Frida Kahlo – Symbolism and Metaphor

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist that lived most of her life and physical pain, yet she continued to paint until her death, her artwork records her suffering and experiences as a woman. She was born to a Mexican mother and a German father.

Frida Kahlo
The painting was the first large-scale work done by Kahlo and is considered one of her most notable paintings

As a designer, I love the work of Kahlo as her self-portraits are loaded with symbolism. While I do not suggest that designers should use their designs as a way to work through the pain and suffering in life as Kahlo did. Kahlo’s work is beneficial to study for a designer as symbolism and metaphor are often critical devices used in visual communication.

“Frida Kahlo’s powerful autobiographical paintings explored the human psyche.”

Frida Kahlo
This painting was painted in 1945 when she was force fed.

Kahlo, the wife of the mural list Diego Riviera, was, like her husband, considered a cult figure in Mexico. Feminists much admire her for her openness and recording her life as a woman.

Kahlo was born in 1910 and died in 1954. During that time she produced a relatively small body of work – about 150 pictures. Many of these pictures are intensely powerful in a simple, straightforward way. She recorded the uniquely female experience of pregnancy, therapeutic abortion and miscarriage, as well as disappointment in love and the physical pain that she had to endure.

Frida Kahlo Quote

Kahlo was seriously injured at age 15 in a bus accident which one of her feet was broken, her spine fractured in several places and her pelvis smashed by a metal bar which pierced her body. If that is not bad enough before the age of 6 polio had left her with a limp.

In the 29 years that remained of her life following the accident, she was to undergo 30 operations and to spend a number of those years in a stormy marriage to Rivera.

Through it all, she was able to paint and, for almost the last decade of her life, to teach. She had an easel rigged to straddle her bed and a mirror on a bedpost for some of the striking self-portraits that she did.

Frida Kahlo
The broken column was painted shortly after Frida had undergone surgery to her spinal column

Much of her work had about it a surrealist quality. Art historians often considered her a Surrealist due to the psychological and existential issues that she dealt with in her art. Although she asserted that she was not a surrealist because she recorded reality, not fantasy.

One such picture shows her lying naked on a blood-soaked bed in Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, set in a barren landscape with only factories rising in the distance. The picture records an abortion, the lost fetus rising in the middle of the picture attached to a blood vessel. Also, similarly attached are an orchid, a snail, a model of a spinal cord, a pelvis and a factory machine. She was alone and defenceless.

Frida Kahlo
In this painting, Frida depicts herself in Henry Ford Hospital, lying on bed naked with blood and hemorrhage.

“See me. Look at me. Listen to me. I exist.”

Kahlo painted in vibrant, bright colours, rarely using black. Her work was influenced by the Mexican culture with its Indian mystique and obsession with death.

However, she was not a naive or primitive painter, even though her painting shows this influence. She was also influenced by such contemporary figures as Rousseau and Gaughin, who painted lush jungle scenes.

Her paintings were not beautiful in the ordinary sense, Kahlo was striking, somewhat masculine in appearance. Her self-portraits are honest in depicting not the idealised person but the person as she was.

teamSimon is a Sydney based digital designer. He is the Director of a boutique digital design studio, Bailey Street Design located in the vibrant inner west suburb of Newtown.  Simon studied graphic design at Shillington College and specialises in web design for small and medium size businesses.  Simon and his team (Toby the studio dog) are passionate about visual communication in the digital environment


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Google Arts and Culture app exhibits Kahlo’s work:

Frida Kahlo – Google Arts & Culture

Frida Kahlo de Rivera was a Mexican painter, who painted many self-portraits.


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