How Frida Kahlo’s Sense of Self Created an Icon

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkeys, 1943.

2018 BANCO DE MÉXICO DIEGO RIVERA FRIDA KAHLO MUSEUMS TRUST, MEXICO, D.F./ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkeys (detail), 1943.
“I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you.” Frida Kahlo

“I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you.” —Frida Kahlo

2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Necklace, 1933.

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism

North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC

October 26, 2019 through January 19, 2020

Mexican Modernist, surrealist, magical realist, or naïve artist–it has always been challenging to categorize Frida Kahlo. Arguably the most famous female artist of all time, she was never one for convention.

An internet search for Frida Kahlo results in everything “Fridamania,” including socks, throw pillows, mugs, cell phone cases, and sneakers–even a controversial Barbie doll and an upcoming line of cosmetics, complete with unibrow palette. While Kahlo is now an art rock star, this wasn’t always the case. Jennifer Dasal, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), explains that Frida was considered a fascinating personality, and more a subject of curiosity during her lifetime. “…Frida’s art wasn’t hugely touted—but her clothing and appearance were, and that’s what got most of the attention.” Things began changing after Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera was published in 1983, Dasal observes. “[Then] after Salma Hayek’s…2002 biopic Frida, things really escalated.”

2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo, Diego on My Mind (detail), 1943.

Kahlo developed her distinctive persona by turning tragedy into art. Born June 6, 1907, Kahlo claimed 1910 as her birth year because she so identified with the Mexican Revolution that began at that time. At age six, polio permanently affected her right foot and leg, and then at age 18, she sustained serious, extensive injuries during a traffic accident. Multiple surgeries over the years were to no avail, and her lower right leg was ultimately amputated. Kahlo would have life-long health issues, resulting in several traumatic miscarriages. During one of many long convalescences, Kahlo began painting. A mirror was installed above her bed, enabling her to create self-portraits. “Painting completed my life,” she later said.

But painting herself was only one of many ways Kahlo shaped her image. Her signature Tehuana mode of dress was not only a cultural and political statement–as Dasal puts it, Kahlo’s “personal branding”–but the long, traditional skirts hid her legs. She also carefully crafted her appearance with customized boots–the right heel was taller than the left, another method of disguising her disability.

As Mexican Modernists, Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, abandoned Eurocentric traditions to express their mexicanidad, or Mexican identity, explains Dasal. “For Diego, …true mexicanidad…came from a solid identification [with] and representation [of] everyday people…. For Frida, …her ‘Mexicanness’ was expressed fully in her person and how she branded herself, especially in her clothes, jewelry, hairstyles, and symbols that suffuse her paintings. Her brand of Mexican Modernism is synonymous with her own self.”

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkeys, 1943.
2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkeys, 1943.

Nickolas Muray, Frida with Red “Rebozo,” 1939.
2018 Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Nickolas Muray, Frida with Red “Rebozo,” 1939.

Rufino Tamayo, Rooftops, 1925.
2018 Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Rufino Tamayo, Rooftops, 1925.

Nickolas Muray, Frida Kahlo on Bench #5, 1939.
2018 Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Nickolas Muray, Frida Kahlo on Bench #5, 1939.

Juan Soriano, Girl with Still Life, 1939.
2018 Fundación Juan Soriano y Marek Keller, A.C.

Juan Soriano, Girl with Still Life, 1939.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Braid, 1941.
2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Braid, 1941.

Frida Kahlo, The Bride Who Becomes Frightened When She Sees Life Opened, 1943.
2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo, The Bride Who Becomes Frightened When She Sees Life Opened, 1943.

Diego Rivera, Portrait of Natasha Gelman, 1943.
2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Diego Rivera, Portrait of Natasha Gelman, 1943.

Diego Rivera, Landscape with Cacti, 1931.
2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Diego Rivera, Landscape with Cacti, 1931.

Diego Rivera, Calla Lily Vendor, 1943.
2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Diego Rivera, Calla Lily Vendor, 1943.

Diego Rivera, Sunflowers, 1943.
2018 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Diego Rivera, Sunflowers, 1943.

Living Nature - María Izquierdo, oil on canvas, 1946.
Amy Funderburk

María Izquierdo, Living Nature, 1946. Oil on canvas.

Kahlo worked hard to maintain her personal image at all times, as Dasal observes: “…[H]er habit of dressing in a ‘Mexican’ manner and with such attention to jewelry and hairstyles–not just for events, but also for relaxing with friends or even doing the messy work of painting–is fascinating.”

In 2018, a time capsule documenting Kahlo’s personal style was opened in the form of a bathroom that had been sealed in her home. These intimate personal effects, including nail polish, lipstick, jewelry, and decorated plaster corsets, were displayed with Kahlo’s customized garments and art in the exhibit Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, which drew record crowds at museums around the world. Her prosthetic leg, formerly hidden by long skirts, was on full view.

“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” —Frida Kahlo

On June 13, 1954, Frida Kahlo died at Casa Azul, the Blue House where she was born only 47 years earlier. A grief-stricken Rivera revealed, “Too late now I realize the most wonderful part of my life has been my love for Frida.” He died three years later.

Kahlo left behind around 200 works. Nearly a third are her ubiquitous self-portraits, including 55 out of 143 paintings. As Dasal says, Kahlo’s self-portraits “present her life in unvarnished ways.” Her gaze is often defiant and her compositions raw with the unflinching honesty of her physical suffering. “My painting carries with it the message of pain,” said Kahlo.

Currently on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art, the exhibit Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection highlights 24 works by Kahlo and 12 by her husband, Rivera. Curated by Dasal, their work is showcased in context with fellow Mexican Modernists amidst a varied collection of 135 pieces.

In Diego on my Mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana), Kahlo shows her husband’s significance by emblazoning him on her forehead. Tendrils radiate from her crown and headdress, like a web of thoughts holding her stationary. She plays with pattern as reality in Self-Portrait with Monkeys, the parallel fingers of the monkeys’ hands echoing Kahlo’s elaborate hairstyle. Her smooth brushwork is restrained yet intricate.

In Kahlo’s surreal oil The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (México), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xolotl, she weaves Aztec mythology into layered embraces; in the center, Diego becomes her child. While she resisted the label of surrealist by saying she painted her reality instead of dreams, surrealist leader André Breton became Kahlo’s champion, and wrote the preface for her first solo exhibition catalog.

“Beauty and ugliness are a mirage, because others end up seeing what’s inside of us.” —Frida Kahlo

In Mexico, ofrendas are built to honor the ancestors for Dia de la Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations. Such altars of offerings are commonly dedicated to Frida, thus inviting her into the land of the living. The NCMA exhibition begins and ends with a large ofrenda, created to honor the artist.

On the artist’s enduring popularity, Dasal points out how many interesting facets about Kahlo’s life allow for unique connections: feminist, fashion icon, gender and sexually fluid female, Latinx touchstone, and rallying point for accessibility advocates. “I don’t see things slowing down anytime soon,” she predicts.

About the Author

Amy Funderburk

Amy Funderburk is a professional artist and freelance arts writer based in Winston-Salem, NC, specializing in visionary works in which she explores the intersection of the physical world with a more fluid spiritual realm. She maintains a blog, Drinking from the Well of Inspiration, to provide deeper insight into her creative process. Follow her on twitter: @AFunderburkArt
 

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