Her life full of pain and emotional drama but also triumph was expressed in Frida Kahlo’s mostly autobiographical paintings. Her work, often done flat on her back in bed, had a directness that many have found shocking but that others, including her husband and inspiration, Diego Rivera, have found mesmerizing. Kahlo’s symbolic representation of herself as a saint, or a goddess, or a man, or a deer puzzled still others. Yet, this reaction was in keeping with the unpredictable character whose final diary entry in 1954, in keeping with her melancholic life, read (in translation): “I hope for a happy exit and I hope never to come back.”

While most of Kahlo’s artistic themes are autobiographical (55 paintings out of 143), her style has a surrealist twist free of reason’s control and convention, even though she objected to being categorized in any particular style. As she insisted, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” For example, in My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), painted in 1936, she represents herself as a young, naked girl standing in the courtyard of a building. She is holding a red ribbon that streams upward, bifurcated to link herself and her parents, then forking off to form puffs of clouds where her two sets of grandparents are cradled. Attached to the bow of her mother’s wedding gown belt is an umbilical cord running to an embryo outside her body like a purse of flesh. In The Two Fridas (1939), the saint and the tropical native goddess hold hands, joined by a thin artery that connects their hearts, which are exposed and float in front of the fully clothed Fridas. In The Wounded Deer (1946), a small animal with Kahlo’s head, its body pierced with arrows, wobbles unsteadily through the woods. Several of her paintings were found to be too...

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