The face of twentieth-century Mexican painter Frida Kahlo has become iconic. In somber self-portrait after self-portrait, she presented an unflinchingly honest depiction of imperfect beauty: bushy eyebrows that meet to form a unibrow, an unmistakable moustache on her upper lip, and a body increasingly wracked by injury and infection.
In her paintings, she exposed every inch of her body to public scrutiny. With one notable exception.
Through her surreal, primitivist art, Kahlo offered an intimate look at her entire body, which had been ravaged first by polio as a child, then by a horrific accident as a teenager. She displayed her damaged spine in “The Broken Column,” her bleeding thigh in “Remembrance of an Open Wound,” her heart and blood vessels in “The Two Fridas,” her diseased foot in “What the Water Gave Me,” and her naked body in the midst of a miscarriage in “Henry Ford Hospital.”
But there’s one part of her body that Kahlo never painted: her teeth. She never painted herself smiling.
Why is that?
It’s tempting to think this was because she never smiled. Kahlo’s life was not a happy one. In addition to her physical ailments, which worsened steadily until her death at age 47, Kahlo suffered from numerous miscarriages, her husband’s reflexive infidelity (which included an affair with Kahlo’s own sister), dozens of painful surgeries, and addictions to painkillers and alcohol. According to Vanity Fair’s Amy Fine Collins, in Mexico she is known today as la heroína del dolor, or “the heroine of pain.”
However, Kahlo’s biographer Hayden Herrera describes her as relentlessly “vibrant, devil-may-care” and quotes her as saying, “I tease and laugh at death so that it won’t get the better of me.” There are several photographs of Kahlo smiling, in fact,
If she wasn’t perpetually miserable, why didn’t she paint herself smiling? What was it about her teeth that she was afraid to expose?
It may come down to the fact that Kahlo’s teeth were made of gold.
According to art historian Parker Lesley, “She had two gold incisors and when she was all gussied up she would take off the plain gold caps and put on gold caps with rose diamonds in front, so that her smile really sparkled.”
Eventually, like so many aspects of Kahlo’s gradually deteriorating body, even her gold teeth fell away from her. But, unlike the loss of her strength, stamina, and life, she voluntarily gave them up.
“She did not like to see me toothless. Once a man hit me and I lost my teeth,” a street vendor named Carmen Cabellero recalls in Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. “She gave me as a present these gold teeth that I now wear.”
Like her art, Frida Kahlo’s golden smile continued to have a powerful impact, even long after her death.