Frida Kahlo’s medical records – obtained by her niece – reveal decades of negotiating pain and drawing

For more than a decade, Frida Kahlo wrote to Leo Eloesser, a thoracic surgeon who served as her trusted medical advisor until her death in 1954. In some letters, her tone was flattering. In other cases, she asked him to forgive her for delaying writing or sending his paintings, or for his opinion on her decision to pursue a socialist revolution or critical health care. The letters paint a heartbreaking portrait of a complex woman whose image has been flattened, co-opted and commercialized. The incredible struggles she faced are often overlooked, but the fragments of her life she left in letters and documents attest to her status as one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century.

Carlo Without Borders, an exhibit at the MSU Broad Museum in East Lansing, Michigan (through Aug. 7), explores the minutiae that make up Kahlo’s life: letters asking for money, apologizing for painting delays or her husband Diego Rivera’s bad behavior, searching for information about what makes up Kahlo’s life. The answer to her deteriorating health or treating her persistent pain. Covering 15 clinical documents, 90 framed letters sent over the decades to doctors, friends and family, and some original drawings, the exhibit honors the support system that helped put Kahlo on her pedestal.

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

Organized by MSU Broad College Dean Monica Ramirez-Montague, the exhibition was a lucky move for the artist’s niece, Christina Caro. According to Ramírez-Montagut, Cristina Kahlo spent more than four years trying to obtain her aunt’s medical records from the Meiying Caudrey Hospital in Mexico City. “These records detail her morning diet, her surgery EKG or post-operative notes,” Ramirez-Montagu said.

Since Cristina Kahlo can only reproduce records from hospitals, most are shown on light boxes as photographs, giving the exhibition a somber and dull quality that runs counter to the exoticism that usually revolves around the artist. Ramirez-Montagu and the artist’s niece chose to depict Caro’s life – an often rote journey between hospital and family, her paintings and political propositions full of color, and her precarious financial situation , forcing her to use art to pay off her debts. grace.

Barter and Bargain

Medical records add visual flair to the exhibit, but the letters are central to its story. From letters to Eloesser to her ex-lover Nickolas Muray, her sisters and her friends, these letters reveal how Kahlo bargained with loved ones and herself to achieve her goals. In a letter to Murray in 1939, the year she divorced Diego Rivera (they remarried in 1940), Caro promised she would “never accept money from men again,” Instead, she decided to sell her paintings or barter for a small loan. In several letters to Eloesser and Hollywood star Dolores del Río, she negotiated by sending messages of paintings or upcoming exhibitions and awards Allowance or payment for services.

Frida Kahlo painting in a British hospital Viva and Dr. Juan Farrell 1953 Courtesy of Fundación Televisa Collection and Archive

“While a small part of her life was very visual and became a spectacle, most of her life had a tone more similar to what we presented on the show,” Ramirez-Montagu said. “Ask for help, paint a doctor, borrow money, get her stuff to the hospital. That’s more than we see in many of her portraits, many of which she performs.”

These materials show the severe constraints on Caro’s life after a bus accident that nearly killed him in 1925. In two stunning photos taken side by side 20 years apart, Carlo lies in bed, clutching and creating new compositions. Ramírez-Montagut said she lived at this level for most of her life when she emerged from her injury, and her pain speaks directly to the premise of the exhibition.

Frida Kahlo with puppets at Cowdray Hospital in the United States in 1953 Courtesy of Fundación Televisa Collection and Archive; Photo: Juan Guzman

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

Monica Ramírez-Montagut, Director, MSU Broad

“I think we challenge the ableist narrative and [tendency to] To portray Frida as a near-perfect movie character,” she said. “She has a huge support system, and we all acknowledge that community matters. In many of these items, you can see that Frida’s doctors were worried about her pain and had no funds. “

With these newly available materials, the exhibition seeks to identify Kahlo’s boundless determination in the tiny moments when she and her supporters overcame challenges. It goes to show that the kind of greatness she achieved is rarely achieved alone. “No one person can do so much on his own,” Ramírez-Montagut said.

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