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The Art of Misfortune


Frida Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital


It was soon after I began educating myself on art history and the life of all of these extremely talented and influential artists of my past that I began to notice a common trend. That was that most of the artists that I studied had dealt with some sort of personal struggle along the span of their lifetime that reflected among their artworks and therefore played a huge role in their success.


For instance, Van Gogh, who battled bipolar disorder as well as manic depression--illnesses that developed early on in his childhood and carried onto his adulthood, leading him to commit suicide in 1890. Most people are aware of the famous incident in Gogh’s life that involved one of his manic episodes that led him into cutting his ear off. What came out of it was one of his most famous portraits titled, Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Another is Edvard Munch, who at a very young age lost his mother and sister to tuberculosis disease, just to some time later lose his father in 1889. His father’s passing meant that Munch had to take on the responsibility of providing for the rest of his family given that there was no one else to provide for basic necessities. As a result of the pressure that he was in--undertaking this new responsibility while still grieving from having lost various family members--Munch turned to heavy drinking and began to experience intense hallucinations as well as severe anxiety. Munch’s mental struggles are mirrored among many of his paintings, including his famous piece, The Scream, which he described having painted after watching the sky change with sunset into “a blood red.”


Frida Kahlo is another example, who contracted Polio disease at age six and was confined to lay in bed to recover for a total of nine months. This resulted in her legs becoming very thin and her body overall disproportionate in her eyes--something that she continued to be very insecure about and the reason for her style of choice being long skirts to cover her frail legs. By the age of eighteen, Frida was accepted into the National Preparatory School in Mexico City as one of the 35 female students. This is where she met the famous Diego Rivera and Alejandro Gomez Arias. When on a trip with Arias, Frida got into a terrible bus accident that left her seriously injured and once again, hospitalized in bed rest for weeks. Her spinal column and collar bone were broken along with many of her ribs. She also had a broken pelvis and 11 fractures on her leg. However, what left her most dejected was the fact that the accident had left her infertile. It was during those weeks of hospitalization that Frida began to paint. One of her very famous paintings, Henry Ford Hospital, discusses her terrible misfortune as we can see that she had illustrated herself lying in bed, surrounded by a floating baby, a flower, a snail, and a pelvis, all connected together by veins. Knowing the background of her bus incident, this piece is a clear depiction of the distress she was experiencing at the time.


Reading about not only these artists but so many more of my favorites, I have realized that these moments of hardships were crucial in order for them to have executed their artworks in the way that they did. This means that it is likely that it is these moments that led them into fame. I wonder that if they had not experienced them, they would be just as creative, or for that matter even have within themselves the components of what it means to be an artist.


At times, it almost feels as though they depended on their mental illnesses and hardships to be their most artistic selves. Munch once wrote in one of his diary entries, “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.” Here, he says that if it was not for the stress that he experienced from what life threw towards him during his childhood, he wouldn’t have developed the illness that became a huge component of his art and therefore, he would have never become the artist that he is famous for today. How could these artists have gotten through their anguish without art? Was it these moments that caused them to grow to be expressive in the unique and interesting ways that attracted the public eye? Does having this deeper understanding of the world by juggling misfortune make us better communicators? Better artists? The fact of it being necessary to experience hard moments in order to become someone in the art world is sad to think about. However, I am convinced that it is, as I don't think it would be easy to express loss, struggle, pain, resentment, insecurity on the canvas if we have not first experienced it within ourselves.







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