“I paint myself because I’m so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” – Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Frida Kahlo had painted 143 pieces of work – 55 of which were self-portraits. Kahlo’s artwork, particularly her self-portraits, are auto-biographical – each one depicting a moment in her life or political issues in her home country of Mexico. In her paintings are symbols and metaphors that reflect on her emotions, her pain and anguish, even her dark humour. Unashamedly baring her soul through her artwork.
RELIGION AND ANIMAL SYMBOLISM
Arguably her most significant self-portrait, ‘Self- Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird’ (1940), Kahlo painted this piece shortly after her divorce with Diego Rivera. The painting depicts Kahlo, standing in front of a forest of tropical leaves, dressed in a white gown and wearing a thorn necklace with a black hummingbird pendant attached to the necklace and resting on her throat. On her left shoulder sits a black cat or panther, and on her right, a black monkey. Two butterflies rest on her headdress and two dragonflies fly overhead.
The spikes on the thorn necklace, puncturing her skin and causing her to bleed, holds religious connotations, reflecting on Jesus’ crown of thorns he wore when he was crucified. This could be an expression of the death of her marriage and the pain she had to endure. In death, comes new life and hope for the future and the butterflies are thought to be a symbol of resurrection and rebirth after her divorce. With these two symbols, Kahlo is likening herself to a christian martyr.
The hummingbird is a symbol of hope and good luck for falling in love in Mexican culture. However, the fact that the hummingbird is black, attached to the necklace of thorns and appears lifeless, could be reflective of the desolation Kahlo had felt. Another interpretation is that the hummingbird refers to the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli (whose name translates as ‘Southern Hummingbird’ or ‘Left-handed Hummingbird’), who hurts Kahlo, causing her misery.
The black cat or panther that sits on her left shoulder signifies bad luck and death. The animal itself is commonly associated with bad luck and together with it sitting on her left shoulder, where the devil would sit, only enhances this notion.
Diego Rivera had gifted Kahlo a monkey for a pet and so the monkey depicted in the painting could be directly referencing Rivera – the monkey on her back. Moreover, the monkey appears to be tugging at the thorn necklace, inflicting pain upon Kahlo and causing her to bleed.
This is not the only painting we see of religion and animals represented in Kahlo’s work ‘The Wounded Deer’ (1946) portrays the artist as a deer, active and alert, with its front right leg elevated. The deer has been struck by nine arrows that cause it to bleed from the wounds. The deer is located in a dense forest with a clearing that leads to a body of water.
In 1946, Kahlo had an operation on her spine in the hope that the surgery would cure her of the crippling back pain. The operation failed. ‘The Wounded Deer’ was painted shortly after the surgery.
Portraying herself as the wounded deer is a direct portrayal of her own physical and emotional suffering. The deer’s raised right leg suggests that the animal has been injured in some way. This could be a mirroring of Kahlo’s own impairment.
Like ‘Self- Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird’, the religious influence is also integrated into this painting. The context of the painting is often likened to Andrea Mantegna’s ‘Saint Sebastian’ (1480). Saint Sebastian met his death when he was tied to a tree and shot by arrows.
It’s not just Christianity that Kahlo integrates into ‘The Wounded Deer’. She also plays with the idea of destiny and fate. In the bottom left corner of the painting, below the artist’s signature reads ‘carma’ (a Bhuddest concept). Kahlo has accepted that her destiny is to remain in excruciating pain and suffering.
More than just animal and religious symbolism, numeric symbolism is present in ‘The wounded deer’. Specifically the number nine. Nine times has the deer been struck by arrows and nine trees are painted to the left before the clearing. According to the Aztec calendar, Kahlo was born on the ninth day. But more than that, the number nine is a symbol of the nine phases of the underworld. (Grimberg, Salomon. Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself. 2008) Another theory on Kahlo’s reference to the number nine is that, nailed to the cross, Jesus Christ finally dies in the ninth hour.
SYMBOLS OF LOVE AND UNION
Kahlo had gifted her husband ‘Diego and Frida 1929-1944’ (1944) on their 15th wedding anniversary. The painting is a representation of Kahlo’s deep, unconditional love for her husband, despite their tempestuous relationship. She paints her and her husband’s portraits as one. Bounding the two together is a thicket of thorny branches, reiterating their deep love for one another. To the right of the double portrait, the artist depicts the moon and the sun – another great pairing.
What’s particularly unique about this painting is that Kahlo had carefully created the shell frame, which was painted like jewels. She also paints a scallop and conch beneath the double portrait. Being a symbol of their love union, Kahlo is eager to include shells into this painting. After all, it is a wedding anniversary gift.
MEXICAN HERITAGE AND NATIONALISM
Frida Kahlo was heavily influenced by the Mexicayotl movement, which sprung from the colonialist mindset that native Mexican culture is inferior and that Mexico should emulate Europe. The Mexicayotl movement aimed at protecting the indigenous culture and traditions among the Mexican people.
In most of Kahlo’s self-portraits, she paints herself in traditional indigenous Mexican dress. She wears long, colourful skirts, huiplis (loose-fitting tunic), rebozos (shawls) and elaborate headdresses. Painting herself in the Tehuana dress was a chance for Kahlo to express her anti-colonialist ideas and pay homage to her indigenous ancestry.