Frida Kahlo’s medical records, obtained by her great-niece, reveal decades of bargaining between pain and painting

For more than a decade, Frida Kahlo wrote letters to Leo Eloesser, a thoracic surgeon who became her trusted medical adviser until his death in 1954. In some letters, she strikes an endearing tone. In others, she asks his forgiveness for being late in writing or sending in her painting, or asks his opinion on his quest for socialist revolution or critical health decisions. The letters paint a harrowing portrait of a complex woman whose image has been flattened, co-opted and commercialized. The incredible struggles she faced are often overlooked, but fragments of her life left in letters and documents substantiate her position as one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century.

Kahlo without borders, an exhibit at the MSU Broad Museum in East Lansing, Michigan (through August 7), examines the minutiae that made up Kahlo’s life: letters asking for money, apologizing for delays with paintings or for the misbehavior of her husband Diego Rivera, seeking answers regarding his deteriorating health or treatments for his constant pain. Through 15 clinical records, 90 framed letters sent over the decades to doctors, friends and family, and a handful of original drawings, the exhibit pays homage to the support system that helped hoist Kahlo to her pedestal.

Kahlo in hospital in 1953. The artist was seriously injured in a bus accident when she was just 17, leaving her in pain for the rest of her life. Courtesy of Fundación Televisa Collection and Archive

Curated by MSU Broad Director Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, the exhibition was made possible by a stroke of luck for the artist’s great-niece, Cristina Kahlo. According to Ramírez-Montagut, Cristina Kahlo had spent more than four years trying to obtain her great-aunt’s medical records from British American Cowdray Hospital in Mexico City. “The records detail what she ate and drank in the morning, cardiograms from her surgeries or post-operative notes,” says Ramírez-Montagut.

As Cristina Kahlo could only copy the hospital archives, most are presented as photographs against light boxes, lending the exhibit a dark, sterile quality, a break from the exoticism that typically swirls around l ‘artist. Ramírez-Montagut and the artist’s great-niece chose to portray Kahlo’s life as it was – an often rote journey between hospital and home, sprinkled with color by her paintings and political statements, and a precarious financial situation that forced her to pay debts to artists. favors.

Barter and haggling

Medical records give the exhibit its visual style, but the letters are central to its story. From those written to Eloesser to letters to her former lover Nickolas Muray, sisters and friends, the missives reveal how Kahlo negotiated with her loved ones and herself to achieve her goals. In a letter to Muray in 1939, the year she divorced Diego Rivera (they remarried in 1940), Kahlo promised she would “never accept money from a man again,” determined to the place to sell his paintings or barter them in exchange for small loans. . In several letters to Eloesser and Hollywood star Dolores del Río, she negotiates compensation or payment for services by delivering paintings or news of upcoming exhibitions and awards.

Frida Kahlo at Hospital Inglés painting Long live life and Dr. Juan Farill in 1953 Courtesy of Fundación Televisa Collection and Archive

“While a small part of his life was very visual and became a show, most of his life had a tone closer to what we present in the show,” says Ramírez-Montagut. “Asking for favors, paintings for doctors, borrowing money, asking for his things to be sent to the hospital. It’s more than we see in so many of her portraits, many of which she starred in.

The documents show the intense restrictions on Kahlo’s life after the 1925 bus crash that nearly killed her. In two startling photos taken 20 years apart and shown side by side, Kahlo is depicted in bed, hugging and creating new artwork. The fact that so much of her life was lived in this horizontal position as she navigated her wounds and her pain speaks directly to the premise of the exhibition, says Ramírez-Montagut.

Frida Kahlo at the American British Cowdray Hospital with puppets in 1953 Courtesy of Fundación Televisa Collection and Archives; photo: Juan Guzman

I think it’s important that we challenge the ableism narrative and [tendency to] paint Frida as a near-perfect movie character

Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, Director, MSU Broad

“I think it’s important that we challenge the ableism narrative and [tendency to] paint Frida as a movie character that is almost perfect,” she says. “She had a wonderful support system, and for all of us to recognize that community is important. In many of these objects you can see that Frida’s doctors feared she was in pain and had no money.

With these newly available materials, the exhibition attempts to identify Kahlo’s boundless determination in tiny moments when she and her followers overcame challenges. This shows that the type of greatness she has achieved is rarely achieved alone. “There is not a single individual who accomplishes so much on his own,” says Ramírez-Montagut.