Frida Kalo 200 Paintings Later by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Doyle Galleries.

The artist Frida Kahlo understood physical pain intimately because she lived with it constantly.

While lying in bed recovering from a spinal fusion done in June 1946 at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery the Mexican artist met Spanish artist Jose Bartoli.  Frida's younger sister Cristina introduced the two. 

“They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams.  I painted my own reality. ”
— Frida Kalo

Crippled from the age of six by polio, this was one of several unsuccessful surgeries designed to help Frida recover from injuries sustained in a nearly fatal 1925 bus accident that left her spinal column and pelvis broken in three places.  She lived for three months in a full-body cast.

Frida started to paint as a way to make sense of her constant pain.      

“They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn't.  I never painted dreams.  I painted my own reality, she said ” 

Like Kalo, Jose also understood pain having survived a Spanish Civil War concentration camp where he secretly drew pictures of the horrors he witnessed as a way to make sense of the senseless.  

While visiting Frida in the hospital the two fell in love.  When Frida was released and returned to Mexico the two began a steamy correspondence which resulted in 100 pages of erotic love letters written to Jose.   

"The atoms of my body are yours and they vibrate together so that we love each other," she wrote.  "I want to live and be strong in order to love you with all the tenderness that you deserve, to give you everything that is good in me, so that you will not feel alone."

Frida signed her letters Mara and asked Jose to address here as Sonja so if her husband muralist Diego Rivera happened to find the letters he would think they came from a woman.  Diego accepted Frida's bisexuality but was insanely jealous of her affairs with men. 

Frida died at 47 after producing some 200 paintings.  Most were self-portraits, bold colors, with the same passionate energy that soared through her broken body.  Her paintings convey a message of pain mixed with a fever for life.

"I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best,”  she said. 

Frida lived in the shadow of a domineering husband--calling Diego Rivera the "master."  It took years for her to be recognized in her own right.  Friends were shocked when she married what they considered a fat, homely old man.  They called it a union between an elephant and a dove.    

On April 15, Doyle Galleries offered the unpublished archive of approximately 25 autograph letters penned by Frida Kahlo to Jose Bartoli.  Written from 1946-49 the archive included photographs and various enclosures.   The lot sold for $137,000.

"My Bartoli...I don't know how to write love letters.  But I wanted to tell you that my whole being opened for you.  Since I fell in love with you everything is transformed and is full of is like an aroma, like a current, like rain.  You know, my sky, you rain on me and I, like the earth, receive you."

Several of her letters let Jose know she missed her period.  If her spinal condition would allow it she hoped to have his baby.

"If I were not in the condition I am in now and if it were a reality, nothing in my life would give me more joy.  Can you imagine a little Bartoli or a Mara?" she said.    

Although committed to her famous husband, the letters suggest Frida would have left Diego for Jose.  She told him he gave her a kind of love she never experienced before.


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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