A look at the life of Frida Kahlo through her artwork inspired by a visit to the marvellous exhibition at the V&A ‘Making Her Self Up’. An interesting and at times emotional journey through her life.
The exhibition presented an extraordinary collection of personal artefacts, clothing and some of her original paintings which had been locked way for 50 years after her death in 1954 and have never been exhibited outside Mexico until now.
Frida Kahlo contracted polio at the age of 6, nearly died in a bus accident as a teenager of 18. She suffered multiple fractures of her spine, collarbone and ribs, a shattered pelvis, broken foot and dislocated shoulder. She began to focus heavily on painting while recovering in a body cast. In her lifetime, she had 30 operations.
My painting carries with it the message of pain.” – Frida Kahlo
Life experience is a common theme in Kahlo’s approximately 200 paintings, sketches and drawings. Her physical and emotional pain are depicted starkly on canvases, as is her turbulent relationship with her husband, fellow artist Diego Rivera, who she married twice. Of her 143 paintings, 55 are self-portraits, a subject that Frida Kahlo always returns to, as artists have always returned to beloved themes – Vincent van Gogh his Sun Flowers, Paul Cezanne his Apples, and Claude Monet his Water Lilies.
‘Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress’ 1926
Kahlo’s first self-portrait was Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress where she looked like a princess was painted in the style of 19th Century Mexican portrait painters who themselves were greatly influenced by the European Renaissance masters. She also sometimes drew from the Mexican painters in her use of a background of tied-back drapes.
This painting she used as a token of love to regain the affection from her lover Alejandro “You cannot imagine how marvellous it is to wait for you, serenely as in the portrait.” It was obvious Frida was hoping her self-portrait has the magical power that can win back her love
This painting worked after Alejandro received this paining, they went back to be together again. But he left for Europe in March 1927 because his parents don’t want him to be together with Frida.
The Two Fridas’ 1939
One Kahlo’s most famous works, painted shortly after her divorce from Diego the paintings shows two versions of the artist sitting side by side holding hands. One Frida is dressed in nearly all white, a European dress and the other wears bold coloured costume from the Tehran’s region of Mexico, representing the Frida Diego loves
They both have visible hearts and the heart of the traditional Frida is cut and torn open. The main artery, which comes from the torn heart down to the right hand of the traditional Frida, is cut off by the surgical pincers held in the lap of the traditional Frida. The blood keeps dripping on her white dress and she is in danger of bleeding to death. The stormy sky filled with agitated clouds may reflect Frida’s inner turmoil.
These figures are believed to represent “unloved” and “loved” versions of Kahlo.
‘The Broken Column’
The devastation to her body from the bus accident is shown in stark detail in ‘The Broken Column’. In this painting, Frida expressed her anguish and suffering in a most straightforward and horrifying way. The nails are stuck into her face and whole body. A split in her torso which looks like an earthquake fissure. In the background is the earth with dark ravines. At the beginning she paint herself nude but later covered her lower part up with something looks like a hospital sheet. A broken column is put in place of her spine. The column appears to be on the verge of collapsing into rubble. Penetrating from loins to chin, the column looks phallic, and the sexual connotation is all the more obvious because of the beauty of Frida’s breasts and torso.
This painting Frida looks pretty and strong. Although her whole body is supported by the corset, she is conveying a message of spiritual triumph. She has tears on her face but she look straight ahead and is challenging both herself and her audience to face her situation.
The style of this painting is very unique. She laid down each stoke firmly to build a simple and clear image. There are no virtuoso flourishes of the brush and the colours are as neatly contained within contours.
‘My Dress Hangs There’ 1933
Kahlo’s burgeoning sense of national identity was thrown into stark relief by her experience of living in the United States for the best part of four years. Travelling with Rivera as he painted murals in San Francisco, Detroit and New York, she found herself marooned in an alien culture.
