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Frida Kahlo

Still Life: Pitahayas, 1938

Oil on aluminum

The Art: What’s Going on Here?

Frida Kahlo painted Still Life: Pitahayas in 1938 when she was thirty-one
years old. It was painted with oil on aluminum, the traditional materials
used in Mexico for religious altar paintings, known as ex-votos and
retablos, which a supplicant would offer to a saint to acknowledge an
answered prayer.
Key Ideas
Each object in Still Life: Pitahayas tells us something about Frida Kahlo: • Imagery or visual symbolism reflecting
where she lived, her interest in her native Mexican culture, her physical personal experience
pain, and her attitudes toward life and death. The objects are positioned • Expressions of Mexican culture and
at the front of the picture plane and arranged so our eyes move in geography
a circle, just as life goes from birth to death, and just as plant life is • Emphasis on common dualities such as
renewed as seeds fall to the ground and germinate. life and death

The pitahaya is the edible fruit of the Hylocereus cactus, with a tough Discussion Questions
outer skin that protects the juicy flesh within. Painted images of ripe 1. Frida Kahlo painted many self-portraits.
fruit traditionally referred to the bounty of nature. Here, the fruit is cut Would you consider Still Life: Pitahayas
a self-portrait? Why or why not? What
open to expose the flesh and seeds. Frida Kahlo exploits both the sexual
do the objects depicted in this painting
references in this image and references to her own broken body. As a
tell you about Kahlo’s life?
teenager she had been riding in a bus that collided with a trolley, impaling
her body on a hand rail and breaking many bones. She underwent 2.Pitahayas are native to Mexico and are
widely cultivated there. What fruits are
numerous operations to treat these injuries and suffered recurring pain
native to Wisconsin or the Midwestern
throughout her life. The experiences related to her accident were often
United States? What do the volcanic
reflected in her paintings.
rock and cactus depicted in the painting
tell you about the geology and climate of
Behind the pitahayasare volcanic rocks that Kahlo may have found in
central Mexico? How do they compare
the Pedregal, a vast lava field not far from where she lived in Coyoacán to the landforms and vegetation of
on the outskirts of Mexico City. Two thousand years ago Mount Xitle Wisconsin?
erupted, burying the area under molten rock and leaving a stark and
3.In the United States, we associate
beautiful landscape. Sitting on one of the rocks in Still Life: Pitahayas is a
skeletons with Halloween and ghost
toy skeleton similar to those sold in Mexico to celebrate the Day of the stories. In Mexico, skeletons are
Dead or Dia de los muertos.The toy is a symbol of mortality as well as a associated with the Day of the Dead
reference to Mexico’s Indian and Spanish heritage. The specter of death (Dia de los muertos), which is a day of
is strong in both Aztec and Catholic religious art, just as it was in Kahlo’s both celebration and rememberance
own life because of her tenuous health. held anually at the beginning of
November. Why do you think Kahlo
Frida Kahlo’s art reflects her own experiences but also suggests an included the skeleton in this painting?
interest in both Mexican popular art and folk art. She adapted the 4.If you were to make a self-portrait using
uncomplicated compositions used by provincial artists for many objects in place of your image, what
of her own self-portraits. The small scale and intense emotions of would you include that reflects who
retablossuited her narrative impulses. In her art, she used images of you are, where you live, and something
birth and regeneration, as well as skeletons, bleeding hearts, and dualities about your life?
of life and death, male and female, and sun and moon that Aztec and
Catholic art share as symbols. 227 State Street
Madison, WI 53703
The Artist: Biographical Notes
Frida Kahlo was born July 6, 1907 on Londres Street in Coyoacán, a
suburb of Mexico City. The house in which her life began and ended
was built by her father in 1904, complete with high walls and a large
courtyard garden. It was the house that Diego Rivera would eventually
buy from her father and where she would live most of her adult life.
Now a national museum, Kahlo’s home is affectionately known as la casa
azul, or The Blue House, for its brilliant cobalt blue color.

Frida Kahlo, Still Life: Pitahayas, 1938. Oil on aluminum, 10 x 14 inches. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Bequest of Rudolph and Louise Langer. © 2013
Kahlo’s father, Guillermo Kahlo, immigrated to Mexico from Germany
as a young man. In Mexico, Guillermo met Kahlo’s mother, a devout
Roman Catholic of Spanish and Indian descent. Kahlo was the youngest
of four daughters and had a good relationship with her father. He
shared his interest in Mexican archaeology and art with her, encouraged
her to study nature, and gave her free access to his library. When she Resources
contracted polio at age six, he taught her soccer, swimming, boxing, and
wrestling to strengthen her right leg, which had been left weakened by On the Artist:
the disease.
In 1922, Kahlo was enrolled at Mexico’s National Preparatory School,
ensuring her a university education and a professional career. However, diego-frida-and-the-mexican-school

on September 7, 1925, a two-car trolley slammed into the bus she was
riding on, smashing it into a wall. She sustained life-threatening injuries
and would lie in a body cast for over a year, a time in which she began

Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
© Education Department
painting with the encouragement of her parents.

After a long period of recovery, Frida went to work to help pay her
hospital expenses. She stayed close to her friends at the National
Preparatory School and active in political causes. She joined the
Communist party where she met Diego Rivera’s former lover and model,
the photographer Tina Modotti, who introduced her to the cultural life
of Mexico City and to Rivera.

Frida Kahlo married Diego Rivera in 1929. She shared his bohemian
lifestyle, his radical politics, and his devotion to art. While his frescoes
covered entire buildings, her work was more intimate in scale. Although
her paintings were not well known during her lifetime, today she is
recognized around the world as a great artist, a feminist, and a social
critic. The Surrealist writer André Breton described her work as a
“ribbon around a bomb,” because of its power to disturb and to provoke

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Madison, WI 53703