For her entire adult life, artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) suffered unbearable pain from her spine and foot. (See “Frida’s First Bad Accident.”) She endured over thirty surgeries to correct the problem (in both Mexico and the U.S), was subjected to batteries of tests, X-rays, and spinal taps, given blood transfusions, physical therapy, and strong medicine . Yet, despite such extreme measures, Frida’s health continued to deteriorate.
After 1944, Frida’s doctors prescribed months of bed rest, encasing her tortured body in a succession of plaster or steel corsets that helped her to sit or stand. Frida described these corsets and the treatments that accompanied them as “punishment.”
“There were twenty-eight corsets in all–one made of steel, three of leather, and the rest of plaster. One…allowed her neither to sit nor to recline. It made her so angry that she took it off, and used a sash to tie her torso to the back of a chair in order to support her spine.
There was a time when she spent three months in a nearly vertical position with sacks of sand attached to her feet to straighten out her spinal column. Another time, Adelina Zendejas, visiting her in the hospital after an operation, found her hanging from steel rings with her feet just able to touch the ground. Her easel was in front of her. “We were horrified,” Zendejas recalls. “She was painting and telling jokes and funny stories….”
Yet another gruesome tale comes from Frida’s friend the pianist Ella Paresce. A Spanish doctor who knew nothing about orthopedics put a plaster corset on Frida….”[D]uring the night, the corset began to harden, as it was supposed to do. I happened to be spending the night there in the next room, and about half past four or five in the morning, I heard a crying, nearly shrieks. I jumped out of the bed and went in, and there was Frida saying she couldn’t breathe!….The corset had hardened…so much that it pressed her lungs. It made pleats all around her body. So I tried to get a doctor. Nobody would pay any attention at that hour…so…I took a razor blade…and made about a two-inch cut [in the cast over her chest] so that she could breathe….[S]he painted the corset, which is still visible in the museum in Coyoacán.” (1)
In the photo here, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera tenderly kisses his wife Frida Kahlo at the Hospital Ingles ABC in Mexico City, 1950. Frida’s botched spinal fusion of 1946 began the “calvary that would lead to the end,” said her friend Cachucha Miguel N. Lira. Her leg was in constant pain. Four toes on her right foot had turned black; gangrene had set in. An amputation was advised. Frida spent a year in the hospital. In the photo, notice that Frida had painted the Communist symbols, a hammer and sickle on her plaster corset. Visitors also signed Frida’s corsets and decorated them with feathers, mirrors, photographs, pebbles, and ink. When Frida’s doctors removed her paints from her sick room, instead, she used lipstick and iodine to paint her cast. (1)
(1) Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo.New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1983.