||"I painted my own reality. The only thing I know
is that I paint because I need to, and I paint always whatever
passes through my head, without any other consideration."
Frida Kahlo is as well known for her interesting life as she is for
her art. She had a style of painting that expressed the pain that she
otherwise hid from the world. Many events in her life produced dark,
violent and morbid themes in her art. Biographer Raquel Tibol comments,
"in [her] work oil paint mixes with the blood of her inner monologue"
(3). Although her feelings and pieces of herself can be
found in most of her paintings, her series of self-portraits provides
the most intimate, direct glimpse into her world.
"My painting carries with it the message of pain
... painting completed my life... I believe that work is the best thing."
In order to better understand the themes in her paintings, certain
events and relationships in her life must be understood. Frida had an
extremely eventful and interesting life, which could be (and has been)
discussed for hundreds of pages. In the interest of concentrating on
some of her works, only the most crucial influences on her work are
Frida was born on July 6, 1907 although she provides the date as July
7, 1910. Frida had a normal childhood except for one significant physical
trauma. In 1925, as she was planning to enter medical school, she was
in a serious accident involving a streetcar and a bus. She suffered
many injuries including broken vertebrae, legs, arms and an abdominal
injury. The latter occurred when an iron rail impaled her. This accident
led to several months of hospitalization and immobilization in a plaster
corset. It was during her hospitalization and the bed-rest that followed
when Frida began to explore painting, simply because she was bored.
Although she miraculously recovered from this accident, the injuries
would cause chronic pain in her back and right leg. (3)
She would endure more than 30 operations as a result, including
the amputation of a leg due to gangrene later in her life. Her intense
physical pain and frequent depression repeatedly led her to drugs, painkillers,
and alcohol. (4)
Frida proclaimed her desire to bear a child with painter
Diego Rivera before she ever met him in 1922. They met while she was
attending the National Preparatory School and he had been commissioned
to paint a mural there. After she began painting, she came to ask Diego
to critique her work. This began their involvement, which culminated
in their marriage in August of 1929. During their marriage, Frida traveled
with Diego wherever he was commissioned to paint, including the United
States; he was much more famous than she at the time. (1)
They were an odd match, he much larger (nearly three times her size),
older (twice her age) and more established than she. Both Frida and
Diego had multiple affairs during their marriage. According to Frida:
|"Being the wife of Diego is the most marvelous
thing in the world. I let him play matrimony with other women.
Diego is not anybody's husband and never will be, but he is a
great comrade." (2)
They were divorced for one year in 1940 and remarried in the same year.
(1) Frida joked, "I suffered two grave accidents
in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down...The other accident
is Diego." (2)
It was not until the depression following her first miscarriage in
1932 when the dark, morbid themes became prevalent in her works. It
was then that she began painting on metal in the retablo style.
The taboo of the themes of miscarriage and abortion did not stop her
from representing these events in her paintings. The themes were prevalent
in her life; she suffered from multiple miscarriages, had an abortion,
and never had children. Diego and Frida were involved in political and
social causes in Mexico, including communism and Mexicanidad (a movement
for traditional Mexicanism), and were friends with Leon Trotsky.
(1) These themes are found in her art as well. It seems
that none of Frida’s works are devoid of some aspect of Frida herself;
whether it is her beliefs, her pain, or her loved ones, each one contains
a piece of Frida.
"I leave you my portrait so that you will have my
presence all the days and nights that I am away from you."
Frida began painting without benefit of training (she had studied
art at the National Preparatory School, but never painting) or exposure
to the current trend of surrealism. She stated, "I never knew I was
a surrealist till Andre Breton came to Mexico and told me I was". (2)
Her influences came from within herself, from her medical library, and
a contemporary, Henri Rousseau. She references Rousseau in the "refined
details of plants and trees and flowers recurring in her backgrounds".
Breton convinced Frida to travel to Paris for an exhibition (one of
only two in her lifetime). She mostly despised being in France and being
classified as a surrealist. However, while she was there she became
friends with artists Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso, who developed
a great appreciation for her talent. It was also during this visit that
the Louvre purchased one of her paintings. (1) Since
then, many collectors and museums have snatched up Frida’s paintings
and they currently fetch millions of dollars each. (4)
Frida began painting her self-portraits the instant she began painting.
As she lay in the hospital bed, she painted with an adapted easel and
used a mirror to paint herself. As she stated, "I paint self-portraits
because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best."
(4) What is the appeal of these portraits? Perhaps it is
the chance to catch a glimpse inside this complicated person. It is
hard to describe one thing that is responsible for the popularity and
intrigue of her paintings. It is easier shown than explained. Therefore,
the following is a chronological presentation of a selection of Frida’s
self-portraits. Each is interpreted in the context of events in her
life that coincide with the time of the painting.
|Frida’s first self-portrait was made for her first
love (they were engaged but never married), Alejandro Gomez Arias.
