I love Frida Kahlo. Anyone who’s been to my house knows this (or seen me in my favorite t-shirt). Kahlo is a controversial character. When talking about my favorite artists with others, at the mention of Kahlo’s name, comments such as, “Did you know she was…?” The answer is almost always yes, dear reader. I am a huge fan of history, especially art history. There are many things about Kahlo that make her distasteful to some.
When I think of Frida Kahlo, I think of her self-portraits. They’re rich in imagery as they are in feeling. One of my favorite Kahlo paintings is the one she painted shortly after her divorce from Diego Rivera. This untitled painting is sometimes called, Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird and was created in 1940 (Harry Ransom Center). In this piece, we see thorn’s wrapping around her neck, ensnaring her throat. Although I’m not fluent in all the symbolism that Kahlo uses, it appears to me that this represents the physical and emotional pain she endured during this time. I think about her failed pregnancies (she was unable to carry to term due to the injuries she sustained in a bus accident when she was 18). I think about how angry and hurt she was at Rivera. Infidelity (on both sides) is one of the defining features of their marriage (also a defining feature, at least to me, is that Rivera would not bathe unless Kahlo bathed him). Kahlo decided to divorce Rivera once it was discovered that he had had an affair with her sister. The hummingbird, at least to me, symbolizes freedom. I see this painting as a physical representation of a woman, trying to break free from this incredibly painful situation she feels trapped in. Just like that bird, she’s struggling to find freedom.
The animals featured in this piece along with the hummingbird are a monkey and a panther. When I look at this piece, I think of Kahlo’s great love of animals. How they were a comfort to her. When the comforts of life are scarce, the comfort found in the love and care of animals is magnified.
I would love to sit down and talk with Kahlo. I wonder what she meant in her paintings and what they meant to her. Were they as therapeutic to her as they are to the viewer? I would ask her if I’m interpreting her paintings correctly, if I’m seeing what she wants me to see. I think the reason her art is still so popular is due to the fact that pain is a common denominator in human existence. No one is able to escape it. We all have endured some sort of physical pain (though most of us not as intense pain as the lifelong suffering Kahlo endured from her bus accident). We also all endure another kind of pain, an emotional one. Whether it’s due to distance, death, divorce, desertion, or something else, everyone I know has lost someone they’ve loved in some way. The experience of physical and emotional pain are a universal part of being human, and Kahlo experienced both in abundance. From that abundance of pain, she crafted her art.
Something I’ve always admired about Kahlo’s work is although she acknowledges her hardships, her paintings depict both comfort and pain, grief and joy, happiness and sorry. Life for Kahlo is not defined by that pain. There’s a celebration of plants, animals, her Mexican heritage, but more than that there’s a celebration of who she is as a person. When I see her unibrow and mustache it makes me think of the parts of ourselves we change--not because we dislike them, but because they make other people uncomfortable and uneasy. What parts of myself could I embrace like Kahlo did? I think of stretch marks hidden under clothing. I think of my enthusiasm for literature and theology, which I downplay because I don't want to be seen as an outsider. I think about how I critique myself after social interactions, wishing I had been quieter or more eloquent or spoken up when I was quiet. I love Frida Kahlo for her courage. Her courage to openly express her hardships, and her courage to also delight in the beauty of the world. Her courage to love parts of herself and display them proudly. I hope to be courageous as Kahlo with my creativity.
Kahlo, Frida. Untitled (Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird). Harry Ransom Center, Austen, Texas, United States, 1940, Harry Ransom Center, Austen, Texas, United States .
Harry Ransom Center. “Untitled (Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird) - Frida Kahlo - Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, artsandculture.google.com/asset/untitled-self-portrait-with-thorn-necklace-and-hummingbird-frida-kahlo/MwHFAKi5c5lw2g.