Note: Some of the artwork included in this practice may be disturbing or triggering to some viewers, including images of violence, physical harm, and psychological trauma.
Recommended for teens and adults, ages 13+, use your own judgement for yourself and your students.
Frida Kahlo’s Retablo-Style Art
I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.
Frida Kahlo’s body of work consists of frank depictions of struggle, pain, disability, heartbreak, longing, and ambivalence between social and societal constructs. In some of her work, she draws on Mexican folk art for deep personal expression in retablo-style paintings. Retablo paintings traditionally depict Catholic saints, made to adorn the space behind the altar of churches. In the 1870’s, Mexican craftspeople adapted retablo art for personal use and display in homes (Rosengarten, accessed 2022). These versions of retablo art depict personal moments of tragedy and struggle that have been overcome, and as an expression of gratitude to religious figures: Christ or Catholic saints. Frida Kahlo’s use of the style is non-religious, taking the traditional structure of the retablo to emphasize personal identity and mythology in her subjects, including her own personal experiences (Merotto, 2020).
Kahlo was an avid collector of retablo art, filling her home with hundreds (Rosengarten) or maybe thousands of pieces (Merotto). Her seeking out retablo art for her own collection and to inform her work was certainly inspired by her love for Mexican folk tradition, which is notable as well in her choice of dress and iconographic symbols that populate her artistic works. Kahlo was also likely drawn to the deep emotionality of retablo art, and its combination of divinity with the experience of suffering (Rosengarten). Retablo art also represents the “syncretic Mexican popular identity” (Merotto) as it combines Spanish-Catholic art with pre-Spanish traditions and moved out of churches into the domestic visual cultural realm. In her artwork, Kahlo was ever occupied with her own syncretic identities as mestizo, bi-sexual, politically active and living with disabilities.
The folk art retablo style is characterized by flat perspective, with a composition portraying a scene as if it were being acted on a stage, and bright colors painted on metal or tiles (or otherwise easy to access materials). The visual space is usually divided into thirds vertically, with the bottom third being a space for written text describing the incident, the middle third depicting the incident, and the top third depicting the intervening saint. Realism in depiction is not a priority, rather the emotional experience of the participants in the scene, including pain, fear, suffering, relief and gratitude are highlighted.
In Kahlo’s retablo art, we see quite frank and often graphic depictions of pain and struggle, and usually the overt absence of supernatural intercession from a saint or religious figure (Merotto). For Kahlo, her experiences and her artistic representations of those experiences stayed firmly within the world she could sense. She emphasizes physical details, grounding her and her viewer in the reality of the event.
This journal practice is about creating narrative in visual artwork, focusing on sensory details and the storied layers of lived experience: what was the experience, what was the outcome?
Time needed: 30 – 60 minutes
Think of this as a meditative creative process, in which you can make choices for how you want to respond to the prompts and access your own lived experience.
This is a visual arts practice including drawing and writing, but you do not have to have an established drawing practice to try this out. You can also use these prompts for different kinds of art practices. See the description below for adaptations.
- 2 journal pages
- Writing implements (pencil, pen)
- Drawing/ painting implements
- Colored pencil
- Watercolor, brush
Think of a time when you struggled through something difficult. Perhaps a disappointment, a heartbreak, grief over a loss or the fear of something you couldn’t control.
We don’t like to think of these memories. For some of us, the pain of these memories can be like experiencing them again. Personal resilience is built up through having these experiences and making them part of a full life, learning from them and continuing on with them, but not being held back by them.
If those kinds of memories are too difficult for now, you can think of an experience that isn’t necessarily sad, but perhaps was difficult. Some ideas might be moving homes, overcoming an obstacle, healing from an injury.
From this memory, write down what you remember.
- Create two columns, one for objects around you in the memory, and the other for feelings and thoughts you had through the experience.
- Divide the two columns into thirds, vertically.
- The bottom third will be just before the event of the memory, what the circumstances were, what was happening.
- The middle third will be the time of the event, what happened in the moment of the struggle, which could be a long period of time.
- The top third will be after the event, the resolution and moments of resiliency when you were through the experience of the event.
You can use words or sketch doodles for these boxes. Using doodles will help you build a visual library for your painting and illustration work.
On the next page, you’ll draw or paint your experience, capturing all three moments of time and as much visual information as you can remember, using your notes and doodles from the previous page. You can split the scene into thirds, vertically.
- The bottom third will be a place to write about the event. You can start here by writing out the basic story of the event, including what led up to it, what happened, and how you were able to learn and grow from the experience.
- The middle third will be the main scene of the event. You can place yourself in this part of the image, experiencing the event, including the objects and people that were around you, and your emotional feelings represented by facial features, body postures, objects or icons, even words.
- The top third will be the moments of resiliency. In religious versions of ex-votos, this is where the image of a saint or angels might be. You can use religious visual language or your can use your own visual language, picturing yourself after the event, in your moments of resiliency, more knowledgeable for the experience. What are you grateful for after the experience? You don’t have to be grateful for the experience, but are you grateful for the people who supported you, the communities you became a part of, what you learned about yourself?
As you draw and write, don’t worry about perfection. Don’t worry about making people look a certain way or using the right words. Focus instead on the objects, feelings and thoughts in the experience. Use color, pencil, erasers, markers. Set a timer for yourself for 3, 5, or 10 minutes and keep drawing for the entire time. If you feel like you’ve finished before the timer has ended, just keep going. If you feel like you want to keep creating after the timer has ended, keep going!
The practice, inspired by Frida Kahlo
Frida’s art is powerful because of her personal expression and stark emotionalism. Creating emotion in art is one way to make a connection with viewers of your art. If you don’t plan to show the artwork to anyone else, it can also be a way to connect with your own creative expression.
While we focus on moments of sadness and pain in this exercise, you can explore other emotions and experiences as well – anger, fear, longing, regret, joy, peace, confusion, apathy. The opportunity to explore multitudes of emotions is one of the privileges of consciousness and creativity.
- Literary art – write out your list of objects, thoughts/ feelings, and use those words to describe the experience in prose or poetry.
- Story crafting/ Comics – create an experience for a character and list out the sensory and emotional experiences for them using the prompts.
- Sculpture/ 3D art – use shapes and forms as stand-ins for emotions, sculpt objects from your experience that hold significance.
- Collage – collect magazines, newspaper, pages of old books or printed images from online, cut them out and combine them on your journal page to depict your scene. You can focus on collecting and assembling words, images, colors, shapes.
- Abstracted painting – as you write out your list, ascribe colors, textures or shapes to each word or element of the memory. Use that as your visual library to put your abstracted composition together, paying attention to harmony, balance, and contrast between your elements.
Further Reading & Watching
In the Absence of Miracle: Frida Kahlo’s Subversion of Retablo and Ex-Voto Tradition, Hasta, Tia Merotto, November 11, 2020, http://www.hasta-standrews.com/features/2020/11/11/in-the-absence-of-miracle-frida-kahlos-subversion-of-retablo-and-ex-voto-tradition (accessed 12/22/2021)
In the Study: Frida Kahlo’s Transformation of the Retablo, Richard Rosengarten, https://www.societyarts.org/in-the-study-frida-kahlos-transformation-of-retablo.html (accessed 12/22/2021)
An Introduction to “Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States”