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Art Through Time: A Global View

Dreams and Visions Art: The Broken Column

» Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954)
The Broken Column

The Broken Column<
Artist / Origin: Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954)
Region: Mesoamerica, Central America, and the Caribbean
Date: 1944
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Oil on masonite
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 15 11/16 in. (39.8 cm), W: 12 1/16 in. (30.6 cm)
Location: Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico City, Mexico
Credit: © 2009 Banco de México Diego Rivera-Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Courtesy of Schalkwijk/Art Resource, NY

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is best known for her often wrenching, always mysterious self-portraits.

Although each of these images presents a consistent, iconic likeness of the artist, collectively they give expression to something much more profound, an exploration of identity that encompasses gender, nationality, class, politics, and the artist’s own physical experience of her body.

At the age of eighteen, Kahlo was involved in a violent bus accident. Thereafter, her life was marked by chronic pain and health problems. She required numerous surgeries and was unable to carry a child to full term. The theme of suffering permeates Kahlo’s self-portraits and often explicitly comprises their subject matter. In these images, the artist’s physical and psychological struggles are rendered visible through distortions of her body, which is fragmented, doubled, turned inside-out, and merged with non-human elements.

The Broken Column was painted shortly after Kahlo underwent spinal surgery. She depicts herself bound and constrained by a cage-like body brace. A cavern of missing flesh violates the integrity of her body, exposing a broken column in place of her spine. The column appears to be on the verge of collapsing into rubble. Metal nails pierce Kahlo’s face, breasts, arms, and torso, as well as her upper thigh, hidden behind a swath of cloth. Tears stream down her face. Set in an open landscape, the artist-sitter is exposed in more ways than one. The terrain on which she stands appears barren and cleaved.

The emotional intensity and imaginative scope of pictures like this one has led many, including her contemporaries, to label Kahlo a Surrealist. Although she accepted this membership for practical and professional reasons, Kahlo distinguished her work from that of other Surrealists, noting that it dealt not with dreams worlds, but rather with her own lived reality.

Expert Perspective:
Ilan Stavans, Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst College

“She was handicapped from an early age as a result of a bus accident in which she was involved. She had to undergo a series of operations. Pain, suffering, the decimation of her body is at the very heart of what her paintings are all about. And on her forehead, she does what Posada does, always either painting little Diegos—that is the obsession that she has with him—or painting little calaveras, or presenting herself in a bed the way you would see in Mexican art the suffering of a child or of a wife that is given to the saints for them to help.

I can’t think of an artist that is more connected with a kind of religious fervor in iconography that is popular in Mexico than Frida Kahlo in that sense. The suffering really in many ways connected with European art, but also intersecting with what Latin American, Mexican art, in particular are about—the concept of death, kind of moving into different directions.

I am very attracted to the art of Frida Kahlo not only for what it says and the importance that it has, but also because it is an invitation to look at Mexico, and by connection to Latin America, from a female perspective. Most of the art that one sees that represents this so-called Mexican collective soul has been produced for better or worse by male artists. Posada, Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, many of the muralists were men and were looking at the world through the eyes of men. Frida Kahlo is a companion of Diego Rivera, but sees the world completely different than Diego Rivera. She sees it from the point of view of a woman, and she sees it from the point of view of the daughter of an immigrant from Europe—her father was a photographer—and as such, as a person from Mexico that can also be detached from Mexico, looking at it from the outside.

Her experience, I would say, is the experience of allowing the forces of Mexican culture to infiltrate her, or be present inside her, but there’s an existential view of life that is very European, that is very connected with martyrdom, with suffering in order to achieve something with the cleansing of the body. There are images of Frida lying in bed, there are images of Frida where her body is paralyzed by all sorts of technical medical devices, her leg, her chest, where her heart is pouring out. There are images of Frida where she is falling down from a skyscraper. And that sense of vulnerability of the female body that becomes a receptacle, so to speak, or a recipient of the suffering is Mexican, but it’s also European. And I think that in many ways that is the reason why she is so popular not only at home, but abroad. She shows you a part of the so-called ‘primitive’ of what the Surrealists liked to understand as the barbaric of the Latin American art, but she also has a channel of communication with European art that is very strong and particularly with the female body and the female aspect of looking at the world and looking at death as dependent on men, as trapped in your body, and yet perceiving that through your body you can connect with the world entire, so to speak.”

Additional Resources

Caws, Mary Ann. The Surrealist Look: An Erotics of Encounter. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Cottom, Daniel. Abyss of Reason: Cultural Movements, Revelations, and Betrayals. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

“Frida Kahlo.” In Exhibitions. Philadelphia Museum of Art Web site. http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions.

Herrera, Hayden. Frida Kahlo: The Paintings. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Herrera, Hayden, Victor Zamudio-Taylor, Elizabeth Carpenter, and Kathy Halbreich. Frida Kahlo. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2007.

Levitt, Annette Shandler. The Genres and Genders of Surrealism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Lusty, Natalya. Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Aldershot, Hants, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2