Towards the end of her life, Kahlo’s art focused more than ever on her deteriorating physical and psychological health. In the diary she kept during this period, next to a drawing of her body, she wrote the words: ‘I am disintegration’. By the time she painted The Broken Column, in 1944, she was reduced to wearing a steel corset, and in constant pain. She portrays herself against a barren, fissured landscape that echoes the yawning cleft in her torso. An Ionic column takes the place of her damaged spine, while nails pierce her flesh, suggesting the religious iconography of martyrdom.
In Self-Portrait with Portrait of Dr Farill 1951, made just three years before she died, she appears in a wheelchair in front of a portrait of her surgeon. She holds an artist’s palette that metamorphoses into a heart, while the brushes in her hand drip blood. This was one of her last successful paintings. After this date, she was unable to work without taking painkillers, and the brushwork and detail of her compositions became looser and less polished.
Other paintings in this room express Kahlo’s developing spiritual quest, as she sought to assimilate philosophies from the ancient and modern cultures of both East and West into an overarching world view.
In the extraordinarily detailed painting Moses 1945, the sun is presented as ‘the centre of all religions’. The composition is divided into three registers, which consist of images of gods in the upper section and portraits of ‘heroes’ below, including Alexander the Great, Martin Luther, Napoleon and Hitler, whom she called ‘the lost child’. At the bottom are the masses, and scenes relating to the process of evolution. The painting was inspired by an essay by Sigmund Freud that made a link between Ancient Egyptian beliefs, Moses and the origins of monotheistic religion. The infant Moses has been given the third eye of wisdom, a device Kahlo sometimes used in her portraits of Rivera.
Rivera is shown with just such an eye in The Love-Embrace of the Universe, 1949. Though depicted as an adult, he is naked, and Kahlo cradles him like a baby. She in turn is enfolded in the arms of an embodied Mexican earth that literally roots her in the landscape. Sun and moon divide the painting in two, symbolising the union of opposites in this pre-Columbian universe.
Frida Kahlo died on July 13, 1954 at the age of 47. Doctors reported a pulmonary embolism, relating to a bout of pneumonia, though it has also been suggested that she committed suicide. The last entry in her diary, written while in hospital a short time earlier, is typical of her grimly defiant humour even at this bleakest hour. She bids farewell to her doctors as she awaits discharge with words that carry a double meaning:
I hope the exit is joyful – and I hope never to come back