She created it as a sort of "love offering". It shows
her hand extended as if waiting for someone to hold it. She shows
herself in a very feminine, sensual way that is not seen in many
of her later paintings. She also shows herself wearing Renaissance-style
clothing, another feature that distinguishes this work from later
works. In her second Self-Portrait, after the break up with Alejandro
and during her infatuation with Diego, Frida shows the depiction
of herself that is more common in her later paintings. In this
one, she is in traditional Mexican attire. The second portrait
is less romantic and more intense than the first. She is more
serious but still youthful as shown in her rosy cheeks. (5)
In both portraits, Frida shows herself in a realistic
fashion, not hiding and even accentuating her facial hair (eyebrows
and upper lip). She would continue this style in her later paintings
with her so-called ‘uni-brow’ becoming a trademark.
Frida and Diego Rivera (1931)
This portrait serves to commemorate Frida and Diego’s marriage.
It is illustrative of her portrait style and lacks any gory,
morbid details. The presentation reveals how Frida admired Diego
by showing her head and hands inclined towards him. His head
and hands are turned away from her however, perhaps indicating
how she knew she could not "possess" him. She shows
him as a painter, holding his supplies and depicts herself more
as the traditional adoring wife. The writing on the ribbon states:
"Here you see us, Me Frida Kahlo, with
my beloved husband Diego Rivera. I painted these portraits in
the beautiful city of San Francisco California for our friend
Mr. Albert Bender, and it was in the month of April in the year
Henry Ford Hospital (1932)
This more gripping painting illustrates Frida’s first miscarriage.
This painting is the first in which she shows a bloody scene,
but it is certainly not the last. It is also her first work
on sheet metal. It represents a turning point in her life and
in her work in which she established her originality and separated
herself from her contemporaries.
In the painting, Frida lies on a bloody bed with ribbons representing
umbilical cords attaching several objects to her body. The objects
illustrated include: "a snail, an orchid, a decorated
pottery vase, a fanciful bit of machinery to remind her of Diego,
a grotesque little fetus and an anatomical fragment".
The miscarriage occurred in Detroit whose factories are shown
in the background of the painting. (6) The
fetus is depicted the closest to her body and is shown as the
boy she had hoped for. The orchid was given to her by Diego
while she was in the hospital. Frida said that the snail represented
the slowness of the miscarriage. Her body is shown realistically
and not idealized, with a large stomach still protruding from
the pregnancy. This painting very much shows her disappointment,
loneliness and the beginnings of depression. It sets the tone
for the remainder of her works, in which she continues the realistic
introspective depictions of herself. (5)
Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United
Frida clearly illustrates her longing to leave the industrial
United States and return to her natural, traditional Mexico
in this painting, which was also created while in Detroit with
Diego. She juxtaposes the factories and machinery on the U.S.
side with the plants and traditional statues on the Mexico side.
This juxtaposition continues when she displays both the sun
and moon in the Mexican sky, while she depicts the U.S. flag
in a cloud of smoke in the U.S. sky. She balances the firmly
rooted plants on the Mexico side with several machines that
have cords acting as their roots on the U.S. side. She cleverly
weaves on of the cords and turns it into the root of a plant.
She depicts herself traditionally and holding a cigarette in
one hand, and a Mexican flag in the other. She has shown her
head facing towards Mexico, indicating her desire to return.
Here again she has depicted many elements that reveal portions
of her psyche. Much like in Henry Ford Hospital she depicts
many objects that at first seem out of place and unrelated,
but when connected, tell a story that provides more detail about
herself and events in her life. (5)
The Two Fridas (1939)
Frida painted a dual portrait of herself during her short-lived
divorce from Diego. The portrait on the right is to represent
the "Frida Diego loved" while the portrait on the
left is the "woman whom Diego no longer loves". In
both figures, the heart is exposed, showing her vulnerability,
but the Frida on the left has a broken heart. The right hand
portrait is holding a miniature of Diego from which her artery
flows, indicating that she derived her life from him. The arteries
connect to the left hand Frida where it is ruptured and bleeding
onto her dress. Cleverly, several of the flowers on the bottom
of the white dress are transformed into bloodstains. She presents
a stormy background to set the melancholy mood of the painting.
(6) Loneliness and abandonment are shown by the
joined hands of the two Frida’s. She is comforting herself,
surrounded by nothing else, alone in the painting and in life.
This painting is particularly gripping, not for the blood, but
for the emotion that can be felt while looking at it. (5)
Thinking About Death
Self Portrait Dedicated to Dr. Eloesser and Daughters
Self-Portrait (1940) and Thinking About Death (1943)
These are two portraits that are illustrative of the style
with which Frida painted her many bust length self-portraits.
