Conserving Kahlo’s “Sun and Life”

The Dallas Museum of Art was given the opportunity to exhibit a collection of exceptional Frida Kahlo works. In advance of their display, we received permission from the owners to study three of the paintings—Still Life with Parrot and Flag (1951), Sun and Life (1947) (fig. 1), and Diego and Frida 1929–1944 (1944)—in the DMA’s Paintings Conservation Studio. Conservators and curators often collaborate on this type of research, bringing together their distinct knowledge, training, and perspectives to better understand a work of art. Although some artists’ works have been extensively studied in this fashion, Kahlo has received surprisingly less attention, making this an especially unique opportunity.

Fig. 1: Frida Kahlo, Sun and Life, 1947, oil on Masonite, Private Collection, Courtesy Galería Arvil. © 2021 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Using infrared photography, X-radiography, and microscopic examination, novel information was brought to light regarding each work. X-radiography allows us to visualize compositional changes made in paint. This type of imaging provided a fascinating new perspective into Frida Kahlo’s working practice, particularly for the painting Sun and Life (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: X-radiograph of Sun and Life

In this work, Kahlo depicts a vibrant red sun surrounded by a dense array of rich green vegetation. As if drawing energy directly from the star in their midst, the leaves of the plants sprout roots that reach for the soil below, while the large pods that dominate the upper half of the painting ripen and split open. The pods reveal dark interiors, some of them full of glistening phallic appendages. Directly behind the sun, a small embryo appears inside one of the pods, tears dropping from its unformed eyes. Often interpreted as a rumination on the cycle of life and mortality, Sun and Life is a pivotal work from the end of Kahlo’s career.

The X-ray taken of Sun and Life revealed an exciting evolution in the painting’s creation. Kahlo’s basic composition was generally established from the underdrawing to the early painting phase, but the details evolved significantly in later phases of painting. The pods surrounding the sun, for example, initially had smaller openings, but these were widened during the painting process. Another interesting discovery was that the embryo-like element in the pod directly behind the sun was added as Kahlo finalized the painting; the X-ray shows that the pod was originally closed. The blue lines overlaid onto the painting (fig. 3) represent a tracing made from the X-ray and indicate where compositional changes took place during the painting process.

Fig. 3: Tracing compositional changes observed in x-radiograph

These findings offer us important insight into how Kahlo conceived of her works at this point in her career. While she used drawing to map out the general structure of the composition, she clearly did not allow this to dictate its final appearance or content. As she worked, she made adjustments and additions, revealing that her own conception of the work evolved with each new layer of paint.

It’s worth noting that although the X-ray offers us a glimpse into Kahlo’s working practice, none of the changes are visible to the naked eye. Sun and Life’s long, sinuous brushstrokes demonstrate the artist’s mastery of her medium and betray none of the process behind it. The painting’s final appearance is cohesive and seamless, an example of Kahlo’s ability to combine vibrant color with captivating compositions.  

Examining these works together was a great privilege, and we have enjoyed discussing them with our colleagues at the DMA, including Dr. Agustín Arteaga, The Eugene McDermott Director. We hope that you’ll visit Sun and Life and the other works in Frida Kahlo: Five Works, on view through June 20, 2021.

Dr. Mark A. Castro is The Jorge Baldor Curator of Latin American Art and Laura Eva Hartman is the Paintings Conservator at the DMA.


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