Image description: A painting of watermelons over a collage of still life paintings featuring watermelons. End ID
Image description: A painting of watermelons over a collage of still life paintings featuring watermelons. End ID

Illustration by Mehraneh Saffari

Viva La Vida: Frida Kahlo’s Last Painting

A tribute to life and death, Frida’s still life of watermelons, emboldened with the phrase “Viva La Vida”, was painted eight days before her passing.

Jan 7, 2024

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón, also known as Frida Kahlo, is perhaps one of the most well known names in art history. Kahlo is especially known for her some 80 self-portraits, with which she has attempted to biographize her life, beliefs, tragedies, and love.
“I paint self-portraits because I am the person I know best. I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to and I paint whatever passes through my head without any consideration"*, Kahlo said in reference to her primary painting subject.
![Image 1: Frida Kahlo’s El Sueño (La Cama) or The Dream (The Bed), 1940](ADD URL)
In one example out of many, Kahlo’s The Dream (or The Bed) deals with the subject matter of death. In a seemingly surrealist portrayal, Kahlo has pictured herself sleeping in a bed with plant leaves taking root and growing over her body, while a skeleton is depicted above resting on pillows and adorned with similar plants and, additionally, explosives. Multiple interpretations of the skeleton exist, with some viewing it as a memento mori trope, while others see the skeleton as a representation of Judas Isacriot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, as he is sometimes depicted as a paper-mâché skeleton and set alight with fireworks on Mexico’s Holy Saturday. Regardless, Kahlo appears to be dreaming of death, as depicted by the bed floating through clouds and the skeleton on top, which, alongside its explosives that could be set off at any time, represents its unpredictable inevitability.
"They thought I was a surrealist. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality,” Kahlo has described her own paintings, each of which, such as The Dream (or The Bed), depicts a realistic feature of her life and psyche.
However, Kahlo was not only a painter of portraits. She has completed around 30 still lifes, which, while less well known, are just as significant in meaning and particularity to her life.
As explained by Salomon Grimber in his article Frida Kahlo's Still Lifes: “I Paint Flowers So They Will Not Die”, still lifes are usually relegated to the lowest rank within the hierarchies of art, trivialized and taken for granted due to their association with the closed domestic sphere of the house. For Kahlo, who was usually house-bound due to her physical injuries and illnesses, her still lifes are just as much of an indicator of her internal and external realities as her self-portraits.
A week prior to her death, Kahlo painted a vibrant still life of watermelons, etching “Viva la Vida” (long live life) into a centerpiece of watermelon.
![Image 2: Frida Kahlo’s Viva La Vida, 1954](ADD URL)
Watermelon is a fruit that requires very little moisture despite its immense relief to thirst, and whose seeds allow for new life, making it an appropriate symbol for life and abundance. Aside from its seeds, the watermelon’s spherical shape also symbolizes the cycle of birth and death.
Considering Kahlo’s brushes with death, from a devastating 1925 car accident to continuing suicidal ideations, Viva La Vida could be seen as ironic commentary on her life. Kahlo’s final diary entry reads: “I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return.”
Three years later, Diego Riveria, Kahlo’s husband, also painted a still life of watermelons as his last painting, showcasing its lasting symbolism of the cycle of life and death.
Mehraneh Saffari is Senior News Editor. Email them at
gazelle logo