The Broken Column: Frida Kahlo and the Pain of Her Surgery

Frida Kahlo painted The Broken Column in 1944 to depict herself after the accident she had at the age of 18. It depicts her spine injuries.

The Broken Column

Looking over thousands of canvases from different artists in history, I realised that almost more than half of the painters drew what they saw and felt. For instance, if one glance at the compositions of Vincent van Gogh, the sky is similar looking in some, like Cafe Terrace at Night and Starry Nights, with swirls and shiny gleaming enormous stars in them. It says how our beloved Vincent saw the sky. In a similar state, if we step ahead towards the past, we perceive how Artemesia Gentileschi painted Judith slaying Holofernes with expressions, one never had in history. Many of the critics related her paintings to her own personality and the life incidents she had. Similarly, coming to modern art, one of the most famous and cherished woman painters is Frida. Her painting Henry Ford Hospital, reflected her tragic life event, while Memory the Heart depicted her feelings under different circumstances. With all the pain she suffered throughout her life and the agony in her relationship, Frida never stopped painting. In fact, she painted with such compassion that her paintings still conquered the heart of many. In today’s article, we will look at her other famous artwork, The Broken Column (La Columna Rota), based on a painful real-life incident. Moreover, it is based on how Frida saw and felt about her major tragic life event, the accident. So let us start!

General Information About the Frame.

1. Artist’s Statement.

“Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.”

Frida Kahlo often wrote about how she felt in her diary and letters to her friends and doctors. And the excerpts narrated the actual state of how she felt about different things.

After her miserable accident, she described her landscape as,

“No one in my house believes that I am really sick, since I cannot even say so because my mother, who is the only one who grieves a little, gets sick, and they say that it was because of me that I am very prudent, so that I and no one but I am the one that suffers.”

2. Subject Matter.

The subject matter of the Broken Column painting consists of Frida herself with a naked body and a column which splits her torso. The steel orthopaedic corset that represents invalid’s imprisonment holds its two sides together. Further, there is an unbearable tension, a feeling of paralysis with the nails driven into her entire body. The opened body suggests the surgery after her accident and Frida’s feeling that without the steel corset, her body will literally fall apart.

Frida Kahlo The Broken Column
Frida Kahlo’s The Broken Column | Source: Reed Enger, “Educational Fair Use,” in Obelisk Art History

In later sections, I will tell you about every lone element of the subject matter.

3. Artist.

Frida Kahlo, one of the famous Mexican woman artists and the definer of her own life, painted The Broken Column (La Columna Rota). Frida lived from 1907 to 1954, and on her forty-seventh birthday, she left around 143 paintings that narrated her story. It forever changed the way critics and contemporaries judged women artists. From exploring the Mexican heritage to defining her own well-being, Frida was one of the greatest painters, which the world can’t get any day.

Like many Mexicans, the ethnic identity of Frida was mixed, as her mother’s family was Mexican, connected to the colonial and Indian histories, and her father belonged to Germany.

4. Date.

Frida painted The Broken Column (La Columna Rota) in 1944.

5. Provenance.

The painting enriches one of the life events of Frida, which was after the accident. Aurora Reyes remembers that after her terrible accident,

“she always acted happy; she gave her heart. She had an incredible richness, and though one went to see her to console her, one came away consoled.”

After the accident, she kept the pain inside her and only told Alejandro, her first boyfriend. She took the role of the heroic sufferer as a mask to hide her pain. Frida showed herself wounded and weeping in Broken Column, but at the same time emphasized strength and suffering in her paintings.

In 1944, when she had major surgery, she illustrated herself on canvas, which was eventually titled, The Broken Column.

6. Location.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo is on exhibition in Museo Dolores Olmedo in Xochimilcan, Mexico City, Mexico.

7. Technique and Medium.

There are a lot of large-scale paintings produced by Frida after 1930, so The Broken Column is a good size. Other than that, the artwork has a high-detail in which her figure appears in a fantastical but painful situation.

The Broken Column have the techniques of realism with the retablo-like paintings, which were common in the 1930s. But the difference lies in the fact that it remained the first and foremost vehicle of personal expression.

It has a medium oil on canvas mounted on masonite.

