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The Frida Kahlo’s exhibit at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gives us an up close and personal opportunity to witness the self-explorations that the artist documented in her artwork throughout her career. Kahlo’s paintings are uniquely her own.

In her work, Kahlo paints for us the horrors of her life, with a few happy memories included to help balance her existence. Her source material draws from her Mexican heritage, the political landscape of the times, the natural world around her, the cosmos, as well as her own personal depictions of her very real physical and psychological pain.

She must have been a very strong woman to have been able to paint her pain so openly and honestly, for so much of her work communicates the vivid details of these experiences.

In her work Henry Ford Hospital, painted in 1932 Kahlo details the suffering and isolation that she feels after suffering a miscarriage far from home in Detroit. This is historically significant because it was the first time an artist used direct iconography related to the death of a unborn child in their art. She painted this work using oil on metal, a technique that is related to the Mexican tradition of painting victims of any kind of physical or moral suffering offering gratitude for divine intervention, in a style know as ex-voto painting.

Perhaps one of the most recognized works on exhibit is The Two Fridas, painted in 1939. This oil on canvas is one of the largest paintings she would produce during her career, and was exhibited in the 1940 International Surrealist Exhibition held in Mexico City. André Breton felt that Kahlo’s work was in a Surrealist style, however Kahlo once said “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” In this work, Kahlo paints a double self-portrait, expressing the despair over her failed marriage to Rivera. The Frida on the right side of the painting is dressed in traditional Tehuana dress and is said to represent the woman that Rivera had once loved. The Frida on the left wears a white skirt and blouse that appears to be a Victorian wedding dress, and represents the Frida that Rivera abandoned. In the hand of the Tehuana Frida, she holds a miniature portrait of her lover as a young boy. From the small red oval frame that holds Diego’s image sprouts a vein that travels through both of the woman’s hearts, depicted as organs outside of the body. In the hand of the Victorian Frida, she holds surgical pincers, trying to stop the flow of blood that originates from the portrait of young Rivera. The two Kahlo’s hold hands, as if they are their only companions.

Her work is often influenced by political responses to capitalism and the explosion of industrial growth going on around her. Through her travels throughout the world, she becomes closer to her indigenous Mexico or mexicanidad. This begins to manifest itself in her choice of materials, choosing metal over canvas, for example, or in her exploration of Mexican folk portraiture.

During her life, her contribution to the art world was dwarfed by her husbands world wide fame as a muralist. But today the Kahlo legacy is firmly entrenched in the art history books and her work continues to inspires countless artists who wish to draw on their own personal life experiences in their art.

The work of Frida Kahlo is on exhibit through September 28 at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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