Art through pain: MSU art exhibit shows why Frida Kahlo's health was integral to her art

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Cristina Kahlo never met her great aunt, Frida Kahlo, but she wanted to learn more about what inspired so much of the famed artist's work: her medical issues.

Before Frida's death in 1954 at the age of 47, she had 32 surgeries, nearly all stemming from a horrific bus accident in 1925 that left her severely injured. Her body and health were integral to her art.

Now, for the first time ever, some of Frida's clinical records, along with photos and letters to her doctors and loved ones, are on display as part of an ongoing exhibit, "Kahlo Without Borders," at Michigan State University's Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum. Her great niece, Cristina, spent years trying to get access to the medical files which have never been displayed before.

"Kahlo Without Borders" at MSU Broad Art Museum includes photos of her time spent in the hospital, letters and medical records.

The unusual exhibit, up through Aug. 7, casts new light on just how much Frida's medical challenges dominated her life. And Cristina Kahlo will be at the East Lansing museum this week along with Juan Coronel Rivera, Diego Rivera’s grandson, to discuss their family archives and art collections. Rivera lent four original drawings from Frida, who was married to his grandfather, to the museum for the exhibit.

The records "illuminate a lot of her body — there are records of her breathing and her pulsating heart. So it's interesting to see the Frida, who painted her heart so many times, that we're seeing in these (medical) images," said Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, executive director of MSU Broad Art Museum.

"Kahlo Without Borders" was curated by Cristina Kahlo, Javier Roque Vázquez Juárez and Ramírez-Montagut. It features roughly 100 items, including 80 letters, photos and facsimiles from family archives from the Cristina Kahlo collection and from the Oaxaca Museum of Stamp Collecting (Museo de la Filatelia en Oaxaca). The clinical records are from a medical facility in Mexico City where Frida spent time before she died.

"Kahlo Without Borders" at the MSU Broad Art Museum features dozens of letters, photos and medical records of Frida Kahlo that illuminate how her medical issues dominated her life and art. The medical records have never been displayed before.

Medical records may not seem like a natural fit for an art museum exhibit but they help put Frida's life in context for viewers, said Ramírez-Montagut.

"It just shows how her life actually revolved around her health care," said Ramírez-Montagut, who recently took a new position with an art museum in New York. "...She spent most of her life in bed, in the hospital. And from there she would for ask for favors via letter."

Frida's work often focused on her body, from her heart to her famous "Henry Ford Hospital" painting that depicts her naked body lying on a hospital bed after having a miscarriage. At the time, she and Rivera were in Detroit while he painted his famed "Detroit Industry Murals" in the early 1930s at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Diego Rivera and wife Frida Kahlo are pictured on Sept. 3, 1937.

Images in the exhibit show Frida laying in her hospital bed; she even invited a photographer to take photos of her. The letters, meanwhile, shed light not just on Frida's relationship with her doctors but financial struggles she had, said Ramírez-Montagut.

The letters with her doctors show "they had a close relationship. They were friends, they were collectors, they supported her. They discussed politics. They discussed her marital situation," said Ramírez-Montagut. "I think it's an exhibit that a lot of folks will identify with — with the need of a support system and how important health care professionals are. And we rely on their empathy and their compassion to treat us as human beings, not just one more case."

Cristina, an artist herself who lives in Mexico City and is the daughter of Frida's nephew, Antonio Kahlo, spent four years trying to access her great aunt's clinical files. About 15 records are on display and they're presented in light boxes. The idea was to "replicate" for the public how Cristina herself saw the records for the first time.

Some of Frida Kahlo's medical records, obtained by her grandniece Cristina Kahlo, are featured in an exhibit the MSU Broad Art Museum, "Kahlo Without Borders."

"The whole exhibition is more like a journal for a family, a photo album," said Ramírez-Montagut. For Cristina, it's "taking that challenge that Frida left and saying, 'You left all of these images of yourself. What does this mean? Why? And what do you want us to know about you that you carefully left behind?' Frida documented her life and she wanted us to process it."

Ultimately, Ramírez-Montagut hopes the exhibit inspires more research on Frida. She said it tells the story of someone who was in chronic pain throughout her entire life but also found incredible success.

"I think once people see the exhibition, there is no doubt on why she focused on her body in her paintings and through her art," said Ramírez-Montagut.

'Kahlo Without Borders'

On display through Aug. 7 at the MSU Broad Art Museum, 547 E. Circle Drive, East Lansing.

"Family Ties: Juan Coronel Rivera Talk" from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at the museum: The grandson of Diego Rivera will discuss the Frida Kahlo works from his own collection that are currently on display in the exhibit.

"Family Photos: Cristina Kahlo Talk" from 6-8 p.m. Thursday at the museum: Frida Kahlo’s grandniece Cristina Kahlo, an artist and curator, will discuss themes in "Kahlo Without Borders," including family archives, photography, and her own work.

Both talks are free and open to public. Registration encouraged at