ArtistFrida Kahlo
Year Painted1944
MediumOil on canvas, Mounted on masonite
PeriodModern Art and Symbolism
GenreMagical Realism, Self Portraiture
Dimensions17 x 13 inches
WorthNot on sale
Where is it housed?Museo Dolores Olmedo in Xochimilcan

The Broken Column | Fast Knowledge

The Broken Column is a self-portrait of Mexican Modern painter Frida Kahlo. The painting dates back to 1944 and is a remembrance of her surgery after the accident at 18. One should note that Frida wanted to paint the incident several times before, but reducing the events to one image was hard, so The Broken Column has great significance in her career.

A Detailed Account of The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo.

About the Artist: Frida Kahlo.

Many times before, I have given you information on the date of birth or place and identity of Frida through my articles. Therefore, this time I am putting it differently.

Before anything, I would like to tell you about one of the most beautiful moments of Frida’s life. In April 1953, less than a year when Frida took her life, at forty-seven, Frida had her first major exhibition of paintings in her native Mexico. At this time, her health deteriorated considerably, and nobody expected her to attend the meeting. But at 8:00 PM, just after the exhibition doors opened, Frida, dressed in her favourite Mexican costumes appeared on a hospital stretcher to her four-poster bed. Moreover, there were pictures of her husband, the great muralist Diego Rivera, and her political heroes, Malenkov and Stalin, adorning this bed. And a few moments later, two hundred friends and admirers of Frida greeted her, formed a circle around her bed and sang Mexican ballads with her until past midnight. The innocent laughs and the glittering face of Frida reflected her joyfulness inside her. Most probably, this was all she wanted to become! This occasion is a symbol of the extraordinary career of Frida.

Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Kahlo was a dramatic artist who was nearly beautiful and had slight flaws, which increased her magnetism. With the eyebrows forming an unbroken line across her forehead and sensuous mouth, Frida had dark almond-shaped eyes. As she gazed at the visitors, her intelligence and humour shone through, making them feel as if an ocelot was watching them. Dressed in flamboyant clothes, preferring native Mexican costumes to haute culture, she had her own identity in ways that one never beat.

Despite her caustic, impulsive personality, Frida’s love for people will make you swoon. On 17 September 1925, when she was eighteen, Frida was rammed by a streetcar in Mexico City, which literally impaled a metal bar in the wreckage; spin fractures, her pelvis crushed, and one foot broken. From that day onwards, till her death, she lived in pain and constant terror of illness. She says,

“The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint always whatever passes through my head without any other consideration.”

With a majority of her painting’s small and intimate subject matter, Frida painted herself bleeding and cracking up, transmuting her pain and strength. Now, let me take you towards the artwork’s provenance so that you can understand it thoroughly.

History and Background of the Artwork.

Now, there is so much behind a single painting, so I am breaking it into the most digestible form of information. Here it goes.

It’s no secret that Frida had an accident in 1925, which resulted in three fractures of her spinal column in the lumbar region, a broken collarbone, and broken third and fourth ribs. In addition, her right leg had eleven fractures, and her right foot was dislocated and crushed. Also, her pelvis broke in three places, and the steel handrail entering her vagina literally, skewed her body. And from this period, her life was not more than a gruelling battle. One lifelong friend of Frida, Olga Campos, says that Frida had at least thirty-two surgical operations, most of them, on her spine and right foot, before she succumbed twenty-nine years after the accident, “She lived dying.” One of her letters in 1938 says that,

“I never thought of painting until 1926, when I was in bed on account of an automobile accident. I was bored as hell in bed with a plaster cast (I had a fracture in the spine and several in other places), so I decided to do something. I stole from my father some oil paints, and my mother ordered for me a special easel because I couldn’t sit down, and I started to paint.”

One must understand that Frida didn’t made The Broken Column painting immediately or after a few months of her accident. Though Frida painted death metaphorically, she never was able to paint her accident. And a year later, even when she wanted to, she couldn’t do it as it was too complicated and significant to reduce to a single comprehensible image.

