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“They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” – Frida Kahlo

History

Kahlo wearing the corset in Coyoacán, Mexico c.1951.

Kahlo wearing the corset in Coyoacán, Mexico c.1951.

Kahlo painting a similar corset from her bed.

Kahlo painting a similar corset from her bed.

Diego kisses Frida at the Hospital Ingles ABC, Mexico City, 1950.

Diego kisses Frida at the Hospital Ingles ABC, Mexico City, 1950.

When Frida Kahlo died in 1954, a grief-stricken Diego Rivera had her belongings locked away for fifteen years, and her personal effects remained sealed, undisturbed, and undocumented until 2004 when the small room in the home her father built in Coyoacán, Mexico was opened to the world. Among the many belongings revealed at Casa Azul were her clothes, jewelry, drawings, letters, documents, and more than 6,500 photographs (among them works by Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Man Ray, and Nickolas Muray) as well as the most personal and ironically moving item: the orthopedic plaster corsets she turned into an extension of herself. These harsh clinical objects assaulted her free-spirited nature, yet they remain today as the most palpable reminders that as she suffered through unbearable pain — over thirty surgeries, batteries of tests, X-rays, spinal taps, blood transfusions, physical therapy and strong pain killing drugs, she was an absolute survivor, not a victim.

It was Frida’s father, Guillermo who gave her his box of paints and brushes as she was recovering from the bus accident that had shattered her spine. The devastation she suffered is shown in excruciating detail in her 1944 painting, The Broken Column. Yet the first canvas she painted upon was the most convenient one — the plaster cast bodice encasing her body. As she related, she had dreamed of becoming a doctor, yet “to combat the boredom and pain (and) without giving it any particular thought, I started painting.” Later, her mother asked a carpenter to fashion an easel “if that’s what you can call the special apparatus which could be fixed to my bed because the plaster cast didn’t allow me to sit up.” (Andrea Kettenmann, Frida Kahol: 1907-1954: Pain and Passion, Taschen, 1999, pg. 18)

On this particular corset, Kahlo painted a blood-red Hammer and Sickle, the symbolic configuration representing proletarian solidarity — a union between the peasantry and working-class expressing her lifelong political sympathies and below, a developing fetus entering perhaps its third trimester, a reminder of the still deeper insult of the accident, the one that added a layer of suffering and regret to Frida’s personal tragedy — her inability to bear children. Frida’s corsets hardened around her resolve as much as her body, but they also speak of her almost unbearable longing. They are ruminations on the power of creativity to heal as well as demonstrations of Frida Kahlo’s unbounded capacity for confronting the very bodily enclosures that imprisoned her, transforming them, taking them over as much as she could, and turning them into something beautiful and expressive.

“Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.” – Frida Kahlo

FRIDA KAHLO’S CORSET IN MUSEUM EXHIBITIONS

  • Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    The corset on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London as part of “Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up,” from 16 June 2018 to 18 November 2018.
  • Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    The corset on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London as part of “Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up,” from 16 June 2018 to 18 November 2018.
  • De Young Museum, San Francisco

    The corset on display in the deYoung Museum, San Francisco as part of the exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” from 25 September 2020 to 2 May 2021.
  • De Young Museum, San Francisco

    The corset on display in the deYoung Museum, San Francisco as part of the exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” from 25 September 2020 to 2 May 2021.

When Frida Kahlo’s room at Casa Azul was opened in 2004, her personal belongings captivated the world with an intimate glimpse into the life of one of Mexico’s most celebrated and influential artists. Since 2007, Kahlo’s “Hammer and Sickle (and Unborn Baby)” has traveled worldwide in a number of prestigious exhibitions in Mexico, Europe, and the U.S. It was first shown to a broad public audience at Mexico City’s Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in Frida Kahlo, 1907-2007. Homenaje Nacional (2007), and over the next decade was featured in major exhibitions in Berlin, Ontario, Rome, Genova, New York, Milan, and London. Most recently, it appeared with two other plaster corsets in Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving (September 25, 2020 – May 2, 2021), which traveled from the Brooklyn Museum to the De Young Museum in San Francisco.

Frida’s other corsets

Kahlo Additonal Corset-1
Kahlo Additonal Corset-2
Kahlo Additonal Corset-3
Kahlo Additonal Corset-4

Top Results at Auction

Oil on masonite, 11 5/8 x 8 3/4 in. Sold at Sotheby's New York: 16 November 2021.

“Diego y yo” (1949) sold for $34,883,000.

Oil on masonite, 11 5/8 x 8 3/4 in. Sold at Sotheby’s New York: 16 November 2021.
Oil on metal, 9 ¾ x 12 in. Sold at Christie’s New York: 12 May 2016.

“Dos Desnudos En El Bosque (La Tierra Misma)” (1939) sold for $8,005,000.

Oil on metal, 9 ¾ x 12 in. Sold at Christie’s New York: 12 May 2016.
Oil on canvas 46 ½ x 32 in. Sold at Christie’s New York: 21 November 2019.

“Portrait of a Lady in White” (circa 1929) sold for $5,836,500.

Oil on canvas 46 ½ x 32 in. Sold at Christie’s New York: 21 November 2019.
Oil on metal, 11 ¾ X 19 ¾ in. Sold at Sotheby’s New York: 24 May 2006.

“Roots” (1943) sold for $5,616,000.

Oil on metal, 11 ¾ X 19 ¾ in. Sold at Sotheby’s New York: 24 May 2006.
Oil on masonite, 30 ½ x 24 in. Sold at Sotheby’s New York: 31 May 2000.

“Self-Portrait” (1929) sold for $5,065,750.

Oil on masonite, 30 ½ x 24 in. Sold at Sotheby’s New York: 31 May 2000.

Paintings in Museum Collections

Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City

“The Two Fridas” (1939), oil on canvas, 68 x 68 in.

Museum of Modern Art, New York

“Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” (1940), oil on canvas, 15 ¾ x 11 in.

Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino Mexico, Mexico City

“Henry Ford Hospital” (1932), oil on metal panel, 12 x 13 ¾ in.

Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino Mexico, Mexico City

“The Broken Column” (1944), oil on masonite, 15 ¾ x 12 in.

Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Texas

“Moses” (1945), oil on masonite, 24 x 29 ¾ in.

Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino Mexico, Mexico City

“Without Hope” (1945), oil on canvas on masonite, 14 ¼ x 11 in.
“I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.” – Frida Kahlo

Additional Resources

De Young Museum Exhibition Tour

See the corset featured at the 13:50 mark and discussed by the exhibition curators in the deYoung Museum’s video tour of “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving.”

Time Magazine

This image of Kahlo wearing the corset is listed by Time Magazine as one of the six crucial artifacts that help illustrate Kahlo’s personal history.

Brooklyn Museum Exhibition Tour

Watch this video of museum-goers’s reactions to “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” at the Brooklyn Museum.

VIRTUAL TOUR: CASA AZUL, MUSEO FRIDA KAHLO

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