Acute Illness

The Colorful Totems Of Saint Frida Kahlo

Frequently housebound throughout her life, the legendary Mexican painter turned to fashion, curios, and knick-knacks to let her imagination travel as far as her art.

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Since her death in 1954, Frida Kahlo has become an international cult icon. During her lifetime, the Mexican artist painted a relatively small number of pieces, only around 200, many of them self-portraits. Today, her likeness appears on a ridiculous range of objects — refrigerator magnets, earrings, swimsuits, bead curtains, socks, oven mitts, iPhone cases.

“Frida’s become Saint Frida, and people want to have a little piece of it, so they have to have a little physical ‘thing’ that has her image on it,” Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera says in a PBS interview. A notorious collector of things, Kahlo likely would have understood her fans’ desire to take home some sort of totem. “I think Frida would have loved it and been amused by it,” says Herrera.

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo.

As a girl, Kahlo “dreamed of being a navigator and traveler,” but illness and injury kept her housebound off and on throughout her life, sometimes for months on end. At age six, Kahlo was stricken with polio, and the illness stunted the growth of her right leg. Then, when she was 18, a steel handrail skewered her abdomen in a bus accident. The collision left her with multiple fractures in her spine, pelvis, and her right leg; her right foot was crushed. Complications from this trauma plagued her until the end, leading to some 35 surgeries and debilitating pain.

“Because she was immobile, the world came to her,” her art student Fanny Rabel says in Frida, Herrera’s definitive biography. When friends went on trips, she always asked them to bring back a little souvenir for her. “She loved objects and I think they were a connection with the outside world for her when she was more isolated,” Herrera says in a video for the auction house Christie’s.

Kahlo “dreamed of being a navigator and traveler,” but illness and injury kept her housebound off and on throughout her life…

Kahlo adorned herself and her home with an array of beautiful things — from antique rings and pretty pink hair ribbons to giant papier-mâché skeletons and clay skulls. Kahlo’s curatorial impulses are particularly evident at La Casa Azul (the Blue House). Located in Coyoacán, a southern neighborhood of Mexico City, this is the family home where Kahlo grew up and where she spent the last 13 years of her life. After Kahlo and her husband, the legendary muralist Diego Rivera, moved in the couple turned the house into a veritable museum, filling it with thousands of objects, including Mesoamerican sculptures, Mexican folk art, large earthenware pots, hundreds of ex-votos (small devotional paintings on tin), photographs, handmade jewelry, and more than 300 garments. (Happily, Casa Azul is now the Frida Kahlo Museum, and the rooms look much as they did when the pair lived there.)

For Kahlo, her home and her wardrobe were reflections of herself. And because of that close association, both can tell us something of how she dealt with her many maladies.

A wardrobe of armor

One of the most iconic photos of Frida Kahlo shows her in one of her many vivid outfits.

More than just fashion, clothing was a type of armor for Kahlo, and she donned her vibrant native attire to both assert her nationalist identity and to hide her scars and slight limp. In an era of curve-hugging dresses and pin curls, Kahlo’s embroidered blouses, floor-length skirts, and crown of braids attracted attention — and purportedly stopped traffic when she traveled abroad. Today, she is almost as well known for her iconic sense of style as she is for her artwork. The look she favored most was modeled after the traditional garb of Tehuantepec, an area in southeastern Mexico, where the women are “famous for being stately, beautiful, sensuous, intelligent, brave, and strong,” writes Herrera in her in-depth biography.

The biographer believes that Kahlo’s striking outfits also became “an antidote to isolation” as the years passed. “Even at the end of her life, when she was very ill and received few visitors, she dressed every day as if she were preparing for a fiesta,” says Herrera. The vivid colors of her clothing, the flowers she’d thread into her hair (or have her nieces and friends thread when she was too weak), and her heavy pre-Columbian jade necklaces made “the frail, often bedridden woman feel more magnetic and visible, more emphatically present as a physical object in space.”

Even at the end of her life, when she was very ill and received few visitors, she dressed every day as if she were preparing for a fiesta…

As her health declined, Kahlo’s ensembles and accessories became brighter and increasingly elaborate. In 1953, doctors decided to amputate her right leg below the knee. The decision was a devastating one for Kahlo, but even then she sheathed herself in “an elegant Tehuana dress” before heading to the surgeon. Writes Herrera, her self-decoration “was at once an affirmation of her love of life and a signal of her awareness — and defiance — of pain and death.”

Wild at heart

Kahlo’s father encouraged her to share his curiosity in all things organic — flowers, animals, birds, insects. When she was a child, the two would spend hours at nearby parks, the elder Kahlo painting watercolors while his daughter collected pebbles, insects, and plants. This relationship with the natural environment nurtured and sustained Kahlo later in life as well.

Casa Azul was built around a central courtyard where Kahlo and Diego cultivated a vast botanical collection, including orange and apricot trees, magnolias, gardenias, dahlias, bougainvillea, agave, cactus, and prickly pear.

Frida Kahlo and her pet monkey.

