Culture: Jaguar Symbolism and Mesoamerican Elites,” World Archeology 26.1 (1994): 107.
There are several sources for the infamous accident, among them: Herrera, Frida Kahlo, 34–35; Martha Zamora, Frida Kahlo: The Brush of Anguish (San Francisco, LA: Chronicle Books, 1990), 25–27.
Frida Kahlo, letter to Alejandro Gomez Arias in The Letters of Frida Kahlo: Cartas Apasionadas, ed. Martha Zamora (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1995), 20. The term la pelona actually means “bald woman” and was often used as a personification of death.
Frida Kahlo, letter to Alejandro, October 13, 1925 in Frida by Frida: Selection of Letters and Texts, ed. Raquel Tibol, 2nd ed. (Mexico: Editorial RM, 2006), 40–41.
The color yellow varies in signification, depending on its use and/or its provenance. For much Western, especially religious, art, yellow can symbolize either divinity, life, or fruitfulness, revealed truth, marriage, and joy, or, more negatively, heresy, treason, deceit, and falsehood. See Gertrude Grace Sill, A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art (New York: Collier Books, 1975), 30. In addition, different cultural and religious traditions regard yellow distinctively: in some countries of the Middle East and Southeast Asia, such as Egypt or Burma, yellow signifies death and mourning, and in western Europe during the Middle Ages, actors who were portraying the dead would wear yellow.
Frida Kahlo in The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, ed. and intro. Carlos Fuentes, essay and commentaries by Sarah M. Lowe (New York: Abradale Press, 1995), 285.
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© 2015 Thomas Cattoi and Christopher M. Moreman
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Greeley, JA. (2015). At Our End Is the Beginning: Death as the Liminal Real in the Art of Frida Kahlo. In: Cattoi, T., Moreman, C.M. (eds) Death, Dying, and Mysticism. Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Mysticism. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137472083_14
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