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2 / Dreams and Visions

The Broken Column
The Broken Column
Artist / Origin Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954)
Date 1944
Material Oil on masonite
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 15 11/16 in. (39.8 cm), W: 12 1/16 in. (30.6 cm)
Location Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico City, Mexico
Credit © 2009 Banco de México Diego Rivera-Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Courtesy of Schalkwijk/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Ilan StavansProfessor of Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst College

Additional Resources

Caws, Mary Ann. The Surrealist Look: An Erotics of Encounter. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

Cottom, Daniel. Abyss of Reason: Cultural Movements, Revelations, and Betrayals. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

“Frida Kahlo.” In Exhibitions. Philadelphia Museum of Art Web site. http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions.

Herrera, Hayden. Frida Kahlo: The Paintings. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Herrera, Hayden, Victor Zamudio-Taylor, Elizabeth Carpenter, and Kathy Halbreich. Frida Kahlo. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2007.

Levitt, Annette Shandler. The Genres and Genders of Surrealism. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Lusty, Natalya. Surrealism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Aldershot, Hants, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

The Broken Column

» Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954)

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is best known for her often wrenching, always mysterious self-portraits.

Although each of these images presents a consistent, iconic likeness of the artist, collectively they give expression to something much more profound, an exploration of identity that encompasses gender, nationality, class, politics, and the artist’s own physical experience of her body.

At the age of eighteen, Kahlo was involved in a violent bus accident. Thereafter, her life was marked by chronic pain and health problems. She required numerous surgeries and was unable to carry a child to full term. The theme of suffering permeates Kahlo’s self-portraits and often explicitly comprises their subject matter. In these images, the artist’s physical and psychological struggles are rendered visible through distortions of her body, which is fragmented, doubled, turned inside-out, and merged with non-human elements.

The Broken Column was painted shortly after Kahlo underwent spinal surgery. She depicts herself bound and constrained by a cage-like body brace. A cavern of missing flesh violates the integrity of her body, exposing a broken column in place of her spine. The column appears to be on the verge of collapsing into rubble. Metal nails pierce Kahlo’s face, breasts, arms, and torso, as well as her upper thigh, hidden behind a swath of cloth. Tears stream down her face. Set in an open landscape, the artist-sitter is exposed in more ways than one. The terrain on which she stands appears barren and cleaved.

The emotional intensity and imaginative scope of pictures like this one has led many, including her contemporaries, to label Kahlo a Surrealist. Although she accepted this membership for practical and professional reasons, Kahlo distinguished her work from that of other Surrealists, noting that it dealt not with dreams worlds, but rather with her own lived reality.

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