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Scientific, Sexual and Sentimental: What Frida Kahlo Saw in the Orchid

Erica Hannickel on an Artist's Plant-Filled Life

Featured image: “Henry Ford Hospital” (1932) by Frida Kahlo

Plants grew in and through Frida Kahlo’s body. They tethered her to the earth. As revolutions roiled, personal relationships gave way to heartache, and she lost baby after baby, living green plants extended to her a tenuous hold on beauty in the world. It was rare to see Kahlo without vines embroidered upon her skirts; rarer still to see her without flowers woven into her hair. In her garden at her home Casa Azul, in a barrio of Mexico City, Kahlo cultivated calla lilies, marigolds, sunflowers, jasmine, and prickly pear cactus flowers. She surrounded herself with bougainvillea, fuchsia, lantana, lilac, and roses.

Kahlo was an accomplished still-​life painter in addition to her signature self-​portraits. While she also loved dolls, toys, jewelry, exotic pets, and pre-​Columbian art, which she studied, collected, and made into art, her canvasses explode with floral abundance. From her paintings grow birds of paradise, zinnia, flowering fruit trees, irises, and dozens of other plant species. Often, the thriving vegetation in her paintings steal the show—​her art was, quite pointedly, fertile.

In her personal fashion, garden, and art, Kahlo almost exclusively relied upon native Mexican flower species. Mexico is home to an extensive list of New World orchid genera, including ever-​adaptable brassavolas, multicolored encyclias, spidery epidendrums, robust cattleyas, star-​shaped laelias, triangular lycastes, frilly-​skirted oncidiums, and dozens of others, dripping in blooms every month of the year. Her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, loved orchids, and went out of his way to find and present them to her as gifts. And, so, I’ve always wondered, why aren’t there more orchids in Frida Kahlo’s art? How is it that only a single orchid—​a giant lavender cattleya—​is prominent in one of her major works of art, though one that would become the touchstone of her career?

Ill health and morbidity hung over her constantly—​a friend once reckoned that Frida “lived dying.”

In April 1932, Kahlo was twenty-​four years old when she and Rivera, twenty years her senior, moved to Detroit, where he had been given a commission from Edsel Ford (then president of Ford Motor Company and son of Henry Ford) and William Valentiner, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, to paint a series of murals in the museum’s Garden Court celebrating the “new race of the steel age.”

Still maturing as a painter and a wife, Kahlo worked to emphasize both her artistic and domestic selves. She searched out Mexican shops so that she could make Rivera’s favorite dishes over a hotplate in their tiny apartment and dutifully delivered him lunch every day at the institute. For a time, she attempted to be the dainty, deferential wife to his rotund and towering figure.

But there were many American societal norms Kahlo did not care to adopt. During the year they spent in Michigan, Rivera and Kahlo were regularly invited to events among Detroit’s moneyed elite. Kahlo soon found the small talk of upper-​class ladies unbearable and was openly sickened by excessive consumption in the midst of the Great Depression. Her boxy, bright pre-​Columbian inspired fashions rejected the sleek muted look of feminine American chic. At fancy events, she laced her speech with English expletives and then pretended to not know what they meant.

When invited to tea at Henry Ford’s sister’s house, Kahlo lectured about the virtues of communism, and at a different event loudly asked Henry Ford, a virulent anti-​Semite, if he were Jewish. What was more, in spite of the source of her husband’s patronage, she supported the local automotive unions’ rolling strikes against repeated pay cuts by their employers. She did not fit in, and she yearned for home. And then more hardship struck.

During that long, hot Detroit summer of 1932, Kahlo suffered a miscarriage at three-​and-​a-​half-​months gestation. Doctors confirmed that she had been carrying the boy she wanted—​her little “Dieguito.” Two years earlier, when she was still a newlywed, physicians had terminated a pregnancy early to protect her fragile health. They believed she could not carry a baby to term due to the life-​long effects of a disfiguring trolley crash she had suffered as a young woman—​a metal rod had impaled her abdomen, her pelvis was broken, her spine, right leg, and collarbone were fractured, and multiple ribs smashed. She would undergo numerous painful surgeries as a result and wore medical corsets throughout much of her life.

Now, in Detroit, she had swallowed a prescribed abortifacient soon after the first month of pregnancy, but it did not have the intended effect. When she realized that a child was growing within her, she imagined that a healthy pregnancy might be possible.

After the miscarriage, as her grief turned to boredom and then into anger, Kahlo began to paint in earnest. She begged doctors to let her see the fetus, as well as to lend her obstetrical books with illustrations that she could sketch from. They denied her requests, but Rivera gave her an anatomy text. The obsession with death and decay was nothing new; she had collected such texts at home in Mexico and kept several skeletons and medical treatises for reference. Her fascination with the morbid elements of the life sciences ran deep: as a girl, she suffered polio, and didn’t shy away from representing deformation and necrosis in her art after her accident.

