Like many celebrated figures, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54) owes her posthumous fame to her talent and to her misfortune—she died at 47, in 1954, from a pulmonary embolism. This combination also makes for a highly dramatic journal. Kept during the final decade of her life—when injuries from a near-fatal bus accident at 18 had left her an invalid—this is no ordinary record of days but a collection of paintings and sketches, poems and meditations. Reproduced in color, the diary is as moving as it is maddeningly opaque; though it never really exposes her heart's core, it somehow conveys Kahlo's passion for living almost as powerfully as her canvases.
Skip the overwritten introduction by Carlos Fuentes and read the illuminating commentary by art historian Sarah M. Lowe, who lets Kahlo speak for herself. There are oddly touching still lifes (a slab of chocolate, portraits of her dog Miss Capulina) and memories of childhood, including her fantasy of entering another world through a door drawn on a breath-fogged window.
Mostly, though, Kahlo concerns herself with her artist husband, the charismatic, philandering Diego Rivera, and with the ineluctable decline of her body. "I never painted dreams," she said. "I painted my own reality." Nearing the end, Kahlo looks her impending death straight in the eye, and the stark images she conjures—a lone horse before an empty building, an ominous green-winged figure hovering in a pink sky—are brave and heartbreaking. (Abrams, $39.95)