- The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-PortraitOur PickBy Carlos Fuentes
- Frida by FridaBy Frida Kahlo and Raquel Tibol
Important Art by Frida Kahlo
It is as if in this painting Kahlo tries on the role of wife to see how it fits. She does not focus on her identity as a painter, but instead adopts a passive and supportive role, holding the hand of her talented and acclaimed husband. It was indeed the case that during the majority of her painting career, Kahlo was viewed only in Rivera's shadow and it was not until later in life that she gained international recognition.
This early double-portrait was painted primarily to mark the celebration of Kahlo's marriage to Rivera. Whilst Rivera holds a palette and paint brushes, symbolic of his artistic mastery, Kahlo limits her role to his wife by presenting herself slight in frame and without her artistic accoutrements. Kahlo furthermore dresses in costume typical of the Mexican woman, or "La Mexicana," wearing a traditional red shawl known as the rebozo and jade Aztec beads. The positioning of the figures echoes that of traditional marital portraiture where the wife is placed on her husband's left to indicate her lesser moral status as a woman. In a drawing made the following year called Frida and the Miscarriage, the artist does hold her own palette, as though the experience of losing a fetus and not being able to create a baby shifts her determination wholly to the creation of art.
Many of Kahlo's paintings from the early 1930s, especially in size, format, architectural setting and spatial arrangement, relate to religious ex-voto paintings of which she and Rivera possessed a large collection ranging in date over several centuries. Ex-votos are made as a gesture of gratitude for salvation, a granted prayer or disaster averted and left in churches or at shrines. Ex-votos are generally painted on small-scale metal panels and depict the incident along with the Virgin or saint to whom they are offered. Henry Ford Hospital, is a good example where the artist uses the ex-voto format but subverts it by placing herself centre stage, rather than recording the miraculous deeds of saints. Kahlo instead paints her own story, as though she becomes saintly and the work is made not as thanks to the lord but in defiance, questioning why he brings her pain.
In this painting, Kahlo lies on a bed, bleeding after a miscarriage. From the exposed naked body six vein-like ribbons flow outwards, attached to symbols. One of these six objects is a fetus, suggesting that the ribbons could be a metaphor for umbilical cords. The other five objects that surround Frida are things that she remembers, or things that she had seen in the hospital. For example, the snail makes reference to the time it took for the miscarriage to be over, whilst the flower was an actual physical object given to her by Diego. The artist demonstrates her need to be attached to all that surrounds her: to the mundane and metaphorical as much as the physical and actual. Perhaps it is through this reaching out of connectivity that the artist tries to be 'maternal', even though she is not able to have her own child.
This is a haunting painting in which both the birth giver and the birthed child seem dead. The head of the woman giving birth is shrouded in white cloth while the baby emerging from the womb appears lifeless. At the time that Kahlo painted this work, her mother had just died so it seems reasonable to assume that the shrouded funerary figure is her mother while the baby is Kahlo herself (the title supports this reading). However, Kahlo had also just lost her own child and has said that she is the covered mother figure. The Virgin of Sorrows, who hangs above the bed suggests that this is an image that overflows with maternal pain and suffering. Also though, and revealingly, Kahlo wrote in her diary, next to several small drawings of herself, 'the one who gave birth to herself ... who wrote the most wonderful poem of her life.' Similar to the drawing, Frida and the Miscarriage, My Birth represents Kahlo mourning for the loss of a child, but also finding the strength to make powerful art because of such trauma.
The painting is made in a retablo (or votive) style (a small traditional Mexican painting derived from Catholic Church art) in which thanks would typically be given to the Madonna beneath the image. Kahlo instead leaves this section blank, as though she finds herself unable to give thanks either for her own birth, or for the fact that she is now unable to give birth. The painting seems to bring the message that it is important to acknowledge that birth and death live very closely together. Many believe that My Birth was heavily inspired by an Aztec sculpture that Kahlo had at home representing Tiazolteotl, the Goddess of fertility and midwives.