The garden is also where Kahlo’s cherished menagerie roamed, among them her spider monkey Fulang-Chang and a fawn called Granizo. One of her favorite pets was a little parrot named Bonito, who would nuzzle under the blankets with her when she rested in bed. Bonito’s preferred treat was butter. For comic relief, Kahlo would set up obstacle courses of clay pots and bowls for the bird to make his “pigeon-toed way around” before delving into his “buttery reward.”

When she was confined to her home, connecting with nature through her plants and her pets became increasingly important. She would stroll around the garden paths “noticing with loving attention each little flower as it came into bloom, playing with her pack of bald Aztec dogs [Mexican hairless Xoloitzcuintles], holding out her hand as a perch for tame doves or for her pet eagle (an osprey), which she named Gertrude Caca Blanca [Gertrude White Shit], because the bird dropped white excrement all over the steps,” says Herrera.

Skeletons not in the closet

Kahlo regularly turned to humor to help her survive life’s arrows. She believed that “suffering — and death — is inevitable,” and “since we each carry the burden of our fate, we must try to make light of it,” says Herrera. She often referred to death by the common Mexican euphemism of “la pelona,” or baldy. And Herrera writes that she “poked fun at la pelona the way a Catholic laughs at Catholicism or a Jew makes Jewish jokes — because death was her companion, her kin.” Or as Kahlo liked to say, “I tease and laugh at death, so that it won’t get the better of me.”

I tease and laugh at death, so that it won’t get the better of me…

The artist revealed her gallows humor in her paintings — which she insisted were full of comedy for those clever enough to spot it — and in her home decor.

Like many Mexicans, she delighted in Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, but her love of the holiday extended throughout the year. Along with indigenous pottery and traditional cookware, the walls of her cheerful yellow kitchen were covered with sugar and clay skulls.

Kahlo shows off one of her many skulls.

She also had a penchant for collecting giant papier-mâché Judas figures. Typically used in festivities on the Saturday before Easter, these effigies take many shapes. Kahlo, however, was particularly fond of the skeletons, and she hung the brightly painted paper bones (some nearly 20 feet tall) throughout her house. One of her favorites, which Diego called her boyfriend, rested on top of her bed’s wooden canopy, and smaller skeletons sometimes hung from its edge. For a party later in her life, she dressed a coterie of these playfully ghoulish characters in her own clothes and had them hung from her bedroom rafters.

A room of her own

Due to complications from polio and other injuries, Kahlo spent time bed-ridden off and on throughout her life.

Not surprisingly, Kahlo’s second-floor bedroom reflected the artist’s inner workings more than any other room. To keep herself company during her many bedridden days, she pasted pictures of family and friends to her headboard, and she painted the names of five of her closest friends in pink on her bedroom wall. A pillow embroidered with the words “Do not forget me, my love” served as a talisman against her deep fear of being neglected.

In a cabinet and a dressing table, she assembled a collection of little things — dolls, dollhouse furniture, toys, miniature glass animals, Mesoamerican idols, jewelry, and assorted baskets and boxes. “She loved to arrange and rearrange them, and she used to say, ‘I’m going to be a little old woman and go around my house fixing up my things,’” writes Herrera.

Kahlo treasured presents, and she tore into them with childlike exuberance. Just as eagerly, she would give things away. She was known to impulsively take off rings and offer them to friends. “If receiving gifts was a way of bringing the world to her, giving was a way of extending herself out into it, and of confirming her relation to other people,” writes Herrera.

I very much love things, life, people…

As her health worsened, Kahlo’s attachment to material things intensified. “Abhorring solitude, as if having no one there or nothing to do would leave a void into which terror would flow, she clung to her connection with the world,” writes Herrera. “I very much love things, life, people,” Kahlo told a friend in 1953.

When she was hospitalized for a year in 1950, Kahlo brought parts of her idiosyncratic collection with her. She decorated the room with sugar skulls (a popular Day of the Day item), a colorful candelabra shaped like the tree of life, white wax-and-paper doves that symbolized peace, and the Russian flag. The decorations surely made the room more welcoming and it was also always full of visitors sharing spicy gossip and dirty jokes. “She did not concentrate on herself,” remembers Rabel. “One did not feel her miseries and conflicts when one was with her. She was full of interest in others and the outside world.”

A ripe life

Kahlo has often been described as a surrealist painter, a label she vehemently rejected. “I never paint dreams or nightmares,” she said. “I paint my own reality.” That reality was frequently shot with pain, but it also flowed with an enduring love of life. She passionately engaged with the world and pulled it close to her. She reveled in the real, in the tangible. And, like religious relics, her cherished objects were imbued with meaning. They were symbols of the people she loved, her political beliefs, and her laughing defiance of death. They were also her way of proclaiming that she was still here. Just eight days before she died, the 47-year-old artist picked up her paintbrush and channeled this spirit into into a still life of juicy red watermelons. In capital letters, she wrote “Viva La Vida” (Long Live Life) across the center slice. Tenacious in all things, Kahlo celebrated life to the end. “It is not worthwhile,” she once said, “to leave this world without having had a little fun in life.”

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