Self-Portrait represents Frida in a Christian light as
she wears "Christ’s crown of thorns as a necklace".
The thorns draw blood as if she presents herself as a martyr.
The interesting contradiction is that Frida had rejected religion.
In the painting, a hand holds a ribbon that states "I
painted my portrait in the year 1940 for Dr. Eloesser, my doctor
and my best friend. With all love, Frida Kahlo". Thinking
About Death shows a similar style as the previous work.
However here, she shows a scene with a skull and crossbones
in her forehead. She used this technique of painting a separate
image on her head in several other paintings. In both paintings,
she is surrounded by vegetation, also common in her self-portraits.
In some, she even painted herself with animals including her
pet monkeys. She also wears a serious, somber expression on
her face and again, traditional Mexican clothing. Even in these
portraits with little detail other than herself, subtle elements
still provide a glimpse into her persona. (5).
The Broken Column (1944)
Frida clearly illustrates her physical suffering in this
painting. At the time, she had undergone further surgery and
was again confined in a corset apparatus, which her figure is
wearing in the painting. She shows the corset as holding together
her ruptured body, yet at the same time it feels confining.
The nails penetrating her body signify severe pain. The column
representing her spine is cracked and injured as well. She is
again shown alone against barren landscape giving the feeling
of emptiness and despair. Despite all the gory details, her
body is represented delicately, perhaps showing her vulnerability.
Although she shows tears in her eyes, she bravely faces the
viewer, strongly enduring her pain. The painting thus represents
many aspects of her emotional and physical state. She is in
pain and vulnerable yet she is strong and perseveres. It is
a powerful and intimate portrait that expresses much of her
inner world to the audience. (5)
Tree of Hope (1946)
In this painting, Frida again shows herself twice. The
figure on the table is still anesthetized, recovering from an
operation, which is shown by the open wounds on her back. Frida
had just undergone surgery to fuse some of her vertebrae to
attempt to relieve some of her excruciating pain. The other
figure is sitting guard, showing her hope and will to live,
in a Tehauna costume that is often shown in her paintings. She
holds a corset brace and also wears one as can be seen by the
protrusions from her dress. The flag in her hand reads "Tree
of Hope, keep firm." This was a phrase in a song Frida
would sing and a phrase that she often repeated as it became
an inspiration and a motto for her. The barren landscape is
filled with ravines and cracks that resemble her surgical wounds.
She contrasts the two figures by situating one under the sun-lit
sky and the other under the night sky. A letter Frida wrote
indicates that in the painting there was once "a skeleton
(or death) that flees terrified in the face of my will to live";
it was apparently painted out. This painting continues the theme
of her physical pain and her emotional strength. (5)
Frida died on July 13, 1954. Some suspect suicide, others blame
her constantly deteriorating health. Either way, even in her
death it seems that Frida made a statement. According to many
witness accounts of her cremation: "at the moment when
Frida entered the furnace, the intense heat made her sit up,
and her blazing hair stood out from her face in an aureole […]
when the flames ignited her hair, her face appeared as if smiling
in the center of a large sunflower". (5)
The self-portraits of Frida Kahlo are a realistic representation
of her appearance combined with a symbolic representation of
her spirit. She does not idealize or modify any elements of
her figure; instead she confidently presents herself as she
is. The juxtaposition of objects and emotions in her works paint
a more complete picture of how Frida felt on the inside. She
reveals all aspects of herself, physically and emotionally,
in her paintings. Her upfront style combined with the story
her paintings tell and feelings they emit are ingenious. The
timelessness of the themes of her work will continue to raise
her popularity and the well-deserved appreciation for her work.
However, she was such a complex person that, even all her paintings
and biographical history could not possibly paint the full portrait
of Frida Kahlo.
- Malka Drucker, Frida Kahlo (Albuquerque: University of New
Mexico Press, 1991), pp. 128370140
- Kimberley Masters, "The Quotes of Frida Kahlo," The
World of Frida Kahlo, 1996, <http://members.aol.com/fridanet/quotes.htm>
(28 September 2002).
- Raquel Tibol, Frida Kahlo: An Open Life (Albuquerque: University
of New Mexico Press, 1993), pp. 13421.
- Stephanie Mencimer, "The trouble with Frida Kahlo: uncomfortable
truths about this season’s hottest female artist," Washington
Monthly, June 2002, 26.
- Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (New York:
Harper & Row Publishers, 1983), pp. 329738975081.
- MacKinley Helm, Modern Mexican Painters (New York: Harper
& Brothers Publishers, 1941), pp.194370274