Ocula Magazine   |   News   |   Institutions   |   Frida Kahlo Follow

Beset by polio, a spinal injury that caused life-long pain, and infections that took her toes and then her leg, Kahlo never stopped creating.

Frida Kahlo’s Indomitable Spirit Shines at ArtScience Museum

Gisèle Freund, Frida Kahlo and Dr. Juan Farill with her Self-Portrait, 1951. © Gisele Freund/IMEC/fonds MCC.

Few people have made as much beauty from as much suffering as Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907–1954).

'To understand a character as complex as Frida Kahlo, it is important to address each of the aspects of her life and particularly those that are reflected in her artistic work,' Cristina Kahlo Alcalá, the artist's great niece, told Ocula.

Kahlo's huge and complex life is the subject of a fittingly huge and complex season of exhibitions now showing at Singapore's ArtScience Museum.

Frida Forever, which continues through 1 September, includes digital installations, historical photographs, and even medical documents that cast new light on her oeuvre and experience.

The exhibition Frida Kahlo: The Life of An Icon features eight thematic spaces. One of the highlights is Immersive Biography, a 360-degree projection that narrates the life of Frida Kahlo through historical photographs, animations, and poetry.

'The 30-minute film enables visitors to experience the artist's world through her eyes, wander through her landscapes, follow her journeys and to be transported into her emotional world of joy, passion, and sadness,' said Gail Chin, Exhibition Producer at ArtScience Museum.

The immersive installations, which were created by Layers of Reality, also include a five-layer volumetric video effect—essentially a hologram—capturing the moment in 1925 when a streetcar smashed into the wooden bus Kahlo was riding, impaling her on an iron handrail.

Kahlo, who was 18 at the time of the crash, likened her impaling to 'the way a sword pierces a bull'.

Exhibition view: The Instant, IDEAL Centre D'Arts Digitals, Barcelona (2022).

Exhibition view: The Instant, IDEAL Centre D'Arts Digitals, Barcelona (2022). Courtesy Layers of Reality.

'The work represents this space in the artist's memory, a moment frozen in time—a vital fracture, an instant of transformative fragility,' said Olga Alexeeva, Strategy Director at Layers of Reality.

The accident, which fractured Kahlo's pelvis, broke her spine in three places, and crushed her right foot, caused the artist chronic pain.

From 1940 until her death in 1954, Kahlo wore 28 different medical corsets to support her spine. She underwent multiple unsuccessful surgeries to alleviate her suffering. She also endured infections that led to her right leg being amputated in 1953.

Circe Henestrosa, Fashion Curator and Head of the School of Fashion at LASALLE College of the Arts, who was the curatorial advisor to the exhibition Laid Bare: Frida's Inner World. She also worked with V&A's Claire Wilcox on the 2018 exhibition and book Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, which explored the artist's life, in part through her possessions.

'To be able to walk, she had boots made of luxurious red leather decorated with bows, pieces of silk embroidered with Chinese dragon motifs, and decorative little bells,' Henestrosa said. 'She turned her prosthetic leg into an avant-garde object, an accessory that she adopted as an extension of her body.'

Similarly, Henestrosa said, 'Kahlo decorated and adorned her corsets, making them appear as an explicit choice. She included them in constructing her looks as an essential piece, as a second skin. She was so ahead of her time, and all the orthopaedic devices show her resilience and love for her art.'

Laid Bare features photographs of Kahlo blown up on the walls, including a portrait of her painting while in traction.

'Even though the treatment involved using a heavy weight and required her head to be strapped and her bed to be tilted, she still managed to paint,' Henestrosa explained.

She said this photo, and another of her using a mirror to paint her corset, 'show how Kahlo constructed a visual vocabulary with which she expressed physical and emotional suffering, while also articulating her own resilience and capacity to create meaning, joy, beauty, and art.'

Exhibition view: Laid Bare: Frida's Inner World at ArtScience Museum.

Exhibition view: Laid Bare: Frida's Inner World at ArtScience Museum.

