2021 - 2022 Modern Volume 19

Disabled Impressionism: Art Through the Eyes of Frida Kahlo

By Anya Goulthorpe

Frida Kahlo (1907-54) is known as a mogul of the artistic realm. The average person may know her from the self-portrait ‘with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird’, featuring the now iconic monobrow, which now stands in the artistic hall of fame. However, some – not even avid art enthusiasts – may know Kahlo’s paintings express bold stories of her own medical struggles with poliomyelitis, a disabling condition affecting her spinal cord which could cause potential paralysis. Even lesser known, is how she translated paintings subtly into her experiences as a care partner for Mexican painter Diego Rivera who had epilepsy. On Disability Histor Month, we are acknowledging a powerful woman who served as a role model for generations of artists, people with disabilities, and bisexual women. 

[This black-and-white photograph shows Kahlo staring defiantly at the camera against a dark background, from the torso up. Her arms are crossed, her hair is tied back, she is wearing large hooped earrings, and is wearing necklaces under her shawl.]

Kahlo was only six years old when she was infected with the poliovirus which caused damage to her right leg and foot. For contextual factors, poliovirus is passed via the respiratory systems and multiplies in the throat and intestines. This then attacks the nerves in the spine and base of the brain which causes paralysis, usually in the legs, developing over months at a time. In an attempt to bereave Frida from the effects of polio, her father thought playing football, wrestling and swimming would help her recover, a common misconception on polio as the diagnosed can only ‘recover’ naturally. 

As a way of projecting her disability through the artistic format, Kahlo began to paint as a teenager after she was involved in a car accident, worsening her condition further. A prominent example of this is The Broken Column, painted in 1944. This painting is a self-depiction of Kahlo standing on a beach she visited frequently as a child. Her body is in the foreground of the painting, opened up and exposed, portraying the reality of polio for anyone who cared to look and understand. There is a rod going down the spinal area with restrictive metal corsets around her frame, accurate to what she would wear for most of her life. Nails are embedded into Kahlo’s body throughout, connoting the daily struggle she was put through due to poliomyelitis. 

[This painting, The Broken Column, shows Kahlo against a backdrop of blue sky and yellow sand. She is staring at the viewer, her black hair loose and long. She is naked from the waist up, her lower body covered by a white sheet. Her skin has been ripped away to reveal a central metal rod that has replaced her spine. She is also wearing a white metal corset and there are nails hammered into her body.]

Reflecting very much on what she set out to achieve in her paintings, Kahlo summarises her approaches by saying “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality”. That reality being about a disability, which history commonly and sadly overlooks with retrospective rose coloured glasses. 

But to not characterise Kahlo by her disability and commend her only because of this, she has become a historical icon for many other overlooked communities. She was married to artist Diego Rivera, who mentioned earlier had epilepsy. Each of them however, had separate love affairs, Kahlo with both men and women. The list of stars included Dolores del Rio, Paulette Goddard, Maria Felix, and even Georgia O’Keefe. She is the epitome of proving you can be more than one thing yet still be successful. The disability and LGBTQ+ communities intersect in many ways: 30% of men and 36% of bisexual adults live with a disability. 

[This colour photograph shows life-sized bronze coloured statues of Rivera and Kahlo side by side. Rivera is wearing a suit, Kahlo is gazing at him, wearing a draped dress, necklaces, and earrings. Her hair is braided and decorated with flowers. They stand in a city, with a row of trees behind them.]

We don’t want to see Frida Kahlo as just a famous painter. She overlaps into several significant sectors which should be acknowledged by the 21st century. Global history is at its strongest when it is inclusive of the diverse and talented figures, who can be very much related to modern society. They prove to be a positive role model for success. Many studies show that disabled people within the Latino community hide their disabilities due to stigma, yet Frida Kahlo painted them with pride. She presented what made her unique in the loudest possible way with whole galleries dedicated to what made her just that… herself. People such as Kahlo made an immense difference, for women, for Latinas, for LGBTQ+ persons, and most importantly, for people who are disabled.

Images: 

Frida Kahlo, by Guillermo Kahlo.jpg, Guillermo Kahlo, WikiCommons, Public Domain

Mostra di Frida Kahlo al Mudec di Milano 3 maggio 2018 (21) (cropped).jpg, Ambra75, WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 (Cropped)

Closeup of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Sculpture.jpg, Ines Suarez R., WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0