Frida Kahlo: What the Water Gave Her


Painting was a part of Frida Kahlo’s battle for life. It was also very much a part of her self-creation; in her art, as in her life, a theatrical self-presentation was a means to control her world.

—Hayden Herrera, Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo, 1983


Frida Kahlo, What I Saw in the Water or What the Water Gave Me, 1938, oil on canvas, 91×70.5 cm. (Paris, Daniel Filipacchi collection)

As of this writing Venetian Red readers have anointed Cult Offering the site’s top post. With that in mind, we delve again into the work of Frida Kahlo.

What I Saw in the Water wasn’t part of the SF MOMA show, but it should have been (although perhaps they wanted it and couldn’t secure it). The painting is one of Kahlo’s most visionary and disturbing;  the sophisticated water fantasy provides the vehicle for a densely-packed portrayal of the artist’s subconscious. It’s almost as if she crammed her entire life into this bathtub scene.  Kahlo returned to the same symbols over and over; many of the items included here can be seen in her other paintings, some without much alteration.

The bathtub environment equates to the womb, which was for the artist a source of both pleasure (, release) and pain. (Frida deeply lamented her inability to bear children). In the years 1937-38, Kahlo’s paintings show a thematic preoccupation with motherhood; this shows up pointedly in examples such as My Doll & I, as well as Girl with a Death Mask.  In “What I Saw in the Water” the painter’s toes emerge from the water pointing up, but also, through the device of reflection, pointing back at the “events” of her life. Her legs are nearly invisible beneath the water, and the clarity of the reflection links it visually to the actual toes. The theme of physical deformity introduced. Moreover, the right foot shows a bleeding sore between the deformed big and second toe. This defect typically accompanies spina bifida, a congenital deformity, which results from incomplete closure of neural tube and a partially unfused spinal cord. Kahlo suffered from the condition, although it wasn’t properly diagnosed until her visit to San Francisco in 1930. It, together with polio and the 1925 streetcar accident, was the root cause of Kahlo’s lifelong battle with neuropathic pain.  In front of the volcano, the small portrait Frida Kahlo’s parents (almost as they appear in My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree) allude to the condition—after all, they have passed along this disease to her.  The skyscraper, which extrudes itself from the volcano, while superficially phallic (i.e. passion), also references the straight column of a normal spine, the “well” self that eluded Kahlo during her life.

Kahlo uses the two nude figures on the bed in front of the volcano later in Two Nudes in the Wood or The Earth or My Nurse and I . In the context of that painting, they are generally considered a reference of her bi-sexuality, although the different skin colors typically were used by the artist to symbolize her dual heritage—European and native Indian.

Traditional dresses (not quite tehuanas) similar to the one floating in the foreground of the painting appear in earlier works (Memory of the Heart, 1937) and as a lonely Doppelgänger for Frida in the 1933 “My Dress is Hanging There or New York.”  In “Water” too, the dress must be symbolic of Frida, here a ghostly presence, half submerged, weighed down by a lack of self-confidence.

And where in the painting is Diego, the source of both her passion and pain? There is no portrait representation of him, and yet we know that the man Kahlo referred to as “my child, my lover, my universe” must be here, if only a subliminal presence.  This painting was executed during a time that she and Diego were experiencing marital problems (they would divorce briefly in 1940); moreover it was sandwiched between her affairs with Leon Trotsky and photographer Nikolas Muray. Passion must certainly have been in the forefront of her mind.  Beginning in 1937, flowers and fruits appear in her work—obvious sexual symbols, though when sliced open, they become a reference to her mutilated body. Perhaps the shell shot full of holes in the midground is Diego’s stand-in. Kahlo often used shells to symbolize male and female elements—ultimately Diego and herself.

A finally, the spewing volcano, although perhaps an allusion to Kahlo’s Mexican heritage, could be equated to the act of suppressing her feelings about her body, her relationship to Diego, her self-worth. Inevitably that volcano erupts.

Wider Connections

Hayden Herrera—Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

Salomon Grimberg—I Will Never Forget You: Frida Kahlo and Nickolas Muray

PBS—Life & Times of Frida Kahlo

Daniel Filipacchi

Guggenheim Museum Publications—Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, the Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi Collections


2 Responses to “Frida Kahlo: What the Water Gave Her”

  1. We have an art history project and we’re supposed to write about 8 pieces of art. I picked this painting as it encompasses and defines Kahlo even though it is very unlike other paintings of hers I have seen. Your description was very helpful and has provided me with immense clarity.

  2. Really refreshing and original analysis, has helped me with a school exam also! However, I read elsewhere that the reclining male on the shore could be representative of Diego Rivera: there is the suggestive stance (his infidelity) and the fact that he appears to hold the ropes that are strangling the woman (Kahlo)

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