Kahlo wearing the corset in Coyoacán, Mexico c.1951.
Kahlo painting a similar corset from her bed.
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.
FRIDA KAHLO’S CORSET IN MUSEUM EXHIBITIONS
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.