Frida Kahlo: Photographic Portraits by Bernard Silberstein

Cincinnati Art Museum

Frida Kahlo (detail) (ca. 1940) by Bernard SilbersteinCincinnati Art Museum

Frida Kahlo (ca. 1940, printed 1984) by Bernard SilbersteinCincinnati Art Museum

Bernard Silberstein photographed Frida Kahlo on a few occasions in the early 1940s, often depicting her in the rooms of Casa Azul, her home in Coyoacán, Mexico. Here, her figure is isolated against a plain cloth backdrop. Bougainvillea blossoms and a white rosebud adorn her hair. She seems regal but also coy; she looks to the side, the corners of her lips hint at the beginning of a smile.

Kahlo collected indigenous clothing from various regions of Mexico and Central America. She was among the most photographed women of her generation, and she carefully chose her clothing, jewelry, and hairstyle for each photo session, blending elements from the different regions to create a Mexican visual identity that was distinctly her own.

Diego Rivera Watching Frida Kahlo Paint a Self Portrait (ca. 1940) by Bernard SilbersteinCincinnati Art Museum

Kahlo is depicted here painting Self-Portrait as Tehuana, also known as Diego on My Mind. She began the painting in 1940 but didn’t complete it until 1943. Her husband, Diego Rivera, stands behind her chair, watching her work. In the finished painting, there is a bust-length portrait of Rivera on Kahlo’s forehead—if the finished version appeared here, the painted Rivera would return the gaze of the man observing Kahlo’s work.

Frida Kahlo in Tehuana Costume (ca. 1940) by Bernard SilbersteinCincinnati Art Museum

During her lifetime, Kahlo told Excélsior newspaper, “I’ve never been to Tehuantepec, […] nor do I have any connection to the town, but of all Mexican costumes this is the one I like best and that’s why I wear it.” She is pictured here wearing the lace headdress emblematic of Tehuana dress. Silberstein depicts her from several feet away, standing just in front of a row of shelves. Her figure seems to recede into the display of regional pottery and decorative objects from her collection.

Frida Kahlo in Her Sitting Room (ca. 1940) by Bernard SilbersteinCincinnati Art Museum

Silberstein was struck by the presence of two large papier maché Judas figures in Casa Azul; one in the sitting room, pictured here opposite Kahlo, and the other arranged on top of her canopy bed. The figures are part of traditional Easter Saturday celebrations in some Mexican communities, paraded or displayed in public squares and often dramatically ignited with fireworks. Diego Rivera portrayed the ritual in his public mural The Burning of the Judases (1923–24). Kahlo also incorporated the figure in her artwork; in The Wounded Table (1940), a Judas figure dressed similarly to the one photographed here looms behind a self-portrait of Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo painting The Wounded Table (ca. 1940) by Bernard SilbersteinCincinnati Art Museum

You may have noticed that this painting also appears on the wall of Kahlo’s studio in the photograph, Diego Rivera Watching Frida Kahlo Paint a Self Portrait. Though depicted here as if she is putting the finishing touches on The Wounded Table, it is likely that the painting, already framed, was actually complete at the time Silberstein took this photograph. Seated in front of the painting, Kahlo leans in toward the image of herself. Her elbow almost appears to rest on the table—mirroring the Frida in the painting—as she holds her paintbrush to the dark hair of her self-portrait.

First shown in January 1940 at the International Surrealism Exhibition in Mexico City, The Wounded Table disappeared in 1955 after an exhibition in Warsaw, Poland.

Frida Kahlo in her bedroom with a young goat in her arm (ca. 1940) by Bernard SilbersteinCincinnati Art Museum

In a short essay describing his 1940 visit with Rivera and Kahlo, Silberstein recalls, “Frida could see that I was amused by the contrast between the menacing, skeleton-shaped figure above and the sewing machine at the foot of the bed.” She appears at ease holding a baby goat against her chest with one arm, and there’s something frank in the way she looks at the camera.

Silberstein’s work, depicting Kahlo surrounded by the possessions in her home—her own paintings, works of folk art including ceramics and papier maché Judas figures, and here, a pet goat—gives us insight into how she wished to be seen, a glimpse at one version of her public persona.

“A Visit with Diego and Frida Kahlo Rivera" (n.d., published 2016) by Bernard SilbersteinCincinnati Art Museum

“Bernard G. (Bernie) Silberstein (1905–1999)" (2016) by Edward SilbersteinCincinnati Art Museum

Frida Kahlo (detail) (ca. 1940) by Bernard SilbersteinCincinnati Art Museum

“Frida Exhibit Foreword” (page 1) (2016) by Carlos M. Gutiérrez, Jennifer H. Krivickas, and Vincent F. SansaloneCincinnati Art Museum

“Frida Exhibit Foreword” (page 2) (2016) by Carlos M. Gutiérrez, Jennifer H. Krivickas, and Vincent F. SansaloneCincinnati Art Museum

“Frida Exhibit Foreword” page 3 (2016) by Carlos M. Gutiérrez, Jennifer H. Krivickas, and Vincent F. SansaloneCincinnati Art Museum

"Self-Portrait With Monkeys" (2016) by Caitlin DoyleCincinnati Art Museum

“También las piedras hibernan” (2016) by Stephanie Alcantar, translation by Alcantar and Linwood RumneyCincinnati Art Museum

"Even the stones hibernate" (2016) by Stephanie Alcantar, translation by Alcantar and Linwood RumneyCincinnati Art Museum

“Frida Kahlo Photographed" keynote address, Adriana Zavala, video by Corey Davis, 2016-09-29, From the collection of: Cincinnati Art Museum
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“A conversation about Frida Kahlo”, Carl Bryant, video by Corey Davis, 2016-10-13, From the collection of: Cincinnati Art Museum
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Bilingual poetry reading, Diego Mora and Linwood Rumney, Diego Mora and Linwood Rumney, video by Corey Davis, 2016-09-22, From the collection of: Cincinnati Art Museum
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Bilingual poetry reading, Stephanie Alcantar with Linwood Rumney, Stephanie Alcantar, with translations read by Linwood Rumney, video by Corey Davis, 2016-09-22, From the collection of: Cincinnati Art Museum
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Bilingual poetry reading, Paola Cadena Pardo and Charles Gabel, Paola Cadena Pardo and Charles Gabel, video by Corey Davis, 2016-09-22, From the collection of: Cincinnati Art Museum
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Bilingual poetry reading, Manuel Iris with Charles Gabel, Manuel Iris, with translations read by Charles Gabel, video by Corey Davis, 2016-09-22, From the collection of: Cincinnati Art Museum
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Credits: Story

Emily Bauman, Curatorial Assistant for Photography, Cincinnati Art Museum

Emily Holtrop, Director of Learning and Interpretation, Cincinnati Art Museum

Drew Yakscoe, Administrative Assistant for Learning and Interpretation, Cincinnati Art Museum


Alysse Brubaker, Graphic Designer, University of Cincinnati

Carlos M. Gutiérrez, Professor and Head of the Department of Romance Languages, University of Cincinnati

Jennifer H. Krivickas, Assistant Vice President for Integrated Research, Office of Research & Head, DAAP Library, University of Cincinnati




with special thanks to Dr. Edward Silberstein

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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