Progression of Art
Frieda and Diego Rivera
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.
Oil on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Henry Ford Hospital
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.
Oil on canvas - Dolores Olmedo Collection, Mexico City, Mexico
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.
Oil and tempera on zinc - Private Collection
My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree)
This dream-like family tree was painted on zinc rather than canvas, a choice that further highlights the artist's fascination with and collection of 18th-century and 19th-century Mexican retablos. Kahlo completed this work to accentuate both her European Jewish heritage and her Mexican background. Her paternal side, German Jewish, occupies the right side of the composition symbolized by the sea (acknowledging her father's voyage to get to Mexico), while her maternal side of Mexican descent is represented on the left by a map faintly outlining the topography of Mexico.
While Kahlo's paintings are assertively autobiographical, she often used them to communicate transgressive or political messages: this painting was completed shortly after Adolf Hitler passed the Nuremberg laws banning interracial marriage. Here, Kahlo simultaneously affirms her mixed heritage to confront Nazi ideology, using a format - the genealogical chart - employed by the Nazi party to determine racial purity. Beyond politics, the red ribbon used to link the family members echoes the umbilical cord that connects baby Kahlo to her mother - a motif that recurs throughout Kahlo's oeuvre.
Oil and tempera on zinc - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Fulang-Chang and I
This painting debuted at Kahlo's exhibition in Julien Levy's New York gallery in 1938, and was one of the works that most fascinated André Breton, the founder of Surrealism. The canvas in the New York show is a self-portrait of the artist and her spider monkey, Fulang-Chang, a symbol employed as a surrogate for the children that she and Rivera could not have. The arrangement of figures in the portrait signals the artist's interest in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and child. After the New York exhibition, a second frame containing a mirror was added. The later inclusion of the mirror is a gesture inviting the viewer into the work: it was through looking at herself intensely in a mirror in her months spent at home after her bus accident that Kahlo first began painting portraits and delving deeper into her psyche. The inclusion of the mirror, considered from this perspective, is a remarkably intimate vision into both the artist's aesthetic process and into her personal introspection.
In many of Kahlo's self-portraits, she is accompanied by monkeys, dogs, and parrots, all of which she kept as pets. Since the Middle Ages, small spider monkeys, like those kept by Kahlo, have been said to symbolize the devil, heresy and paganism, finally coming to represent the fall of man, vice, and the embodiment of lust. These monkeys were depicted in the past as a cautionary symbol against the dangers of excessive love and the base instincts of man. Kahlo again depicts herself with her monkey in both 1939 and 1940. In a later version in 1945, Kahlo paints her monkey and also her dog, Xolotl. This little dog that often accompanies the artist, is named after a mythological Aztec god, known to represent lightning and death, and also to be the twin of Quetzalcoatl, both of who had visited the underworld. All of these pictures, including Fulang-Chang and I include 'umbilical' ribbons that wrap between Kahlo's and the animal's necks. Kahlo is the Madonna and her pets become the holy (yet darkly symbolic) infant for which she longs.
In two parts, oil on composition board (1937) with painted mirror frame (added after 1939) - Museum of Modern Art, New York
What the Water Gave Me
In this painting most of Kahlo's body is obscured from view. We are unusually confronted with the foot and plug end of the bath, and with focus placed on the artist's feet. Furthermore, Kahlo adopts a birds-eye view and looks down on the water from above. Within the water, Kahlo paints an alternative self-portrait, one in which the more traditional facial portrait has been replaced by an array of symbols and recurring motifs. The artist includes portraits of her parents, a traditional Tehuana dress, a perforated shell, a dead humming bird, two female lovers, a skeleton, a crumbling skyscraper, a ship set sail, and a woman drowning. This painting was featured in Breton's 1938 book on Surrealism and Painting and Hayden Herrera, in her biography of Kahlo, mentions that the artist herself considered this work to have a special importance. Recalling the tapestry style painting of Northern Renaissance masters, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the figures and objects floating in the water of Kahlo's painting create an at once fantastic and real landscape of memory.
