Frida’s art of portraiture
Frida Kahlo’s portraiture has captured the imagination of the world for decades and allowed us to get a personal, intimate glimpse into one of the most famous artists of our time. Not only have her art inspired artists of all kinds, she was one of the members of the vanguard of Mexican art, and her influence is still heavily felt in Mexico to this day. Her bizarre and brilliant blend of a haunting, personal surrealism with portraiture enabled her to delve deep within her soul and unearth her hidden world for the rest of us to experience.
Her pictures have given us a useful perspective into not only the life of an artist but life as a woman. Art like hers has always been incredibly independent and subjective and it has allowed us to expand our understanding of what the mental and emotional landscapes of a person can truly look like.
From modest beginnings to tragedy
Frida Kahlo was unique in that she was very reclusive during the time where artists were more social than anything else. Even though she associated with some movements, such as identifying Surrealist and Primitivist influences in her works, she remained focused on her true subject and interest. Her own subjective experiences, her portraiture and how to grapple with them.
The tragic bus accident she was a victim to, on September 17th, 1925, would go on to shape her entire worldview by association. While walking home from school one day as a child, Kahlo was hit by a streetcar. She was nearly fatally injured having been run clear through with an iron handrail which caused much damage, pain, and misery for the next several years for her life.
She was forced to lay in bed for months wearing a plaster corset – all within the family home: La Casa Azul. It was here where Kahlo began to paint, to occupy herself while she recovered. She would make many portraits of herself and her friends during this time.
The Blue House (the house she lived in the majority of her life, and would be her only scenery for years after her terrible accident) would go on to greatly affect her thoughts due to the psychic frame of mind the location would put her in. For example, Kahlo remembers the time as being a “very, very sad,” one, in no small part due to the setting itself. Having only the walls around you to inspire and burn a fire with your creativity would have been incredibly difficult, which is most likely why Kahlo decided to delve within herself to find more fertile ground.
The Two Fridas
One of the most interesting and recognizable self-portraits that Frida Kahlo had ever painted was the brilliant The Two Fridas, which she completed in 1939. On first glance, it is a painting of two identically-faced woman (Frida herself) holding hands and sitting, calmly, as their picture gets painted. Connecting the two is a line of a string-like artery that connects the hearts of the two figures and ends in a pair of scissors cutting off the end piece.
Slightly less noticeable upon first glancing the piece, the tumultuous sky behind them almost itself evokes lightning and thunder – a torrential downpour if nothing else – and forebodes nothing benevolent. The blood dripping onto the pristine white dress of the leftmost Friday is likewise ominous and almost blends into the same pattern of the flowers on the dress.
The entire effect is melancholic at best, and depressive and destructive at worst. While we understand that the two Fridas seem unconcerned about their surroundings, we are nevertheless aware that almost everything around them has a dreadful feel to it. We are compelled to gaze deeper into this picture because we are compelled by our natural empathy. While they sit resolute, the surroundings are looking to stifle them.
Of course, the two Fridas also hold each other’s hands in a gesture of comfort and support. Not only are these women resolute in the face of unease and possibly danger, they have each other to rely on in this dark time.
This portraiture is an incredibly interesting and honest look into the artist’s private life, because we see an inner dialogue taking place. While it’s cliché to imply that these are the ‘angel’ and ‘devil’ on Kahlo’s shoulders, it is nonetheless interesting to map these two separate figures onto the master artist’s psyche. By using her own image, the connection to a deeper part of herself is inextricably linked and perhaps offers us insight into the mind of a true victim of circumstance.
The Broken Column
In the Broken Column, we once again travel inside Frida Kahlo’s inner world in order to excavate something important. Upon first glance, we can see that the subject of this portraiture (once again wearing a white dress) stands stoic, ready to accept what the world has in store for her. Unlike The Two Fridas, however, the landscape is changed and she is lacking any kind of partner figure – the serene, if pitted and desolate, scenery implies a sense of control (if crumbling) and supports Frida in a way that the previous masterpiece did not.
The figure, once again Kahlo herself, forces us to conflate the real-life Frida Kahlo with her fictional representation within this picture – unlike her real self, however, she is ripped up the middle, held together with a brace and a cracked and imposing iron pole jutting right into her neck, where her spine would otherwise be.
It is here where it is important to remember the context of Frida Kahlo’s life – having survived a terrible vehicle accident, and being impaled by a pole. The visceral details of the accident are readily displayed in a deeply intimate and personal way and signal to us that, even though the accident is in the past and she is healthy, the accident remains an integral and almost seemingly necessary aspect of her psyche at this point.
She cannot escape the barren wasteland of her surroundings, even though she continues to exist. She cannot divorce herself fully from the accident that almost took her life, because it has, in fact, become part of her – a central part; a column that holds her together (even if in a tattered and fragile whole).
We once again see Kahlo’s resilience within this portraiture. It is not enough to survive an accident; one must incorporate it and learn to live with it. In effect, this piece becomes fully about her past and her willingness to show how it has affected her.
The Wounded Deer
The last in the series we will be interpreting, Kahlo’s The Wounded Deer is a stunning show of bravery and strength as well as victimization and suffering. Kahlo lived a life of suffering, both physical and emotional, and her soul crying out manifests in few ways greater than the impact of this quasi-self-portrait.
Hidden within a dead, or dying, grove of trees, the Kahlo-deer waits, wounded and stuck with numerous arrows, presumably awaiting her fate at the hands of her off-screen hunter. The ground is bare, except for the broken branch that the deer strides over. Unlike the other paintings, the sky in this portraiture is welcoming – bright and clear and just hinting at what nice weather lies beyond the broken and dead forest.
This self-portrait was drawn near the end of her life, after all the pain and suffering her physical struggles caused and after all the pain and suffering that Diego Rivera had put her through. Truly, one could see this painting as a kind of watershed moment for the artist – a final statement on her personal traumas and resilience. We can almost hear the deer: “I’m still here!”
The pain represented in this portraiture are obviously metaphorical of her physical pains in real life, but Kahlo was always more clever than a simple surface reading would suggest. By hinting towards the emotional manipulation and trauma her lover Rivera inflicted upon her, we can see the rebellious aspects of this piece. All while simply being about her – albeit, a symbolic vision of her identity as an animal of prey.
The Multifaceted Consciousness of Frida Kahlo
If nothing else, Frida Kahlo allows us to give ourselves over to intense reflection, as well as reflect upon the life of someone incredibly unique and brilliant. Her portraiture is a brilliant examination of her own personal trauma and history, and by doing so also create within us the language with which to converse with ourselves. Frida’s world is unique, terrifying and incredible, and while we might not have gone through the same traumas or had the same skills as the master artist herself, we are no less interested and willing to delve within our souls and try to represent them as best we can to ourselves (if not others as well). It is within this schema of identifying and analyzing the intensely personal and familiar that we can make sense of ourselves and the world. Frida has simply shown us the way.