During an eighteen-month sojourn in San Francisco, Frida (also Frieda) Kahlo painted this portrait of herself and her new husband, Diego Rivera, for art patron and future supporter of the Museum Albert Bender. Kahlo had accompanied Rivera to San Francisco after he received a commission to execute murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Arts. The banderole held in the dove’s mouth above the couple reads: “Here you see us, me Frieda Kahlo, with my beloved husband Diego Rivera. I painted these portraits in the beautiful city of San Francisco, California, for our friend Mr. Albert Bender, and it was in the month of April in the year 1931.”
The years spanning the creation of this painting and the present moment have witnessed immense changes in the status and role of women and, by extension, the experience of women artists. In the context of her time, Kahlo’s individual, unapologetic, and highly female contribution to a male-dominated modernism is all the more remarkable. In this image, Kahlo sparingly employs traditional devices of scale, composition, and iconography to position herself as the companion of an icon of American modernism, acclaimed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Rivera’s immense mass is planted solidly on the floor of the picture plane, while Kahlo’s diminutive form seems to float beside him, anchored only by his slightly proffered left hand. Her head tilts toward him, both acknowledging his presence and deferring to it, yet his head turns away from her figure. He holds the classic artistic attribute of palette and brush, and she in turn holds his hand.
Portraiture is a constant negotiation of self-representation and self-invention. In actuality, Rivera was more than a foot taller than Kahlo, weighed three times as much as his wife, and was twice her age. His career was well-established when this commission occasioned their visit to San Francisco, while her career had barely begun. With these facts in mind, one wonders if this image depicts truthful self-representation or a more inventive, veiled critique of Kahlo’s subordinate role in the relationship.
Kahlo’s numerous self-portraits frequently associate the artist with her native culture, as her traditional Mexican attire in Frieda and Diego Rivera implies. She was also fascinated by the spiritual and mythological archetypes of both pre-Columbian and ancient Egyptian cultures, identifying with figures representing nature, the moon, fertility, renewal, and sorrow. Although the format of Frieda and Diego Rivera suggests a colonial wedding portrait, the abstracted, simple forms of the couple—the larger, more powerful male supported by a smaller, yet unflinching female—recall Egyptian statues of pharaohs and their queens. The image, then, is the beginning of Kahlo’s careerlong pictorial identification with the spiritual and mythic abstract ideals of woman, mother, goddess, creator, and sufferer.
Originally published in SFMOMA Painting and Sculpture Highlights (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2002).