About the Art
Kahlo painted the self-portrait after her divorce from Diego Rivera and the end of her affair with photographer Nickolas Muray. The painting depicts Kahlo wearing a white dress with a monkey on her right shoulder and a cat on her left, wearing a necklace made of thorns and a dead hummingbird. The thorns dig into Kahlo’s skin, making her bleed.
The divorce prompted Kahlo to paint “Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird”. It shows Frida wearing a necklace of thorny twigs with a dead hummingbird for a pendant. In her white dress, she looks like a Christian martyr. A monkey and a cat perch on her shoulders. Small animals and pets often appear in Kahlo’s self-portraits as substitutes for the children her broken body would not let her bear. But this is no happy family: The monkey is tugging at the thorns and making her bleed, while the cat is getting ready to pounce.
Kahlo’s life began and ended in Mexico City, in her home known as the Blue House. Her work has been celebrated in Mexico as emblematic of national and indigenous tradition and by feminists for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form.
Mexican culture and Amerindian cultural tradition are important in her work, which has been sometimes characterized as naïve art or folk art. Her work has also been described as surrealist, and in 1938 André Breton, principal initiator of the surrealist movement, described Kahlo’s art as a “ribbon around a bomb”. Frida rejected the “surrealist” label; she believed that her work reflected more of her reality than her dreams.
Kahlo had a volatile marriage with the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera. She suffered lifelong health problems, many caused by a traffic accident she survived as a teenager. Recovering from her injuries isolated her from other people, and this isolation influenced her works, many of which are self-portraits of one sort or another. Kahlo suggested, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” She also stated, “I was born a bitch. I was born a painter.”
On September 17, 1925, Kahlo was riding in a bus that collided with a trolley car. She suffered serious injuries as a result of the accident, including a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. Also, an iron handrail pierced her abdomen and her uterus, compromising her reproductive capacity.
The accident left her in a great deal of pain, and she spent three months recovering in a full body cast. Although she recovered from her injuries and eventually regained her ability to walk, she had relapses of extreme pain for the remainder of her life. The pain was intense and often left her confined to a hospital or bedridden for months at a time. She had as many as 35 operations as a result of the accident, mainly on her back, her right leg, and her right foot. The medical complications and permanent damage also prevented Kahlo from having a child; though she conceived three times, all of her pregnancies had to be terminated.
After her accident, Kahlo abandoned the study of medicine to begin a painting career. She painted to occupy her time during her temporary immobilization. Her self-portraits were a dominant part of her life when she was immobile for three months after her accident.
Her mother had a special easel made for her so she could paint in bed, and her father lent her his box of oil paints and some brushes. Kahlo spent the time after her accident in bed, where she was able to spend her time painting as a way to entertain herself and express her pain. Her 1926 painting, titled Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, she is shown with a long and narrow face and neck, reflective of Italian Renaissance ideals.
Kahlo created at least 140 paintings, along with dozens of drawings and studies. Of her paintings, 55 are self-portraits which often incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds. She insisted, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
Diego Rivera had a great influence on Kahlo’s painting style. Kahlo had always admired Rivera and his work. She first approached him in the Public Ministry of Education, where he had been working on a mural in 1927. She showed him four of her paintings, and asked whether he considered her gifted. Rivera was impressed and said, “You have got talent.” After that, he became a frequent welcomed guest at Kahlo’s house. He gave her many insights about her artwork while still leaving her space to explore herself. The positive and encouraging comments made by Rivera strengthened Kahlo’s wish to pursue a career as an artist.
Kahlo was also influenced by indigenous Mexican culture, which is apparent in her use of bright colors, dramatic symbolism and primitive style. She frequently included the symbolic monkey. In Mexican mythology, monkeys are symbols of lust, but Kahlo portrayed them as tender and protective symbols. Christian and Jewish themes are often depicted in her work. She combined elements of the classic religious Mexican tradition with surrealist renderings.
In 1938, Kahlo had her first and only solo gallery showing in the United States at the Julien Levy Gallery. The works were well received and the event was attended by several prominent artists. At the invitation of André Breton, she went to France during 1939 and was featured at an exhibition of her paintings in Paris. The Louvre bought one of her paintings, The Frame, which was displayed at the exhibit. This was the first work by a twentieth-century Mexican artist to be purchased by the renowned museum.
Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, soon after turning 47, and was cremated according to her wishes. A few days before her death, she wrote in her diary: “I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return — Frida”. The official cause of death was given as a pulmonary embolism, although some suspected that she died from an overdose that may or may not have been accidental. An autopsy was never performed. She had been very ill throughout the previous year, and her right leg had been amputated at the knee, owing to gangrene. She had had a bout of bronchopneumonia about that time, which had left her quite frail.
In his autobiography, Diego Rivera would write that the day Kahlo died was the most tragic day of his life, adding that, too late, he had realized that the most wonderful part of his life had been his love for her.
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