What's the Story Behind Frida Kahlo's 'Thinking About Death?'

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Often, artwork expresses concepts and themes that are too difficult to put into words. And that’s definitely the case when it comes to art that expresses the artist’s thoughts and emotions around death.  

If you’re interested in death-related art, you should be aware of Frida Kahlo’s work, including Thinking About Death. The popular artist’s thought-provoking self-portrait is one of the best-known modern works on the concept of dying. And its back story makes it all the more intriguing. 

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Here’s the story of Frida Kahlo’s painting, Thinking About Death, and how it came to be. We’ll also let you know the meaning of the work, as interpreted by various art historians, and where you can view the original artwork today. 

When Did Frida Kahlo Paint "Thinking About Death?"

Frida Kahlo finished Thinking About Death in 1943.

At that time, the artist was essentially bedridden at her home, La Casa Azul, in Mexico. Her physical pain, which primarily stemmed from a severe bus accident, made it impossible for her to sit or stand for long periods of time.

Frida Kahlo’s bus accident and injuries

Kahlo was injured in a serious bus accident in 1925 when she was a teenager. She was seated on the bus when it collided with a streetcar, and as a result, a steel handrail went into her hip and came out the other side. 

She endured several injuries, including fractures in her spine and pelvis, as a result of the accident. These injuries continued to haunt her with chronic back pain for the rest of her life. She created her first self-portrait the year following the incident.  

Did Frida Kahlo have polio?

Kahlo’s physical symptoms, which made it impossible for her to sit or stand for very long, mainly resulted from her bus accident. But she also had problems stemming from polio, which she contracted as a child. 

When she was around six years old, Frida Kahlo contracted polio and was bedridden for nine months. She recovered from the illness, but she had a limp when she walked because the disease had damaged her right leg and foot. 

Kahlo’s father encouraged her to rebuild her strength through swimming, soccer, and wrestling, which were highly uncommon activities for women and girls at the time. 

Sadly, Kahlo would become bedridden again when her bus crashed just a few years later. 

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What Does Frida Kahlo’s "Thinking About Death" Look Like?

Like most of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, Thinking About Death is a self-portrait. But it’s far from the conventional image of an artist. 

In the painting, Frida Kahlo poses in front of a backdrop of greenery, reminiscent of her tropical home in Mexico. The lavish foliage is also thought to represent life and rebirth. 

Kahlo depicts herself with her head held high and neck straight, looking calmly and directly at the viewer. In the center of her forehead sits a perfect circle, filled with an image of a skull and crossbones set against a rural backdrop. Many people interpret this circle as a “peephole” into her inner thoughts. 

What’s the Meaning Behind Kahlo’s "Thinking About Death?"

So what does the imagery and symbolism in Frida Kahlo’s Thinking About Death mean, and what does it say about the artist’s feelings towards mortality? Here are some of the key points brought up by both Kahlo’s biographers and art historians. 

Preoccupation with death

The most obvious concept when you look at the painting (and when you hear the name of the piece) is the idea of preoccupation with death. 

The person depicted, Frida herself, seems to have death permanently “on her mind.” Whether you see the circular snapshot as a peephole into her inner thoughts, or as an element of her facial expression, it’s clearly a fixed feature of her self-image.

Frida’s struggle with illness and physical pain throughout her life, as well as her very near brushes with death, would have been enough to make mortality an ever-present thought.  

Fearlessness in the face of mortality 

Kahlo might be permanently faced with the concept of mortality, but her unflinching expression in the image conveys fearlessness. It’s thought that Kahlo was portraying an acceptance of suffering and death as a natural part of life. 

She seems to say that you can carry the concept of mortality with you without letting it overtake you, and in doing so, you can achieve fulfillment in life. 

According to kahlo.org

“It demonstrates her fearlessness in confronting what lies at the center of existence: death.”

Life, death, and rebirth 

That fulfillment in life is represented by Frida’s pride in the image, as well as her colorful, traditional clothing and the lavish greenery behind her. The foliage blooming outwards is thought to depict the traditional Mexican idea of death as rebirth. 

The image of death is at the center, occupying her physical body and mind. And spreading out from that, as the backdrop to this life and the death at the center of it, is the representation of new life: fresh, vibrant leaves. 

Frida Kahlo’s third eye 

Frida Kahlo’s representation of death, the skull and crossbones, sits in the position of the third eye chakra. This location places death at the symbolic source of all wisdom. 

Kahlo’s illness and close encounters with death may have weakened her physically. But with this image, she seems to say that those experiences granted her some insight into herself, her mortality, and life as a whole. 

Where Can You Find the Painting Today?

If you want to see Thinking About Death by Frida Kahlo in person, you’ll have to visit the Museum Dolores Olmedo Patiño in Mexico City. 

Museum Dolores Olmedo Patiño

In addition to Thinking About Death, the museum in Mexico City houses some of Kahlo’s other notable works, including:

  • Broken Column
  • Henry Ford Hospital
  • Only a Few Scratches
  • Without Hope
  • Self Portrait with a Small Monkey
  • Portrait of a Botanist Luther Burbank
  • The Flower of Life
  • Bus
  • The Deceased Dimas
  • My Babysitter (Nurse) and I
  • Portrait of Alicia

Frida Kahlo Museum

The Museum Dolores Olmedo Patiño isn’t the only place you can see Kahlo’s art in her hometown of Mexico City. You can get an even better understanding of her life by visiting her former home, the location where she painted Thinking About Death

Following Frida Kahlo’s death in 1953, her childhood home and primary residence was transformed into the Frida Kahlo Museum. La Casa Azul (the Blue House) is home to many of Kahlo’s lesser-known pieces, which she produced later in life. 

The museum also contains many paintings created by her husband, Diego Rivera, as well as personal items. 

Frida Kahlo’s Life and Death 

Frida Kahlo was born in 1907, and throughout her life, she faced death more than once. She channeled her experience of mortality into her art, and she continued to create despite her limitations. 

Kahlo’s first solo art exhibition in Mexico City is an example of her perseverance through pain. She was bedridden at the time, so an ambulance transported her to the event. She spent the evening in a four-poster bed, which had been set up in the gallery, talking and celebrating with attendees. 

Behind the scenes, her health was quickly deteriorating. That same year, Kahlo had part of her right leg amputated to stop the spread of gangrene, which she’d contracted sometime earlier. She returned to the hospital several times between 1943 and 1944 due to poor health, including a severe case of bronchial pneumonia. 

Frida Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, at the age of 47, just a week after her birthday. Her funeral took place at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, and more than 600 people attended. And while she was known as a visionary in life, Kahlo would become even more popular in the years and decades following her death. 


Sources:

  1. “Thinking about death - by Frida Kahlo.” Frida Kahlo.org. https://www.fridakahlo.org/thinking-about-death.jsp
  2. “Thinking about death by Frida Kahlo.” Kahlo.org. http://www.kahlo.org/thinking-about-death/http://www.kahlo.org/thinking-about-death/
  3. “Frida Kahlo.” Arthur.io. https://arthur.io/art/frida-kahlo
  4. “The Museum Dolores Olmedo Patiño, Mexico City.” Archive.com. https://arthive.com/places/2440~The_Museum_Dolores_Olmedo_Patio

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