Frida Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital, oil on canvas, 12 ¼" x 15 ½", 1932, from The Collection of Dolores Olmedo Mexico City, Mexico
Frida Kahlo de Rivera was a Mexican painter, born in Coyoacán in July 6, 1907. On July 13th, 1954, at the age of 47 she passed away. Kahlo is best known for her self-portraits and her work is remembered for its "pain and passion", as well as its intense, vibrant colors. Her work has been celebrated in Mexico as symbolic of national and indigenous tradition, and by feminists for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form. Kahlo suffered lifelong health problems, many of which stemmed from a traffic accident in her teenage years. These issues are reflected in her works, more than half of which are self-portraits of one sort or another. Kahlo stated, "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best."
The image I am presenting is titled, Henry Ford Hospital but has also been given the name, Flying Bed. This painting was the most painful self portrait Frida Kahlo ever painted, because at this time she had her second miscarriage and began to realize that she could never carry a pregnancy to a full term due to her previous accidents. At the time of this painting, Diego Rivera, her husband, was creating his now-famous Detroit Industry frescoes at the Detroit Institute of Arts commissioned by Edsel Ford who was President of the Detroit Arts Commission at the time . Even-though the painting's title is Henry Ford Hospital, and the Henry Ford Hospital was financed by and named for Edsel's father, Frida did not consciously mean to insult the Ford family by including their factories in the background of this painting. These water towers and elevated conveyors for raw iron ore just happened to be what occupied a lot of the scenery.
"I suffered two grave accidents in my life…One in which a streetcar knocked me down and the other was Diego."The streetcar accident left her crippled physically and Rivera crippled her emotionally.
"When I painted it I had the idea of a sexual thing mixed with the sentimental."
This painting closely resembles a Mexican retablo(votive painting). retablos are typically done in oils on a tin support. Retablos typically include a scene depicting a tragedy or someone with a grave illness or injury, a Saint or martyr that intervened to "save the day" and an inscription describing the tragic event and giving thanks for the divine intervention. The six surrounding images are connected to her lower abdomen by umbilical cord-looking red lines , which are specific to her miscarriage. Frida is the central point, suffering with a single tear much as Jesus Christ or a martyred saint would have, the blood is evident, and can only have come from a woman's reproductive organs. The fetus is Diegito ("Little Diego") who will not exist; the snail (at upper right) represents the slow horror of losing a baby; the machine (at lower left) symbolizes the mechanical part of the miscarriage; the orchid (bottom center) according to Kahlo was a gift from her husband Diego.
In the background there is industrial buildings, most likely the urban setting of Detroit, where the hospital was located. The two remaining images of a pelvis and side view of female anatomy point towards her broken body. Her fractured pelvis is what made it impossible for her to have children. Here, it is important to remember that Frida had studied medicine prior to the bus accident that smashed her back and pelvis, and damaged her uterus. These were not "artistic" representations. She was aware of that which had happened to her body, and why motherhood was such an incredible long shot because of it.
In this painting, we see how Kahlo copes with her own mortality and her inability to have children. Kahlo dealt directly with death her entire life. From such a young age that all vary from dealing with polio at age 6 to the traumatic incident she had at age 18 or the lifelong relationship she had with her husband. Who better to think of when thinking of mortality, than Friday Kahlo. Kahlo was injured so seriously that she suffered severe pain for the rest of her life, and she was never able to have a child with her husband, Diego Rivera.