She had at one point wanted to become a doctor and had delighted in human and plant biology throughout her life, examining cells and plants with a microscope. A few years after the loss in Detroit, a physician friend gave her a small fetus preserved in alcohol, which she displayed in her bedroom among her dolls. Ill health and morbidity hung over her constantly—​a friend once reckoned that Frida “lived dying.”

Henry Ford Hospital, painted in the weeks following her 13-​day stay, was the first in a long series of garishly bloody self-​portraits Kahlo created. Here, a hospital bed floats in between a dusky blue sky and plain brown earth; the only fixed object in the painting is Ford’s River Rouge automotive assembly complex, looming on the horizon. A weeping Kahlo stares into the distance as she lies twisted atop blood-​stained sheets, holding six objects tethered by red umbilical cords: a medical mannequin of a female reproductive system and lower spine, a male fetus, a snail (representing the slow pace of the miscarriage), a pelvis with coccyx, and a steel autoclave for sterilizing medical instruments. She knew well the autoclave from many other traumatic hospital stays. And instead of power and progress, for her the machine represented only helplessness and despair. Strikingly, she also painted a wilted lavender cattleya, resembling a collapsed uterus.

Kahlo reminds us that in gestation, plant cultivation, and the larger human condition, we often veer from the mechanical to the sexual, from the scientific to the sentimental.

All of the tethered objects depicted in Henry Ford Hospital were sketched from items Kahlo observed close at hand. Rivera had brought the cut flower to her in the hospital, and the coloring and shape of the orchid in the painting reveal the same precision Kahlo brought to the medical instruments and human anatomy. All had become haunting symbols of pain, failure, and loss. Appropriately for Kahlo, the phrase for still-​life in Spanish is naturaleza muerta, or “dead nature.”

Cattleyas show how tough yet fragile orchids can be—​much like Frida. The sheaths on new growth emerge slowly at first, and it is during their development into flowers that things often go awry. The sheath may be “blind” (carry no flower), the bud may be attacked by bugs, the flower may come out deformed. Cattleyas remind us of mutability—​warning us of the dangers of procreation, the unsettled waters so many of us swim in, during our own experiences of miscarriage, pregnancy, and childbirth. Some say that the pleasure of growing cattleyas is tied to this tenuous moment, this first kiss foretelling an unknown outcome. Kahlo reminds us that in gestation, plant cultivation, and the larger human condition, we often veer from the mechanical to the sexual, from the scientific to the sentimental.

Despite the tragedy surrounding its composition, Henry Ford Hospital would become the grim portal to the rest of Kahlo’s artistic oeuvre: following the hospital stay, the remainder of the year that Kahlo spent in Detroit was one of the most artistically productive periods in her life. At first, she had sketched a bleak self-​portrait in the hospital to pass the time. Soon, she bargained with herself: perhaps being a productive artist would prove more fruitful than motherhood. She then resolved to make a painting every year.

In her later work, she continued to focus on the themes of her broken and bloody body, extreme loss, the mechanical versus the natural world, colonizer versus the colonized, death versus fecundity. Her paintings shocked the sensibilities of 1930s audiences with their surrealistic elements and depiction of naked pain. A fellow artist later evocatively summarized Kahlo’s artistic style as offering her viewers “a ribbon around a bomb.”

The cattleya orchid Kahlo painted in the following weeks of that fateful July was an attempt to record the truth of that terrible moment as well as its symbolic resonance. And interestingly, the color, shape, and relative size of the orchid in the painting all identify it as one that would have been most readily available in any large American city that year.

Given when she painted Henry Ford Hospital, we can deduce the particular cattleya species that Frida depicted. Cattleya labiata, perciviliana, trianaei, and shroederae, while all popular as cut flowers, do not bloom in the summer. Cattleya mossiae, although similarly lilac colored and long-​lasting, also blooms too early, taking center stage in the flower market in March through May. Some varieties of Cattleya gaskelliana look similar to Kahlo’s orchid, but are lighter in color and more often filled out the wedding and graduation season in May and June. Only Cattleya warscewiczii, popularly called Cattleya gigas, reliably blooms in July.

Cattleya gigas (Latin for giant) bears the largest flower of the genus. The orchid’s pseudobulbs alone can grow to sixteen inches tall, making a blooming specimen over three feet tall, and a single flower measures nearly one foot across. Other attributes underline its immense size: its flower spikes stand vertical, instead of tracing a cattleya’s more typical horizontal growth, and each inflorescence can produce up to ten flowers, each bloom making a corsage. Most often, the thin oval lavender sepals and larger petals of C. gigas frame a slightly ruffled and deeper purple-​red lip.

