After Frida suffered a miscarriage in July, she received a telegram from home stating that her mother was very ill. In early September, Frida boarded a Detroit train and headed toward Mexico City. She got there just before her mother died of breast cancer. It must have been devastating. After staying in Mexico for about a month, Frida returned to Diego in Detroit and it's at this time that she created My Birth.
Once we grasp the full force of Frida's emotional turmoil, we begin to understand that this painting was not created to shock people; rather it was made to visually communicate all the levels of heartbreak surrounding the death of loved ones. As I grapple with my own complex emotions of grief after my father's death, I'm very aware of how challenging it is to find the right words or images to convey what I'm feeling. Frida did it. She found the perfect multileveled image to transmit the convoluted and unbearable feelings of grief.
Most people don't want to talk about the intensity of the grieving process. This is why I was especially moved and impressed by Joseph Biden's honest discussion of his grief on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. While some people may have felt uncomfortable listening to the vice president break down while baring his soul, we live in a time when the "tell-all" memoir and "reality tv" are the norm. However, Frida did not. This helps explain why her painting is still considered shocking.
The shock value appealed to Madonna who purchased it in the 1990s. As the owner of My Birth, Madonna has only loaned her prized possession to one museum exhibition (as far as I know). Mark Rosenthal, the adjunct curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, tried to persuade her to loan it for the recent Diego and Frida in Detroit exhibition, but Madonna said: "No." Rosenthal commented in a newspaper article: "You have no idea what we went through. But I can't describe all that."
It's easy to vilify Madonna. After all, it would be wonderful if more people could see this iconic painting. However, I can't blame the pop star for wanting to protect her jewel. If it was damaged in any way, it would be a great loss for her and the world.
© Celia S. Stahr 2015