Kahlo discussed What the Water Gave Me with the Manhattan gallery owner Julien Levy, and suggested that it was a sad piece that mourned the loss of her childhood. Perhaps the strangled figure at the centre is representative of the inner emotional torments experienced by Kahlo herself. It is clear from the conversation that the artist had with Levy, that Kahlo was aware of the philosophical implications of her work. In an interview with Herrera, Levy recalls, in 'a long philosophical discourse, Kahlo talked about the perspective of herself that is shown in this painting'. He further relays that 'her idea was about the image of yourself that you have because you do not see your head. The head is something that is looking, but is not seen. It is what one carries around to look at life with.' The artist's head in What the Water Gave Me is thus appropriately replaced by the interior thoughts that occupy her mind. As well as an inclusion of death by strangulation in the centre of the water, there is also a labia-like flower and a cluster of pubic hair painted between Kahlo's legs. The work is quite sexual while also showing preoccupation with destruction and death. The motif of the bathtub in art is one that has been popular since Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat (1793), and was later taken up many different personalities such as Francesca Woodman and Tracey Emin.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
The Two Fridas
This double self-portrait is one of Kahlo's most recognized compositions, and is symbolic of the artist's emotional pain experienced during her divorce from Rivera. On the left, the artist is shown in modern European attire, wearing the costume from her marriage to Rivera. Throughout their marriage, given Rivera's strong nationalism, Kahlo became increasingly interested in indigenism and began to explore traditional Mexican costume, which she wears in the portrait on the right. It is the Mexican Kahlo that holds a locket with an image of Rivera. The stormy sky in the background, and the artist's bleeding heart - a fundamental symbol of Catholicism and also symbolic of Aztec ritual sacrifice - accentuate Kahlo's personal tribulation and physical pain.
Symbolic elements frequently possess multiple layers of meaning in Kahlo's pictures; the recurrent theme of blood represents both metaphysical and physical suffering, gesturing also to the artist's ambivalent attitude toward accepted notions of womanhood and fertility. Although both women have their hearts exposed, the woman in the white European outfit also seems to have had her heart dissected and the artery that runs from this heart is cut and bleeding. The artery that runs from the heart of her Tehuana-costumed self remains intact because it is connected to the miniature photograph of Diego as a child. Whereas Kahlo's heart in the Mexican dress remains sustained, the European Kahlo, disconnected from her beloved Diego, bleeds profusely onto her dress. As well as being one of the artist's most famous works, this is also her largest canvas.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City, Mexico
Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair
This self-portrait shows Kahlo as an androgynous figure. Scholars have seen this gesture as a confrontational response to Rivera's demand for a divorce, revealing the artist's injured sense of female pride and her self-punishment for the failures of her marriage. Her masculine attire also reminds the viewer of early family photographs in which Kahlo chose to wear a suit. The cropped hair also presents a nuanced expression of the artist's identity. She holds one cut braid in her left hand while many strands of hair lie scattered on the floor. The act of cutting a braid symbolizes a rejection of girlhood and innocence, but equally can be seen as the severance of a connective cord (maybe umbilical) that binds two people or two ways of life. Either way, braids were a central element in Kahlo's identity as the traditional La Mexicana, and in the act of cutting off her braids, she rejects some aspect of her former identity.
The hair strewn about the floor echoes an earlier self-portrait painted as the Mexican folkloric figure La Llorana, here ridding herself of these female attributes. Kahlo clutches a pair of scissors, as the discarded strands of hair become animated around her feet; the tresses appear to have a life of their own as they curl across the floor and around the legs of her chair. Above her sorrowful scene, Kahlo inscribed the lyrics and music of a song that declares cruelly, "Look, if I loved you it was for your hair, now that you are hairless, I don't love you anymore," confirming Kahlo's own denunciation and rejection of her female roles.
In likely homage to Kahlo's painting, Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus photographed Wedding Portraits in 1997. On the occasion of her marriage, Brotherus cuts her hair, the remains of which her new husband holds in his hands. The act of cutting one's hair symbolic of a moment of change happens in the work of other female artists too, including that of Francesca Woodman and Rebecca Horn.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird
The frontal position and outward stare of Kahlo in this self-portrait directly confronts and engages the viewer. The artist wears Christ's unraveled crown of thorns as a necklace that digs into her neck, signifying her self-representation as a Christian martyr and the enduring pain experienced following her failed marriage. A dead hummingbird, a symbol in Mexican folkloric tradition of luck charms for falling in love, hangs in the center of her necklace. A black cat - symbolic of bad luck and death - crouches behind her left shoulder, and a spider monkey gifted from Rivera, symbolic of evil, is included to her right. Kahlo frequently employed flora and fauna in the background of her bust-length portraits to create a tight, claustrophobic space, using the symbolic element of nature to simultaneously compare and contrast the link between female fertility with the barren and deathly imagery of the foreground.
Typically a symbol of good fortune, the meaning of a 'dead' hummingbird is to be reversed. Kahlo, who craves flight, is perturbed and disturbed by the fact that the butterflies in her hair are too delicate to travel far and that the dead bird around her neck, has become an anchor, preyed upon by the nearby cat. In failing to directly translate complex inner feelings it as though the painting illustrates the artist's frustrations.