Two works, Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States 1932, and My Dress Hangs There 1933, serve as manifestos for Kahlo’s ‘Mexicanidad’, or sense of pride in being Mexican. In the former, she appears on a pedestal poised between two conflicting worlds – the capitalist industry of the USA, represented by Ford’s belching factories, and the agrarian plateaus of Mexico, dotted with ancient temples and ritualistic artefacts. Holding the Mexican flag in her hand, she makes her loyalties clear.
My Dress Hangs There 1933, set amidst the skyscrapers of New York, ridicules the modern American obsession with sport and sanitation by placing a golf trophy and a toilet on top of classical columns. The temple (Federal Hall), with its steps in the form of a sales graph, and the church, with a dollar sign in its window, are dedicated to the worship of mammon. At the centre of the composition is a traditional Mexican dress, of the type Kahlo took to wearing soon after she married Rivera. By adopting regional costume, and through paintings such as these, Kahlo developed her own distinctive brand of Mexicanidad at a time when, post-revolution, the country was rediscovering its pre-Columbian and indigenous heritage.
Not like her other paintings with her face always shows up, this painting is missing the focal point of Frida Kahlo. She only draws her dresses hanging there empty and alone with the chaos in background. It seems she was saying “I may be in America but only my dress hangs there my life is in Mexico.”
In her second-self portrait, “Time Flies,” Kahlo uses a folk style and vibrant colours. She wears peasant clothing, and the red, white and green in the painting are the colours of the Mexican flag.
‘Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair’ (1940),
Kahlo and Rivera had a tumultuous relationship, marked by multiple affairs on both sides.
Right after Frida Kahlo divorced with Diego Rivera, she painted this self-portrait. Unlike other previous self-portraits in which Frida always wear feminine dresses, in this one she was wearing a large suit of black colour, which looks like one of Diego’s. She also cut off her long hair, which has attracted Diego so much. She was holding scissor in her right hand which means she did it all by herself. In her left hand she was holding her shorn hair which is a symbol of her sacrifice.
In the background strands of hair are everywhere and it seems each one has its own life. Surrounded by the hair she was sitting on a chair with an empty expression. The space around her is uninhabited which adds to her despair. The lyrics of a song painted across the top of this portrait which reads:
“See, if I loved you, it was for your hair, now you’re bald, I don’t love you any more.”.
‘Tree of Hope’ 1946
After Frida returned to Mexico from the United States, she was staying in bed for a while and then wearing a steel corset for eight months. But her health condition has been worsening instead of improving. She got sharp pains in her spine and lost her appetite due to the long-lasting pain. But she still paints and in a letter she wrote to her friend, she mentioned this painting, Tree of Hope, 1946 as “nothing but the result of the damned operation!”
In this painting, under the gloomy sky the sun and moon divided the background into two halves of light and dark. In the middle Frida was sitting there and weeping in a read Tehuana costume. Nevertheless she seems strong and confident. Behind her on a hospital trolley, lying a second Frida, who is anaesthetised and her surgical incisions still open and dripping with blood. Frida was holding a pink orthopaedic corset while sitting in the wooden chair. In her another hand she was holding a flag which has words from a song “”Cielito Lindo” – “Tree of Hope, keep firm.”
Self Portrait ‘Necklace of Thorns and Hummingbird’ 1940
Although this painting has a small size (about 16×24), it draws lots of interests, since it contains so many aspects which are symbolic to Frida Kahlo. In this portrait, Frida Kahlo faces the viewer with background of large green leaves and a yellow leaf right behind her. The thorns are around her neck like a necklace which is held by a black monkey. Her neck is bleeding from the piercing thorns. On right side behind her shoulder is a black cat. A humming bird is hanging on the thorn which knots around her throat. Her expression is calm and solemn. It also seems she is patiently enduring the pain.