Now, let me tell you when Frida painted this composition and what provoked her to do so. In the fall of 1939, and winter of 1940, Frida was depressed and ill as she had a fungal infection on the fingers of her right hand and terrible pains in her spine. When Frida consulted doctors, they recommended an operation, but others opposed it. Dr. Juan Farill told her that she needed complete rest and ordered an apparatus with a twenty-kilogram weight to stretch her spine. Soon after a period, Frida had a divorce from her husband but remarried after a few months. One passage from Frida’s journal of 1944 reveals that during this period when she had an operation and miscarriage, she was sad. And she wrote,

“I sell everything for nothing… I do not believe in an illusion. The great vacillator. Nothing has a name. I do not believe in forms. Drowned spiders. Lives in alcohol. Children are the days, and here is where I end.”

With all the pain and illness, Frida had a growing reputation in 1942 when she became a founding member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana, an organization comprising twenty-five artists and intellectuals at first and whose purpose was to spread Mexican culture through lectures, exhibitions and publications.

Hence, there were many events, which inspired Frida to paint The Broken Column (La Columna Rota).

Understanding the Meaning of Frida Kahlo’s The Broken Column.

The painting is about the pain due to the prolonged illness of Frida. When she met with an accident at eighteen, she used to write about her accident and how she felt about it to her boyfriend, Alejandro. Frida included her sufferings detail by detail or minute by minute in her letters. And she brought this in her painting, The Broken Column, made in later years.

As Frida turned her body inside out, placing her heart in front of her breast and showing her broken spinal column as if her imagination had the power of X-Ray vision or the cutting edge of a surgeon, her fantasy did not stray far from the confines of her body, but it did probe deeply. Despite her ambition to study medicine, the girl turned to painting as a form of psychological therapy.

The painting is not only the depiction of several injuries to her spine and the pain she accommodated within herself but is Frida’s way of filtering the lens of herself. One of her letters of Frida said,

“My obsession was to begin again, painting things just as I saw them with my own eyes and nothing more… Thus, as the accident changed my path, many things prevented me from fulfilling the desires which everyone considers normal, and to me, nothing seemed more normal than to paint what had not been fulfilled.”


As in the Muray Self-Portrait, The Broken Column and in many of the other self-portraits, Frida amplified her personal misery by giving it Christian significance. Frida presented herself as a martyr; the thorns draw blood. Despite rejecting Christian imagery and religion, her art has a bloody martyrdom familiar to Mexicans. There is a sense of bloodiness and self-mortification in the canvas, which dates back to Aztec tradition since the Aztecs pricked their skin and punctured their ears to draw blood so that the crops would flourish. However, it was Christianity that brought to colonial Mexico the depiction of pain in realistic and human terms, with the result that almost every Mexican church has a frighteningly veristic sculpture of Christ, either whipped at the post, dragging his cross or dead, his body always full of bloody, suppurating the wounds. Using the same extreme pain and realism in her paintings of Christ on the road to Calvary, Frida sought to convey her personal message; if she borrowed from catholicism, it was because her paintings dealt with salvation in their own way.

Elements and Subject Matter of the Artwork.

The only subject matter of The Broken Column painting is Frida. Hence, we will learn in-depth about her in this section.

The Broken Column painting by Frida Kahlo
The Broken Column painting by Frida Kahlo | Source: Reed Enger, “Educational Fair Use,” in Obelisk Art History

There is a sense of paralysis in this composition due to Frida’s determined impassivity. It is as if the nails pierce her naked body with anguish. She has a gap in her body that resembles an earthquake fissure, which is held together by a steel orthopaedic corset that symbolizes the invalid’s imprisonment. One more crucial thing, which viewers see is that Frida chose to display an open body. The steel corset is what she wears to show her surgery and her feelings and that she will fall apart without it. Rather than her own deteriorating spinal column, an ionic column lies inside her torso, suggesting her life is on its way to ruin. The tapered column thrusts cruelly into the red crevasse of Frida’s body, penetrating from her loins to her head, where a two-scrolled capital supports her chin. To some of the observers, the column is analogous to a phallus, which means that the painting alludes to the link in Frida’s mind between sex and pain. It also recalls the steel rod which pierced her vagina during the accident on which she said,

“I lost my virginity today.”

One of her diary entries reads,

“To hope with anguish retained, the broken column, and the immense look, without walking, in the vast path… moving my life creating of steel.”

