Biographical noteFrida Kahlo (Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo Calderón) is probably the most famous paintress, and one of the most celebrated women in history. She was born in Coyoacán near Mexico City in 1907 and died at the age of 47 in the same town. Her father came from Germany, perhaps from a Jewish-Hungarian family, and her mother was a Mexican of Spanish descent. Frida’s life was punctuated by a struggle with disease (having contracted polio as a child) and more than 30 operations, which she underwent after a traffic accident, that left an indelible mark on her entire life. She survived the accident, but came out of it with serious injuries and numerous fractures, including a fractured spine. She spent much of her life in bed. Frida was bisexual; among her lovers: Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky. (Trotsky was probably murdered on Frida’s property). Her longest, most passionate, and turbulent love affair was with Diego Rivera – a muralist and prominent Mexican artist – which led to them marrying each other twice. Frida started painting after her accident, when she was almost twenty years of age. In her work there are easily recognizable elements of primitive painting and Mexican folklore. However, she was able to use them to create her own original style, one characterized by rich symbolism and expressions of great suffering. In retrospect, the fact that André Breton classified her work as part of the surrealist movement is irrelevant. Frida belonged to the Mexican Communist Party (El Partido Comunista Mexicano, PCM) and was an active member. Fame was slow to reach her. She only gained worldwide recognition 20 years after her death, becoming a symbol of the struggle for the emancipation of women. Her life has gradually grown into a legend. To this day, it’s unknown if her death was a suicide or not. Given that in the year before her death her leg was amputated, after which she attempted suicide several times, and an autopsy was never performed, we may suspect that she took her own life.(by Samba Walker)
Subjective Viewpoint: Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portraits
Monkeys of Death and Merrymaking JokersIn most of Kahlo’s portraits she depicts herself in a frontal pose, with a strict and composed physiognomy. She’s often surrounded by animals, mostly monkeys, which in Mexico symbolise death, but at the same time act as comical merrymaking jokers. Thus, these playful and mischievous creatures are also symbols of vitality.
Self-Portrait in a Velvet DressOne of her very first self-portraits is Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress, from 1926, now in a private collection in Mexico City. Kahlo depicted herself in a strikingly confident pose, staring directly at the viewer. She has a weirdly elongated neck, suggesting she was influenced by European artists such as the Mannerist painter Bronzino. The turbulent waves in the black background can also be found in Van Gogh’s blue self-portrait. Because of the dark background colour, the focus lies with her facial expression (note the famous Kahlo monobrow), her fair neck, and bordeaux dress. Kahlo painted the portrait for her then-boyfriend, Alejandro, who at the time was outraged by her infidelity. She suggested he hang the painting at the lowest possible point so he could look down on her. The portrait evokes, like all her others, attention and affection.
Self-Portrait with Thorn NecklaceIn Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, from 1940, now in the Research Centre at the University of Texas, Frida wears a thorn wreath around her neck, and from that spiny garland, hangs a black hummingbird. On the one hand, a hummingbird is a talisman that promotes luck in love, on the other, it’s the bird into which dead heroes reincarnate when they return to Earth. The other pets surrounding her seem menacing; the monkey on her right increases the pain of the thorns by knotting the wreath even further, and on the other side, a black cat is about to pounce on the hummingbird.
In 1940, Frida participated in the exhibition “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art” in New York. That same year, she travelled to San Francisco to consult Doctor Eloesser about her alcohol addiction and other problems.
The Wounded DeerOne of her most striking portraits, a relatively small painting, is The Wounded Deer, from 1946, now in Houston, Texas. The painting portrays a hybrid-Frida pierced by multiple arrows. She depicted herself in front of a forest enclosure with a river in the background – a body of water that she would never reach to ease her wounds. The symbolism of a wounded stag, subsequently killed by the arrows, has a long tradition in Mexico, one that finds expression in dances, songs and various folkloric depictions. Kahlo thus connotes her disappointment following an unsuccessful operation (on her spine) which she had hoped would cure her chronic back pain.
In a love poem, Juana Inés de la Cruz (1659 – 1695) wrote:
If thou seest the wounded stag
That hastens down the mountainside,
Seeking, stricken, in icy stream
Ease for its hurt
And thirsting plunges in the crystal waters,
Not in ease, in pain it mirrors me.
The Biological Truth of her FeelingsFrida’s self-portraits assume attributes from historical portraiture, but she combines them with native symbols, thus breaking the conventions of portrait painting. Like folkloristic artists, she wasn’t concerned with realistic proportions or correct spatial perspective techniques, instead, she focused on the details. In many of her paintings she illustrated her innermost nature or depicted her own life sagas. In the history of art, no artist expressed herself, her life story and conditions, in such a complex way as she did. It was Frida Kahlo’s invention. As Diego Rivera said: “Frida is the only example in the history of art, of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings.”
Frida Kahlo - quotes & fragments
The strangest person in the world
I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.
I drank to drown my sorrows, but the damned things learned how to swim.
I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.
Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.
There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.
I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you.