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Art History: The Stories and Symbolism Behind 5 of Frida Kahlo’s Most Well-Known Paintings

The Broken Column (1944)

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“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the train, the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” In 1925, 18-year-old Kahlo was involved in a streetcar accident that left her with a broken spinal column, among many other major injuries. In the Broken Column, Kahlo presents a tragic glimpse into the lifelong effects of the accident.

The painting depicts Kahlo after spinal surgery. Nude except for a hospital sheet and a metal corset, her body is pierced with nails (perhaps as an allusion to Christian iconography of Christ on the cross)—and is shown split open. Visible in the crack that bisects her body is a crumbling Ionic column, which has replaced her spine and symbolizes her broken body. In the background, a barren landscape is similarly fissured, and a stormy sky looms overhead.

In 1929, Kahlo painted The Bus, a depiction that recalls what she had seen moments before the life altering accident.


The Wounded Deer (1946)

Like The Broken Column, The Wounded Deer is a self-portrait that symbolically addresses the physical and emotional pain associated with her injuries.

In the piece, Kahlo has depicted herself as a deer—a choice perhaps inspired by her beloved pet, Granizo. Struck by arrows and positioned behind a broken branch (an object used in traditional Mexican funeral rites), it is clear that the deer is likely going to die. At the time of the painting's creation, Kahlo's health was in decline. In addition to failed corrective surgeries and the ongoing physical pain associated with her accident, she also suffered from gangrene and other illnesses.

Furthermore, like The Broken Column, The Wounded Deer references Christian iconography. According to the bible, Saint Sebastian, an early Christian saint and martyr, was killed by an onslaught of arrows. His death has remained a popular subject in art for centuries, and likely inspired Kahlo's choice of subject matter.

Frida Kahlo Paintings Frida Kahlo Artwork

‘St. Sebastian' (panel) by Andrea Mantagna (1480). Photo: Andrea Mantegna [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, Kahlo passed away in 1954. Thanks to her highly personal approach to art, however, her innermost emotions and admirable imagination are perpetually preserved in a captivating collection of works.

Related Articles:

Rare Photos of Frida Kahlo as a Young Woman in the 1920s

Art History Masterpieces Reimagined as Hand-Sewn Embroidery

Adorable Frida Kahlo Action Figure Features Iconic Unibrow and Detachable Heart

Iconic Artists Who Have Immortalized Themselves Through Famous Self-Portraits

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Kelly Richman-Abdou

Kelly Richman-Abdou is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. An art historian living in Paris, Kelly was born and raised in San Francisco and holds a BA in Art History from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. When she’s not writing, you can find Kelly wandering around Paris, whether she’s leading a tour (as a guide, she has been interviewed by BBC World News America and France 24) or simply taking a stroll with her husband and two tiny daughters.
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