Registered in 1854, it has been used to create hundreds of primary hybrids and tens of thousands of successful progeny. It is endemic to Colombia—​one of the planet’s great biodiversity hotspots—​where it’s called Flor de San Juan and Flor de San Roque. Unseen in Kahlo’s rendering are the two yellow-​white spots deep in the throat, evoking both testicles and ovaries, and perhaps reminding Frida of both her miscarriage and the loss of her son. Botanists today know that many orchids are in fact both male and female: one defining factor of what makes an orchid an orchid is the column—​its sexual parts (the stamens and pistil) are fused together into one organ.

Frida had tied herself to the orchid at a moment of personal crisis, and like all living things, it had wilted and collapsed in on itself.

Kahlo revealed in an interview a few years later that when she painted the orchid, she “had the idea of a sexual thing mixed with the sentimental.” As Frida well knew of her American counterparts, “nothing, to the feminine taste, wears like an orchid,” a symbol of their femininity and class status. Yet, the orchid, given to Kahlo by Rivera—​very much a gigas in the modern art world and with a never-​ending parade of women he took as lovers—​focused all of her losses into this one symbol from nature. While Diego was busy painting the Ford-​inspired larger-​than-​life Detroit Industry Murals, Kahlo examined her fading cattleya, time running out on her marriage and idealistic youth.

Kahlo never again painted a sizable orchid in her major works. This was not for lack of having the flowers as a frequent presence. At their home in Mexico City, Rivera employed a local plant collector, Teódulo Chávez, to procure orchids and cacti and teach the famous artist how to cultivate them. And in 1937, when the exiled revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia came to live with the couple, Trotsky would appear, unannounced and in the middle of the night, demanding that he and Chávez go hunting for orchids for Frida during his months-​long affair with her.

Julien Levy, the owner of a small surrealist gallery in New York who mounted Kahlo’s first solo show in 1938 and who was also her sometime lover, described Kahlo as a “mythical creature, not of this world—​proud and absolutely sure of herself, yet terribly soft and manly as an orchid.” Although we rarely think of orchids as manly today, the flowers were thought powerful and masculine as far back as the ancient Greeks; throughout time and in different cultures, they would additionally take on meanings of perseverance, courage, and virility. Orchids, like Kahlo, were alluring in their quixotic shape, their intersexual references.

Kahlo and Rivera divorced in 1939 and remarried in 1940. To mark their remarriage, Kahlo painted The Flower Basket, a 25-​inch tondo of dozens of flowers native to Mexico. Kahlo included blooms that traditionally symbolize love and marriage, such as roses, dahlias, and jasmine, but also added zinnia, sunflowers, daisies, impatiens, calendula, hibiscus, and morning glories. Near the center sits a red-​and-​white striped orchid, likely Cychnoches egertonianum, known commonly as a swan orchid, widespread throughout Mexico and Central America. The petals and sepals of this orchid naturally curve backward, making its long, curved column more prominent, resembling a swan’s neck. It is one of Kahlo’s most emotionally untroubled works, but even here there are signs of pain.

A hummingbird tops the tondo; the ancient Aztecs believed hummingbirds were brave little fighters, symbolizing reincarnated warriors, ready to do battle again. The bird also has meanings like love, open communication, and good luck. Yet the painting includes a fly that sits upon a flower that is past its peak. Perhaps most telling, Kahlo gave this work to American actress Paulette Goddard, the woman with whom Rivera enjoyed a public love affair, and a central cause of the artist couple’s divorce. Regardless of the tondo’s intent, Rivera’s philandering did not cease.

The mystery of why Kahlo did not paint more orchids may be precisely because they were so over-​determined as signifiers of crushed hopes, of failed love affairs, of wealthy women’s artless attempts at pinning their sexuality to their chests, and of the commerce of beauty. Cattleya gigas recalled a moment in her life that was both full of change and full of loss. The flower was a meaningful symbol—​one both masculine and feminine—​at a point in her life when she likely realized that she would never bear children. Frida had tied herself to the orchid at a moment of personal crisis, and like all living things, it had wilted and collapsed in on itself. In Cattleya gigas, Kahlo had found a vivid metaphor for life and death, renewal and decay. She continued to create art on those themes for the rest of her life.

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Excerpted and adapted from Orchid Muse: A History of Obsession in Fifteen Flowers by Erica Hannickel. Copyright © 2022. Available from W.W. Norton & Company.

Erica Hannickel
Erica Hannickel
Erica Hannickel, a master gardener, is professor of environmental history at Northland College. The author of Orchid Muse: A History of Obsession in Fifteen Flowers and Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America, she writes for Orchids magazine and blogs at www.orchidmuse.com. She lives in Wisconsin.





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