A New Book of Photos Sheds Light on Frida Kahlo’s Private Suffering

Update 5/9/15: Ishiuchi Miyako’s posthumous photos of Frida Kahlo’s personal effects will go on view at Michael Hoppen gallery, London, from May 14 – July 12, 2015.

Frida Kahlo’s very deliberate choice in clothing may have been her greatest self-portrait. Far from the latest European styles, she wore traditional Mexican skirts and dresses, or tehuana. These were intended to colorfully conceal the disfigurement she suffered, stemming from a bout with polio in 1913, at the age of six, that left one of her legs significantly thinner and shorter than the other. Eventually it was amputated, requiring a prosthetic brace. At the age of 18, she was also involved in a serious bus accident, causing a broken spine, collarbone, ribs, pelvis, and a crushed right foot. Further, a handrail that pierced her abdomen prevented her from having children.

Despite the maladies, Kahlo kept a brave face, communicating her dogged perseverance through her diversion of choice, festive and heavily embroidered skirts and loose blouses. In 2012, her complete wardrobe, as well as belongings, went on display in Mexico City, after being locked away for nearly 50 years, unseen and untouched. It’s said that whiffs of perfume and cigarette smoke could be detected.

In a new book of photos (Edition RM), Ishiuchi Miyako has effectively created the first documentation of these artifacts, individually shot and suitably solitary in their beauty. Photographed in the courtyard of Kahlo’s home in Mexico City and current museum, Casa Azul, the Japanese artist used only natural light and an analog camera to capture the outward brilliance and hidden medical devices of Kahlo’s daily life. We see an orthopedic (or, orthopedic for its time) leather bodice, a pair of shoes with platforms of differing heights, and an array of her signature floor-length skirts masking the source of so much pain and seclusion. The resulting self-reflection led to some of the most personal and striking self-portraits ever painted. 

Leave a comment