Oil on canvas on masonite - Nikolas Muray Collection, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin
The Broken Column
The Broken Column is a particularly pertinent example of the combination of Kahlo's emotional and physical pain. The artist's biographer, Hayden Herrera, writes of this painting, 'A gap resembling an earthquake fissure splits her in two. The opened body suggests surgery and Frida's feeling that without the steel corset she would literally fall apart'. A broken ionic column replaces the artist's crumbling spine and sharp metal nails pierce her body. The hard coldness of this inserted column recalls the steel rod that pierced the artist's vagina during her streetcar accident. More generally, the architectural feature now in ruins, has associations of the simultaneous power and fragility of the female body. Beyond its physical dimensions, the cloth wrapped around Kahlo's pelvis, recalls Christ's loincloth. Indeed, Kahlo again displays her wounds like a Christian martyr; through identification with Saint Sebastian, she uses physical pain, nakedness, and sexuality to bring home the message of spiritual suffering.
Tears dot the artist's face as they do many depictions of the Madonna in Mexico; her eyes stare out beyond the painting as though renouncing the flesh and summoning the spirit. It is as a result of depictions like this one that Kahlo is now considered a Magic Realist. Her eyes are never-changing, realistic, while the rest of the painting is highly fantastical. The painting is not overly concerned with the workings of the subconscious or with irrational juxtapositions that feature more typically in Surrealist works. The Magic Realism movement was extremely popular in Latin America (especially with writers such as Gabriel García Márquez), and Kahlo has been retrospectively included in it by art historians.
The notion of being wounded in the way that we see illustrated in The Broken Column, is referred to in Spanish as chingada. This word embodies numerous interrelated meanings and concepts, which include to be wounded, broken, torn open or deceived. The word derives from the verb for penetration and implies domination of the female by the male. It refers to the status of victimhood.
The painting also recalls a performance and sculptural piece made by Rebecca Horn in 1970 called Unicorn. In Unicorn, Horn walks naked through an arable field with her body strapped in a fabric corset that appears almost identical to that worn by Kahlo in The Broken Column. In the piece by the German performance artist, however, the erect, sky-reaching pillar is fixed to her head rather than inserted into her chest. The performance has an air of mythology and religiosity similar to that of Kahlo's painting, but the column is whole and strong again, perhaps paying homage to Kahlo's fortitude and artistic triumph.
Oil on masonite - Dolores Olmedo Collection, Mexico City, Mexico
The Wounded Deer
The 1946 painting, The Wounded Deer, further extends both the notion of chingada and the Saint Sebastian motif already explored in The Broken Column. As a hybrid between a deer and a woman, the innocent Kahlo is wounded and bleeding, preyed upon and hunted down in a clearing in the forest. Staring directly at the viewer, the artist confirms that she is alive, and yet the arrows will slowly kill her. The artist wears a pearl earring, as though highlighting the tension that she feels between her social existence and the desire to exist more freely alongside nature. Kahlo does not portray herself as a delicate and gentle fawn; she is instead a full-bodied stag with large antlers and drooping testicles. Not only does this suggest, like her suited appearance in early family photographs, that Kahlo is interested in combining the sexes to create an androgyne, but also shows that she attempted to align herself with the other great artists of the past, most of whom had been men. The branch beneath the stag's feet is reminiscent of the palm branches that onlookers laid under the feet of Jesus as he arrived in Jerusalem.
Kahlo continued to identify with the religious figure of Saint Sebastian from this point until her death. In 1953, she completed a drawing of herself in which eleven arrows pierce her skin. Similarly, the artist Louise Bourgeois, also interested in the visualization of pain, used Saint Sebastian as a recurring symbol in her art. She first depicted the motif in 1947 as an abstracted series of forms, barely distinguishable as a human figure; drawn using watercolor and pencil on pink paper, but then later made obvious pink fabric sculptures of the saint, stuck with arrows, she like Kahlo feeling under attack and afraid.
Oil on masonite - Private Collection
Weeping Coconuts (Cocos gimientes)
This still life is exemplary of Kahlo's late work. More frequently associated with her psychological portraiture, Kahlo in fact painted still lifes throughout her career. She depicted fresh fruit and vegetable produce and objects native to Mexico, painting many small-scale still lifes, especially as she grew progressively ill. The anthropomorphism of the fruit in this composition is symbolic of Kahlo's projection of pain into all things as her health deteriorated at the end of her life. In contrast with the tradition of the cornucopia signifying plentiful and fruitful life, here the coconuts are literally weeping, alluding to the dualism of life and death. A small Mexican flag bearing the affectionate and personal inscription "Painted with all the love. Frida Kahlo" is stuck into a prickly pear, signaling Kahlo's use of the fruit as an emblem of personal expression, and communicating her deep respect for all of nature's gifts. During this period, the artist was heavily reliant on drugs and alcohol to alleviate her pain, so albeit beautiful, her still lifes became progressively less detailed between 1951 and 1953.
Oil on board - Los Angeles County Museum of Art