“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou
When my husband and I were faced with fertility struggles and experienced recurrent loss, our instinct was to keep it private, but we soon realized that this didn’t help us. We learned that so many people were going through the same thing so we began to be more open about it. I began painting self-portraits, without intending to show them in public as they felt too personal. While looking for answers online, I stumbled across the work of Frida Kahlo which conveyed her experience of loss.
Frida Kahlo, “Frida and the Miscarriage” (“El Aborto”) (1932), lithograph (© ARS, NY; Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño; photo by Schalkwijk/Art Resource, NY). This is a different edition of the lithograph from the one currently on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Frida Kahlo endured a traumatic miscarriage. However, the loss of her baby shaped her artistic vision and she began work on a series of masterpieces which exalted the feminine qualities of endurance of truth, reality, cruelty, and suffering.
She channelled her grief into art, drawing while in the hospital, then painting the evocative self-portrait “Henry Ford Hospital.”
Frida’s body is divided into light and dark halves, as if to reveal the light and dark halves of her psyche, the presence within her of life and death. On her dark side is a weeping moon, and a third arm which holds a palette shaped rather like a fetus, implying, perhaps, that painting is an antidote to maternal failure, that for Frida, making art must take the place of making children.’
Also known as The Flying Bed, this is arguably the most painful self portrait that Frida Kahlo ever painted. Not only had she just suffered her second miscarriage, she was also beginning to realize that she could never carry a pregnancy to term. Additionally, these physical and emotional agonies had to be faced in a foreign city that she detested, and in which she felt completely estranged.
“Frida and husband Diego Rivera were in Detroit, Michigan during 1932-33. Diego was creating his now-famous Detroit Industry frescoes at the Detroit Institute of Arts, having been commissioned to do the series by Edsel Ford who was President of the Detroit Arts Commission at the time (in addition to his day job of Chief Executive Officer of the Ford Motor Company). Henry Ford Hospital, financed by and named for Edsel’s father, is but a few city blocks north and west of the DIA.
Frida surely did not consciously mean to insult the Ford family by including their factories in the background of this tragedy of a painting. It’s just that the buildings’ smokestacks, water towers and elevated conveyors for raw iron ore did dominate the skyline in the early 30s and were, quite frankly, not especially nice to look at.
The rest of the composition closely resembles a Mexican retablo, or votive painting, in its arrangement, inscription and media (retablos are typically done in oils on a tin support). Frida is the central point, suffering with a single tear much as Jesus Christ or a martyred saint would have–though the evident blood can only have come from a woman’s reproductive organs.
The six surrounding images, connected to her lower abdomen by umbilical cord-looking red lines are specific to her miscarriage: the fetus is Dieguito (“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 medical impersonality; the orchid (bottom center) is real, a gift from Diego. The two remaining images of a pelvis and side view of female anatomy point towards her broken body. 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. ”
(Shelley Esak, Thought Co.)