Now, we see that she has worn a white strapped dress with metal buckles, highlighting Frida’s delicate breasts, whose perfect beauty makes the rough cut from neck to waist all the more horrifying. Similar to the Mexican Saint Sebastian, who uses physical pain, nakedness, and sexuality to convey the message of spiritual suffering, Frida showed this message through her hips wrapped in a cloth reminiscent of Christ’s winding sheet and the wounds like a Christian martyr.

One must understand that Frida did not convey the message of being a saint, but she appraises her situation with truculent secularism, and instead of beseeching the heavens for solace, she stares her head straight ahead to challenge herself in the mirror and her audience to face her like how she was. Tears dot her cheeks, which look similar to many depictions of Madonna in Mexico, but her features refuse to cry.

Now, the background of The Broken Column painting is a barren plain. Frida painted this immense and barren plain because of the isolation and loneliness she faced during her life. In addition, it displays her emotional suffering. Several ravines cut into the landscape, which metaphorically represent her injured body and the desert deprived of its ability to create life. Blue seas stretch into the distance beneath a cloudless sky in the distant remote. The painting represents the hope of other possibilities, but they are so far away, and Frida is so broken that they are beyond reach.

Since we candidly understand the painting, let us walk towards the next section.

Formal Analysis of Frida’s Masterpiece.

1. Line.

In the composition, the figure, Frida stands vertically, which states a stable element. However, if you look closer, throughout the subject’s body, there are nails in the diagonal movement. It suggests the tension and trauma, which exploits the peaceful stability of Frida’s mind and health. Afterwards, the artist painted cracks diagonally all over the landscape background, which again depicts Frida’s mental state. This subject represents feminity by showing curvaceous breasts and white straps in a circular direction. Over the horizons, landscapes, and subject matter, horizontal lines are absent, which says that the painting is an example of instability.

The Broken Column Analysis
Line analysis of The Broken Column, Vertical line (red), Body Diagonal line (green), Landscape Diagonal line (yellow), Curved line (pink)

2. Shape.

There is a dominant shape, oval, through the faces and breasts of Frida. Upon closer inspection, organic shapes do not appear in the landscape. As defined by her curved line, Frida’s body represents the strong contours of her boundary.

Frida Kahlo The Broken Column Shape Analysis
Shape analysis of the Frida Kahlo’s The Broken Column (Circular)

3. Light and Value.

The artist used a dark contrast and a less illuminating appearance for her canvas. However, there are strong contrasts through a choice of subtle colours. For instance, the white straps of Frida’s dress blend well with the warm-coloured skin tone. Similarly, the landscape has browns, and the sky shows hues of blue, which contrasts well with the composition.

The Broken Column painting Light analysis
Black and white version of The Broken Column | Source: Reed Enger, “Educational Fair Use,” in Obelisk Art History

4. Colour.

The colours used for the painting are warmer and more illuminating, instantly brightening our eyes. The choice of blues and greens with shades of white are dominating over the painting, The Broken Column. And yes, there are some reds around her body, which gives a sharp appearance to the canvas.

Opinions and Conclusions.

The Broken Column indicates pain and terror, which Frida showed through using subtle bright colours. The painting demonstrates the melancholic mood of the artist due to her endless tormented life reasons, from the memory of the accident to the surgery and loss of a child in an abortion. Throughout the artwork, we saw different strokes of colours and usage of elements, narrating the despair, isolation and dejection.

Tell us how you see this painting and what do you think about it?


Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Where is The Broken Column located?

The Broken Column painting by Frida Kahlo is on Public view and resides in Museo Dolores Olmedo in Xochimilcan.

What is the meaning behind The Broken Column?

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo is about the prolonged illness of the artist from the surgeries. While the artist painted it in 1944, it is a remembrance of her surgery and the pain of her deadly accident at 18 in 1925.

Why is The Broken Column famous?

The Broken Column painting is famous because it is the only painting by Frida Kahlo to depict her pain and the events in one image.

Is The Broken Column Surrealism?

No, The Broken Column is not a Surrealist artwork. Frida Kahlo, the Modern painter, painted artwork inspired by her life events, and though they are addressed to be Surrealist by art critics, the artist herself stated no. However, the painting uses Magical Realism.

What do the nails in The Broken Column represent?

The thorns or nails in The Broken Column are derived from Christianity, and Frida used them to amplify her pain as well as depict herself as a Martyr.


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