Frida Kahlo medical history explored in exhibition

The Parrish Art Museum presents Kahlo: An Expanded Body—a groundbreaking investigation into iconic artist Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954) through the lens of her dramatic medical history and its sustained impact on her life and work. The multi-gallery exhibition, on view November 20, 2022 through April 2, 2023, provides new insight into the importance of the body as enduring source material for Kahlo’s representational and metaphorical depictions of her physical and emotional life. 

Kahlo: An Expanded Body features more than 100 objects—several never before seen—made available through exclusive access to private family files by Kahlo’s grandniece, the Mexican artist Cristina Kahlo.  On view are facsimiles of personal letters and postcards between Frida and family, friends, lovers, and doctors; photographs of the artist and her inner circle by Mexican and international photographers including Lola Álvarez Bravo, Florence Arquin, Gisele Freund, Guillermo Kahlo, Antonio Kahlo, and Nickolas Muray; and extensive graphic medical records and documents. Original work by Cristina Kahlo that interprets Frida’s life through the lens of her health challenges, and art by María and Tolita Figueroa including a large scale fabric heart sculpture augment the exhibition.

Frida Kahlo planned to study medicine prior to her pursuit of art. Ironically, healthcare remained a dominant theme in a life largely defined by doctors, hospitals, procedures, and chronic pain. Kahlo survived a polio diagnosis as a child and a near fatal, physically devastating bus accident at 18. In a full body cast for months, she began to paint. 

Unidentified photographer. Partial view of the operating room of the American British Cowdray Hospital, ca. 1940.
Facsimile, framed: 13 x 17 x ¾ in. Collection Cristina Kahlo.
Unidentified photographer. Partial view of the operating room of the American British Cowdray Hospital, ca. 1940. Facsimile, framed: 13 x 17 x ¾ in. Collection Cristina Kahlo.

Kahlo: An Expanded Body opens with a chronicle of Kahlo’s stays at the American British Cowdray (ABC) Hospital in Mexico City depicted through images of the facility’s staff, exterior, and interior—including the operating room where many of her procedures took place. The opposite gallery wall presents a visual journey with images of Kahlo from periods of vitality, alternating with portraits revealing the physical toll of ill health over a lifetime, and culminating with images of the artist on her death bed.

Over the course of her life, Kahlo transformed aspects of her body—the heart, torso, mouth—into recurring images in her work. An entire gallery is dedicated to the heart through a variety of representational and metaphorical depictions by artists and photographers. A 30-foot high red heart, Unos cuantos Piquetitos (“A few small nips”) created by María and Tolita Figueroa in 1976 will be suspended from the gallery ceiling. The sculpture references Kahlo’s painting of the same name and evokes the artist’s practice of painting the organ outside of the body. Other works address matters of the heart through images of the artist with those she held dear: family and childhood photos from the early 20th century; group photographs from the 1930s through ‘50s featuring her husband Diego Rivera, and erstwhile lover Leon Trotsky. A 1951 photograph shows Kahlo in a wheelchair next to her long time doctor and friend Juan Farill. Alongside them is the painting Self-Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill (1951), in which Kahlo sits next to her painting of Farill while holding a heart-shaped palette as a symbol of her affection.

The artist’s body is further represented with Julien Levy’s 1938 photographs of Kahlo nude from the waist up, exposing her torso—sensual classical portraits that belie the internal ravages to her spine. Blood is a frequent element in Kahlo’s work, often painted in one of her favorite colors, carmine red, which she also associated with the heart and lips. The color appears in a more intimate context through her own red lipstick kisses that decorate photos, letters, and postcards to Rivera, her close friend and medical advisor Dr. Leo Eloesser, and Mexican actress Dolores de Río.

Kahlo had her first solo exhibition in Mexico in 1953. Ignoring medical advisement, she attended the opening, making her entrance on a hospital stretcher carried into the gallery. That summer was marked by sharp physical decline, with the amputation of her right leg and prolonged hospitalizations. Cristina Kahlo documented those hospital stays in a series of photographs encased in light boxes that illuminate the clinical files, charts, and graphs of vital signs. 

Kahlo: An Expanded Body includes an interactive installation for Museum visitors, featuring a large-scale reproduction of the artist’s painting The Dream (the Bed), 1940; an actual bed mimicking the painting; photographs of hospital gowns similar to those Kahlo wore and used to clean her brushes as she painted in bed; and a table with postcards for children to create and share in a community art initiative. 

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