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Psychologist at PHD Gives Rare Insight into Mind of World-Renowned Artist
05/22/2008

DALLAS — Her iconic paintings, deeply personal yet universally powerful, continue to resonate with throngs of people despite her death over 50 years ago. Now, a new book looks into the life, times — and mind — of Frida Kahlo, the troubled Mexican artist who became one of the 20th century’s most important painters.

The book, Salomon Grimberg’s Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself, includes a psychological assessment of Kahlo by Dr. James B. Harris, a psychologist at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas. The evaluation is based on results from psychological tests Kahlo underwent before her death in 1954.

“It’s unprecedented in the history of the art world to have an internationally known artist of Frida Kahlo’s caliber disclose her psychological testing,” Harris said. “The tests reveal that she suffered deep emotional pain, but her talent and temperament allowed her to create world-class art. It still resonates with people today.”

An exhibit of Kahlo’s work is currently on tour in North America, organized in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the artist's birth. It’s the first major Kahlo exhibition in the United States in nearly 15 years.

Kahlo’s extraordinary life, which included tumultuous personal relationships, a near-fatal bus accident and chronic health conditions — all depicted and transcended in her remarkable paintings — has been examined in other works. Until Song of Herself, though, no psychological evaluation had been published to show how her psychology contributed to Kahlo’s creative genius.

This first-ever analysis begins to shed light on some of the art world’s most basic questions, Harris said.

“That’s the great mystery of art,” he said. “Powerful paintings have an energy that leaps off the canvas. Where does that energy come from and how does an artist’s personality, and perhaps their own struggles with mental health, help create their art and that energy? For many artists, their work is a way of processing their pain. They tap into something greater than themselves.”

Kahlo began painting in 1926, while recovering from the bus accident. Her work is known for vibrant colors, powerful compositions, and revealing depictions of intensely personal struggles — the traumatic accident, her ongoing health problems, miscarriages, and her tumultuous relationship with her husband.

Her blunt style, influenced by Mexican folk art, and unique imagery earned her recognition among the Surrealists, according to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but her intriguing persona and unmistakable originality propelled her beyond the confines of a specific movement to become a leading figure in the history of modern art.

From rock legend Kurt Cobain to painter Vincent Van Gogh, the troubled lives of legendary artists have been relegated to speculation, rumor and anecdotal analyses based on cursory personality traits, Harris said.

“There’s no way to watch them going down the red carpet or performing on stage and truly understand anything meaningful about their mental health,” he said. “Now, readers and art lovers can delve inside the mind of one of history’s most accomplished artists and begin to understand how an artist’s personality, personal experiences and mental health affect their work.”

Harris’ chapter is based on a series of psychological tests — the Rorschach Inkblot Test, Thematic Apperception Test, Bleuler-Jung Test, and Szondi Test — that were administered by her friend and student of psychology Olga Campos. The results show a troubled, complicated artist who corralled personal demons and an epic creative genius to produce some of the most powerful art of the last 150 years.

“(Her) struggle to sustain her sense of self, particularly in the area of self-regard, meant that she worked extra hard to be highly admired, thus sacrificing emotional depth and genuine empathy,” Harris writes. “Her struggle, which could be resolved only if addressed from within, never ended. Despite the richness of her internal world, as well as the world that surrounded her, Kahlo lived without working through her overwhelming dependency, doomed to perceive others as unreliable, and herself as incomplete.”

Harris views Kahlo as heroic in her struggles, documented through her iconic art, and now through her psychological testing.

The Kahlo exhibit is currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and will be featured at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from June 14 to Sept. 28.

About Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas
Established in 1966, PHD is the flagship hospital of Presbyterian Healthcare System, a member of the faith-based, nonprofit Texas Health Resources system. U.S. News and World Report ranks PHD, a recognized clinical program leader, providing technologically advanced care to patients, among the nation’s best hospitals in digestive disorders, orthopedics, and neurology and neurosurgery. The 866-bed facility has approximately 4,000 employees and an active medical staff of more than 1,000 physicians. For more information about PHD, visit www.PHSCare.org.

About Texas Health Resources
Texas Health Resources is one of the largest faith-based, nonprofit health care delivery systems in the United States and the largest in North Texas in terms of patients served. THR controls 13 affiliated hospitals and a medical research organization, and is a corporate member or partner in seven additional hospitals and surgery centers. THR’s family of hospitals includes Harris Methodist Hospitals, Arlington Memorial Hospital and Presbyterian Healthcare System. For more information about Texas Health Resources, visit www.texashealth.org.

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