Cristina Kahlo Alcalá visited American British Cowdray (ABC) Hospital in Mexico City to learn more about her great aunt's medical history.

'The painter's constant hospitalisations made her much more aware of her own body,' she said.

'The files in which you can see the graph of her heartbeat are moving—it is a way to enter the interior of Frida Kahlo's pained body.'

Laid Bare even includes quotes from medical experts specialising in orthopaedic surgery, clinical psychology, anaesthesia and pain management at Changi General Hospital, Singapore who have examined Kahlo's records.

Dr Zheng Zhongxi is a consultant with the Department of Anaesthesia & Surgical Intensive Care at Changi General Hospital. He told Ocula that Frida's injuries are well documented, but few of her contemporaries would have understood what chronic pain really entails.

'Our modern definition of pain acknowledges an unpleasant sensory and emotional aspect to pain, and that pain can occur even after apparent injuries have healed,' Zheng said.

He said constant activation of our pain messaging systems can sensitise them to cause a mere touch to 'evoke a crippling and debilitating sensation.'

Cristina Kahlo Alcalá, American British Cowdray Hospital File (clinical sheet) (August 1953).

Cristina Kahlo Alcalá, American British Cowdray Hospital File (clinical sheet) (August 1953). Courtesy Centro Médico ABC Historical Archive and Cristina Kahlo Alcalá.

'This is something that baffled even doctors at her time, and led many physicians then to view patients as being histrionic or even mad,' Zheng continued. 'This lack of trust between patients and their physicians, and even their families, often led them to develop feelings of doubt, guilt and isolation, resulting in the further progression of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.'

Indeed, in February 1954 Kahlo wrote in her diary that 'they have given me centuries of torture and at moments I almost lost my reason. I keep on wanting to kill myself.'

Despite experiencing chronic pain, seeking relief in alcohol and drugs, and her tumultuous marriage with fellow painter Diego Rivera—both partners carried out multiple affairs—Kahlo was productive and exhibited widely during her lifetime. She had her first solo exhibition at Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1938, and became the first Mexican artist to be collected by the Louvre after showing in Paris in 1939.

In 1953, with her health rapidly declining, Kahlo held her first solo exhibition in Mexico at the Galería Arte Contemporaneo. She arrived in an ambulance and spent the duration of the event in her four-poster bed, which was relocated to the gallery from her home.

Even at her illest, Frida Kahlo continued to paint. Frida Forever celebrates Frida Kahlo's courage in processing her pain through art-making, honouring the talented woman whose perseverance continues to be an inspiration for many.

Click on these links to purchase tickets to Frida Kahlo: The Life of an Icon and Laid Bare: Frida's Inner World. —[O]

Ocula discover the best in contemporary art icon.
Ocula discover the best in contemporary art icon.
Follow Frida Kahlo
Stay ahead.
Receive updates on new artworks,
exhibitions and articles.
Your personal data is held in accordance with our privacy policy.
Do you have an Ocula account?
Ocula discover the best in contemporary art icon.
Get Access
Join Ocula to request price and availability of artworks, exhibition price lists and build a collection of favourite artists, galleries and artworks.
Do you have an Ocula account? Login
What best describes your interest in art?

Subscribe to our newsletter for upcoming exhibitions, available works, events and more.
By clicking Sign Up or Continue with Facebook or Google, you agree to Ocula's Terms & Conditions. Your personal data is held in accordance with our Privacy Policy.
Thank you for joining us. Just one more thing...
Soon you will receive an email asking you to complete registration. If you do not receive it then you can check and edit the email address you entered.
Thank you for joining us.
You can now request price and availability of artworks, exhibition price lists and build a collection of favourite artists, galleries and artworks.
Welcome back to Ocula
Enter your email address and password below to login.
Reset Password
Enter your email address to receive a password reset link.
Reset Link Sent
We have sent you an email containing a link to reset your password. Simply click the link and enter your new password to complete this process.