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Frida Kahlo, Capturing Her Pain In Painting And Photographs

The Costantini collection of Latin American art, on display in Buenos Aires, includes family photos of Mexico's Frida Kahlo, whose singular paintings and resilience in suffering made her, in death, a symbol of female strength and creativity.

Photo of people visiting the MALBA Frida Kahlo exhibition in Buenos Aires

At the MALBA Frida Kahlo exhibition in Buenos Aires

Mercedes Pérez Bergliaffa

BUENOS AIRES — The Tercer Ojo (Third Eye) exhibition in the MALBA museum in Buenos Aires, displaying one of Latin America's outstanding art collections, will give visitors a glimpse of the lives of two celebrated Mexican painters of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Kahlo turned to painting to escape years of acute back pain, and is often associated with the Surrealists of her time. The display includes pictures taken by her father among others, showing private moments in the life of a passionate woman who has become an icon of modern popular culture.

In 1929, Kahlo married Rivera, a towering figure of Mexican modern art and in particular, Muralism. Throughout her life as an artist, she remained in his shadow.


In private the couple had a dynamic if not stormy relationship, with infidelity on both sides, in part for Kahlo's constant back pain after an accident in 1925, which depressed her immensely.

But there was deep affection, and it lasted. She once wrote in her diary, "Nobody will know how much I love Diego. I want nothing to hurt him, nor upset or deprive him of any of that energy he needs to live. Just as he pleases. If I had health, I would give it all to him. If I have had youth, he could take it all. I am not just his mother, but the embryo, the germ, the first cell that engendered his possibility."

Frida's life through pictures

A stellar piece on display is a very late Frida self-portrait (1949), Diego y yo (Diego and I). Nearby, a glass case has letters and photographs of Frida's private and family life, showing her with her mother and sisters, with a hair bun or in Mary Jane shoes, spontaneously or in a formal pose, bedridden, and the charming family home, the Blue House in Coyoacán, south of Mexico City.

Some of the pictures are from the renowned Costantini collection, the subject of The Third Eye exhibition, and some belonged to the late Argentine art critic Raquel Tibol. They were variously taken by Guillermo Zamora, unknown photographers, or Frida's father, Guillermo Kahlo, a successful photographer of his time.

Painting and Communist activism became acts of resistance against illness.

Guillermo was born Carl Wilhelm Kahlo in Pforzheim in imperial Germany, in 1871. He changed his first name when he arrived in Mexico in 1891. In 1901, he opened a photo studio in Mexico City and in time received work from the government. Kahlo liked to photograph his four daughters, Matilde, Adriana, Frida and Cristina, and Frida's mother, his second wife Matilde Calderón.

The pictures in one case include childhood scenes, when Frida was happy in spite of an already fragile health (she had polio aged six). Another batch of pictures shows her as a bedridden adult, painting on a canvas beside her bed.

For Frida, painting and her Communist activism became acts of resistance against illness. The couple famously befriended the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who fled Russia and lived a while in Coyoacán, where he was murdered in 1940 by an agent of Joseph Stalin.

Frida Kahlo photographs as part of the MALBA exhibition in Buenos Aires

Frida Kahlo photographs as part of the MALBA exhibition in Buenos Aires

Nahuel Nicolas Peralta via Facebook

Immense suffering as subject of art

Frida had but three exhibitions of her work in her lifetime (but 32 surgeries to fix her back), and was relatively unknown at her death in 1954. Posthumously, she became a popular culture favorite, which in turn cast a new light on her work.

Between 1950 and 1951, she wrote: "I was sick for a year. Seven operations on the vertebral column. Doctor Farill saved me. He has given me back my joie de vivre. I'm still in a wheelchair and don't know if I shall be walking again soon. I have the plaster corset, which in spite of being a horrible drag, helps with my spine. The pains are gone. Just tiredness (...) and very often despair, which is natural. No word can describe that despair, and yet I want to live. I have begun painting."

The picture Diego and I reveals three situations: Frida's "devotion" to Diego, the immense pain of her disabilities, and a suffocating sense of helplessness (her hair is often painted engulfing her neck).

Does it hint at the suicide, which one biographer contends was the cause of her death in 1954? She wrote five months before her death: "They amputated the leg six months ago. I have suffered centuries of torture and thought I would lose my mind at times. I still have the urge to kill myself," she said. "Diego is the one preventing me and I am vain enough to imagine it is because he could miss me. He told me so and I believe him."

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Image of Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaking during a press conference in Buenos Aires on Jan 14, 2023

Colombian President Gustavo Petro, speaks during a press conference in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on January 24, 2023.

Manuel Cortina/ZUMA
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