What is it like to live dying

There are incredible lives, lives which seem impossible but in the imaginary worlds of fiction. Frida Kahlo’s is one of them. A global icon of modern art, she has been described as a surrealist or magical realist. She didn’t really care1

I never knew I was a surrealist till Andre Breton came to Mexico and told me I was.

In her paintings realism and fantasy mix to frame and convey her tormenting message. She is known for painting about her experience of chronic pain. First the polio, and then a terrible accident condemned her to a devilish jail, her broken body. Her physical suffering did not prevent her from living an active political and love life. Frida lived dying.

Reading her bio is both painful and amazing. You can actually get a glimpse of what it was like to be Frida through her art…

She lived dying

I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.

On 17 September 1925, Frida had an accident on their way home. She was impaled with an iron handrail that went through her pelvis, “the way a sword pierces a bull.”

Her limited physical condition did not prevent her from living an active political and love life. Her interests in politics and art led her to join the Mexican Communist Party in 1927, where she knew the famous painter Diego Rivera. They married in 1929, and their bohemian residence became an important meeting place for artists and political activists from Mexico and abroad.

They both had plenty of affairs. Among them, Diego with Frida’s younger sister Cristina, and Frida with the ex Soviet leader Leon Trotsky, while he and his wife Natalia were refugees in La Casa Azul. When Trotsky was assassinated in Coyoacán, on 21 August 1940, Frida was briefly suspected of being involved and was arrested and held for two days with her sister Cristina.

Frida and Diego were granted a divorce in November 1939, but remained friendly, because Diego was part of her pain.

Frida’s father famously nicknamed the couple “the elephant and the dove”

I have suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down… The other accident is Diego.

She painted herself

I do not know whether my paintings are surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself.

I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.

The self-portrait was the most recurrent genre in Frida Kahlo’s short but intense pictorial production: she painted herself three times in the 1920s, twenty times in the 1930 decade, twenty more in the 1940s, and finally five times in the years before her death in 1954.

La columna rota (The Broken Column), 1944
El Marxismo dará salud a los enfermos (Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick), 1954
Sin esperanza (Wihout Hope) 1945

I joyfully await the exit – and I hope never to return

On 13 July 1954, her nurse found her dead in her bed. Frida was 47 years old. The official cause of death was pulmonary embolism, although no autopsy was performed.

Diego and Frida

Diego was everything; my child, my lover, my universe.

Frida Kahlo’s portrait ‘Diego y yo’ was sold last Tuesday Nov 16 for $34.9 million, becoming the most expensive Latin American artwork sold at an auction. Previous record was Diego Rivera’s ‘The Rivals,’ sold for $9.76 million in a 2019 auction. (‘Baile en Tehuantepec’ had sold privately for $15.7 million two years before.)

I do not know if marxim can give health to the sick —I very much doubt it— but capitialist can give wealth to the dead. That’s for sure!

Diego y yo, epitomizes “the painstakingly detailed rendering, complex iconography, and deeply personal narratives that are hallmarks of her mature painting.” It is somehow a double portrait, with a small image of Diego in the center of her forehead (a recurrent theme), bearing a third eye to symbolize the degree to which he occupied her consciousness.

We all live dying. It is the very real arrow of time which pierced Frida’s body.

At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.

I’m not sure life is worth such a terrible struggle… unless you want to live forever.


(1) You will find plenty of Frida’s quotes all over the place. It’s difficult to know their accuracy, but in this post I follow Giordano Bruno’s aphorism: se non è vero, è ben trovato

Featured Image: Frida Kahlo, Diego y yo (Diego and I), Sotheby

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