Frida Kahlo put so many symbolic creatures in this painting. She was not painting a realistic scene but using these symbolic elements to express her feelings. A bird is often symbolise freedom and life. Especially hummingbird which is colourful and always hovering above flowers. But in this painting the humming bird is black and lifeless. This might be a symbol of Frida herself. Frida spent most of her life in physical pain after the bus accident happened when she was eighteen. After that she endured about thirty-five operations to fix her body. She spent so many years bedridden and cannot bear any children. This is a painting about her suffering.
In this painting ‘Roots’ Frida stated her faith that all life can join in a single flow. In this painting, Frida is depicted as her torso opens up like a window and gives birth to a vine. It’s her dream of being able to give birth as a childless woman. Frida’s blood circulates the vine and reach beyond the leaves’ veins and feed the parched earth. She is dreaming to be a tree of life with her elbow supporting her head on a pillow. Also with her Catholic religion background it’s possible she is trying to mimic Christ’s sacrifice by having her blood flowing to the grape vine. This implication of a sacrificial victim is also reflected in a few of her other paintings. In this painting, there are some danger to the artist’s dream of fulfilment: a crevasse is opening next to Frida on the ground. Which is an implication that her dream might be waken pretty soon.
‘The Wounded Table’
This self-portrait was painted during end of 1939 to beginning of 1940. In December of 1939, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s divorce became final. Frida started working on this painting as an expression of her despair and loneliness. The blood is dripping in ‘The Wounded Table’, 1940 as it was dripping on Frida’s Tehuana skirt in ‘The Two Fridas’. This is her only other large painting, not only by size, but also the complexity. In a letter to Muray she described she was “working like hell” to finish it to meet the deadline of January 17 for the opening of the “International Exhibition of Surrealism”, in which the Wounded Table was displayed.
In this painting, the table has human legs and its surface is bleeding on the few knots. This table is a symbol for Frida’s sense of broken family from the divorce. There are several objects around the table. In the centre was Frida herself, surrounded by all the objects who accompanies her. On one side is her sister Cristina’s two children, which is a reflection of her desire to have her own children. On the other side is a deer, one of her favourite pet and she use that as her surrogate children. Sitting right next to her is a Nayarit figure. The tall Judas figure is considered as Diego Rivera, who plays the role of the betrayal. Looking back on the divorce, Rivera admitted his wrong-doing: “I simply wanted to be free to carry on with any woman who caught my fancy… was I simply the depraved victim of my own appetites?” These characters are arranged in the scene that recalls the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.
‘The Wounded Deer’ `1946
In this painting, Frida used a young deer with the head of herself and was fatally wounded by a bunch of arrows. The background is the forest with dead trees and broken branches, which implied the feeling of fear and desperation. Far away is the stormy, lightning-lit sky which brings some hope but the dear will never be able to reach it.
In 1946 Frida Kahlo had an operation on her spine in New York. She was hoping this surgery would free her from the severe back pain but it failed. This painting expressed her disappointment towards the operation. After she went back to Mexico, she suffered both the physical pain and emotional depression. In this painting she depicted herself as a young stag with her own head crowned with antlers. This young stag is pierced by arrows and bleeding. At the lower-left corner, the artist wrote down the word “Carma”, which means “destiny” or “fate”. Just like her other self-portraits, in this painting Frida expressed the sadness that she cannot change her own fate.
This painting has multiple interpretations from different people. Some said it expressed her frustration over the botched surgery. Others said it portrays her incapability to control her own destiny. And some people said it has sexual implication and expressed her struggles in different relationship.
On May 3, 1946, Frida gave this painting to her friends Lina and Arcady Boitler as a wedding gift. With it she included a note that said: “I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you”.
‘Me and My Parrot’ 1941
She drew many self portraits with her pets and this is one of those and she included her parrots in this painting. When this portrait was painted she was just remarried with Diego but was having a love affair with Nickolas Muray, who helped Frida with her first exhibition in New York in 1938 and was a successful portrait photographer. They met in Mexico at that time.
‘Self Portrait in Red and Gold Dress’ 1941
This final painting shows Frida’s beauty and elegance, the distinctive and iconic face of Frida Kahlo.