Kahlo of Mexican descent is a fine artist who conveys her life story through her wide range of self-portraits. They are evidence of her need for self-expression and her exploration of identity. In 1939, French Surrealist André Breton told Kahlo that she was a surrealist, but Kahlo states, ‘they thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.’ Kahlo never intended to paint as a surrealist but unconsciously took up the elements of surrealism in a symbolic way to express and understand the tragedy of her life. Her imagery was less about fantasy, and more about exploring her own personal reality, a search for self-identity.
Kahlo was inspired by native popular art. She wanted her paintings to acknowledge her Mexican identity, and she frequently used technical devices and subject matter from Mexican archaeology and folk art. Kahlo was a slow painter, and her canvases were meditated by time and contemplation. Communism, Aztec rituals and Christianity also influenced Kahlo. People who have studied Frida Kahlo’s work have been fascinated and inspired by her unique style of paintings. Her paintings were graphic and painful. What you saw in her paintings was in her reality and symbolized a stage in her life. Hayden Herrera writes, ‘Every time Diego left her, there’s another painting with tears or gashes.’ ‘It is impossible to separate the life and work of this extraordinary person. Her paintings are her biography.’
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Historian Sarah M. Lowe says, ‘Kahlo’s mask-like face contrasts starkly and disturbingly with the mood of angst.’ ‘ Before Kahlo, Western art was unused to images of birthing or miscarriage, double self-portraits with visible internal organs or cross-dressing, as subjects for ‘high’ art.’ ‘ Her paintings are provocative and aggressively audacious both in subject matter and intent.’ Likewise, Carlos Fuentes says, ‘for what she lives is what she paints. But no human experience, painful as it may be, becomes art itself.’ ‘Her reality is her own face, the temple of her broken body, the soul she has left.’ At the age of seven, Frida contracted polio. In 1925, she suffered horrific injuries in a crash between a streetcar and a trolley bus. The damages were so bad that her spinal column was broken, and her reproduction system was permanently damaged.
She was in the hospital for months, where she had 35 operations. She began to paint during her recovery. She turned to alcohol, drugs and cigarettes to ease the pain of her physical suffering. Her personal life was very rough. She married another Mexican artist Diego Rivera in 1929. She divorced and remarried him 1939-43. She also had numerous affairs, including lesbian relationships and a relationship with Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. There are many examples of disturbing images in Kahlo’s work. Her works include numerous examples of bleeding corpses, fetuses, bleeding or pierced bodies and organs.
One example, A Few Small Nips, portrays a male knife murderer balanced over his female victim lying on a bed covering bleeding knife wounds. The reason for the painting was a news story about a drunk man who had thrown his girlfriend on a cot and killed her with one hundred stab wounds. However, when he was brought before the court, he said he was innocent and said, “I only gave her a few small nips!” Kahlo has expressed that she needed to paint this scene because she felt sympathy for the victim having come so close to being “murdered by life.” But Kahlo also saw the humour in this story.
She includes inappropriate details such as; delicate lace on the pillowcase that has been drenched with blood, a rolled down stocking on the dead woman’s leg, and ironically of a pair of doves holding a blue ribbon inscribed with the title. Some critics have seen paintings like this as examples of Kahlo bravely starting new paths for women’s art by using subject matter that had previously been looked badly upon for women artists. Others see it as an example of how Kahlo has used a dark Mexican sense of humor. Art Critic Hayden Herrera puts forward the view that Kahlo’s disturbing images reflect similar images in Mexican popular culture.
Analysis of Artworks. The Two Fridas is a double self-portrait, which is a complex image filled with symbolism. The double identity Kahlo feels is revealed by contrasting costumes Mexican and European. This work was painted as Kahlo was being divorced from painter Diego Rivera. The painting is filled with the pain she felt at the separation from Rivera. Kahlo has painted two versions of herself; one Frida wears a Victorian dress and is the one Rivera loved and the other, on the right, dressed in simple Tehuna dress, is the Frida he no longer loves. The two Fridas hold hands and are also connected by an artery that flows between their two hearts. The Frida on the left-hand side controls the blood flow with surgical clamps, and the open artery on her lap may refer to the end of her marriage with Rivera.
The Frida on the right-hand side holds a small portrait of Rivera as a child. Kahlo included Rivera in her painting because she wanted the viewer to be in no doubt about who was causing her so much pain. A stormy sky fills the background, and the focus is on inner identity and the desiring body. The doubling identity and the contradictory pairing of an inner and outer reality playing out in the body suggest a surreal vision. Kahlo’s signature icon is her joined eyebrow. Kahlo has used flowery long skirts to cover her broken body. The dress was a sense of humour, a great disguise, and brings to imagine the suffering body underneath. Kahlo carefully constructs herself in various settings, creating an artistic persona with an audience in mind.
Kahlo uses dull, flat Mexican colours reflecting the traditional Mexican retablo painting. The figures are symmetrical, facing each other, and the position of the figures is carefully placed in the middle sitting upright. The colours in the sky are dark and gloomy to show how unhappy she is. Kahlo’s highly controlled tiny brushstrokes and realistic details work together to create a great contrast to the violent and revolutionary expressions. Frida painted her legs from the bath’s viewpoint in What Water Gave Me, partially blurred by the water. The big toe of the deformed right foot is cracked open, which depicts the accident and her later operations. “The arm of the seat went through me like a sword into a bull,” she explains. Frida was an extraordinary artist who manipulated her feelings and thoughts into images. All the objects and elements in her work, particularly expressed in this painting, can be read symbolically.
The water is filled with sexual symbolism; water pours from the holes of a conch shell, which is the Mexican vulgar name for female genitalia, the Empire State Building is stuck into the crater of an erupting volcano that is also streaming blood; a voluptuous naked woman with long black hair, with a full belly, is being strangled as she is floating in the water by a rope twisted around her neck. At one end, this rope is tied to the hand of a masked male figure in underwear. On the ropes crawl repellent insects that come to feed on dead bodies; worms, larvae, a huge spider, and a tiny balancing ballerina, maybe reflecting the balancing Kahlo had to achieve in her family. This painting reveals Kahlo’s inner feelings by using symbols that represent this in her life. She also symbolically reflects her childhood, dreams, sadness and desires.
All her images are joined tightly to events in her life. According to Rivera, Kahlo was “the only example in the history of the art of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings.” Frida’s painting self-portrait with thorn necklace and hummingbird addresses many personal issues, symbolized through the use of Aztec symbols the monkey on her shoulder, fertility, Frida unable to have children, is substituted with the monkeys, thorns on her head reflect the pain and Catholic Mexico. A dead hummingbird around her neck and butterflies in her hair signifies the dead warriors; a black cat represents bad luck, as she has suffered many injuries. The style of this painting is decorative and extremely colourful with its greens, reds, blues and yellows, typical of Mexican culture. She uses tiny brushstrokes to create the detail as seen in her work.