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How Did Frida Kahlo Overcome Polio?

How Did Frida Kahlo Overcome Polio?

Chances are, if you know one Mexican folk artist, you recognize Frida Kahlo. She’s one of the most recognizable artists of the 20th century. 

Her story is one filled with personal challenges and setbacks. But, art helped Kahlo cope with unbelievable pain and left us with a record of what it means to suffer.

How did Frida overcome challenges like polio? Come along with us on a journey through her surrealist art.

Let’s go!

The Story of Frida Kahlo

Early Years

In 1907, just three years before the Mexican Revolution, Frida Kahlo came kicking and screaming into the world. Born to a German father and mother of European ancestry, she enjoyed art from an early age. 

At six, she contracted polio and overcame the virus but had a limp in her left leg. In the following years, she played soccer, swam, and took up wrestling to help her recover. Art also helped her feel more engaged with the world during her recovery.

Kahlo’s father recognized her talent and engaged his friend, artist, and engraver Fernando Fernández as her art teacher. Frida was a promising student and planned to attend medical school until another tragedy befell her. 

At eighteen, on a trolley home from school, the unthinkable happened. A truck crashed into the trolley and caused injuries that plagued her for the rest of her life. In addition to damaging her spine, legs, ribs, and collarbone, an iron handrail impaled her pelvis.

The accident left her bedridden for three months, during which her artistic talent blossomed. Frida’s mother hung a mirror over her bed, and her father provided paints and brushes. She started painting on her body cast and then on a specially rigged easel. 

With inspiration from European masters, Kahlo’s painting from this period is unremarkable but served as an essential time in her life. 


After joining the Mexican Communist Party and marrying muralist Diego Rivera, Frida moved to Cuernavaca and reinvented herself. Kahlo began incorporating elements of Mexican folk art in her work. 

Her unique perspective on the world and fascination with surrealism and folk art transformed her art. Kahlo traveled the world with her husband and focused exclusively on her new work style.

Kahlo represented Mexican folk art to the world for the rest of her life. She suffered through surgeries and chronic pain from her accident and painted. Her work tells the story of her suffering through the lens of surrealism and folk art. 

The world was fascinated with this tiny, broken woman. In fact, she had exhibitions and gallery exhibits around the world. However, she didn’t have a show in Mexico until 1953. 

Is Frida Kahlo Still Alive?

Frida’s first gallery show in Mexico also signaled her final years. A failed spine surgery left her bedridden and declining. Her friend, photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo, put together a gallery show near Frida’s home. 

Kahlo ordered her bed moved to the gallery since doctors refused to allow her attendance. Just over a year later, hospitalized and in failing health, Frida Kahlo died at 47.

What Inspired Frida’s Art?

Frida’s inspiration came from several places. Her early years of suffering polio and the trolley accident gave her a profound sense of herself. Indigenous Mexican culture and her self-identification as a member of La Raza shaped the palate she used. 

Mexican folk art and pre-Columbian cultures also contributed to her palate. Infused with color and natural imagery, her paintings challenged viewers to see the world from her point of view. 

What Are Some of Frida Kahlo’s Art Pieces?

Kahlo’s paintings are often challenging to look at. Amid the beauty of the work lies the pain of the artist. Frida suffered from chronic pain during her lifetime, which is impossible to miss in her work. Each painting here showcases her unique style and perspective. 

Broken Column

Broken Column, painted after yet another failed spinal surgery, portrays the artist as architecture. The self-portrait centers on a broken column split down the middle and held together with a banded medical corset. Frida stares at the viewer, tears on her face, covered in tacks and nails. A fractured landscape in the background mirrors the broken artist. 

The Wounded Deer

Painted in 1946 after a failed surgery in New York, The Wounded Deer is a surrealist masterpiece. Kahlo portrays herself as a stage, her human head affixed to the deer’s body, pierced by arrows. 

Again, the artist paints herself staring at the viewer with a damaged landscape behind her. The inner turmoil that Kahlo felt, and the depression that followed the failed surgery, fill the painting. 

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird

This self-portrait seems more straightforward and realistic than much of Kahlo’s other work. The artist looks out at the viewer with a necklace of thorns. Blood drips from her neck, and a hummingbird lies dead on her chest. A black monkey ties the necklace on her, and a black cat stares from behind her shoulder. 

These symbols, common in art, are changed under Frida’s brush. The bird, a symbol of freedom, is trapped and dead. The painful imagery hides behind blank faces, much like Frida herself. You can see the pain but not the emotional toll. 

Where Can I See Frida’s Art?

Frida Kahlo’s work rose to international acclaim in the 1970s. It’s in museums and collections, film and literature, and pop culture worldwide. Chances are, the closest museum to you has at least one of her paintings. However, there are a few collections that rise above the rest. 

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The MOMA in New York City’s collection of art is unrivaled. They hold many works by Kahlo and her contemporaries. Online you can view some of their collection, including several self-portraits. 

The MOMA includes her work in online exhibitions Surrealist Objects. This collection does an excellent job of situating Frida in the time and place she worked in. Flying in the face of convention, it’s easy to recognize her work in their collection. 

Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City

If you want to see where Frida grew up, lived, worked, and died, this is the place to be. An immaculately preserved space infused with Kahlo’s spirit, the Frida Kahlo Museum is a sight. 

With work from her entire career, including her early days, the museum gives insight into the world Frida lived in. The collection includes not only paintings. Frida’s wardrobe and household objects are part of the exhibitions. These pieces together give a complete picture of the artist and her world. 

Outside Folk Gallery

You can explore more folk art in our personal collection on Instagram at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating folk and outsider artists and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans. We’ll also offer pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when.

A Woman of Strength and Spirit

One of the most exciting painters of her generation, Frida Kahlo, lived a life of pain and wonder. Kahlo’s point of view brought a new perspective to 20th-century art. Indeed, she claimed not to be a surrealist but a painter of dreams.

Her struggles, beginning with overcoming polio at six, informed her work and expressed her inner demons. A feminist, Communist, and folk artist, Frida embodied the contradictions of her world. Unabashedly herself, Kahlo left her mark on the world with each painting. And we are better off for it.

Do you have a favorite Frida Kahlo art piece? Tell us about it in the comments!

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