Discover a selection of the pieces painted by the artist early in her career, from the collection at the Tlaxcala Institute of Culture.
Although she had taken drawing classes at the Preparatory School, and briefly studied commercial engraving, Kahlo hid any trace of formal academic training in these works on paper. She deliberately chose the "untrained" style used by children, and painters of offerings and "pulquerías," which were bars serving the traditional alcoholic drink known as "pulque," made from the agave plant. The style had been promoted by Salvador Novo and others in nationalist terms, because it supposedly revealed the innate talents of the Mexican soul, uninfluenced by a rigid professional education. Although Kahlo's style would become more academic in later years, the roots of her continued interest in popular painting can be traced back to these experiments of the mid-1920s. None of these works has an exact date, but all were painted between 1925 and 1927.
A streetcar track turns in an unlikely curve just behind her. Although her figure and skirt could be those of a small-town girl, her neat, wavy hairstyle and make-up contradict her rural innocence: this is a modern young woman who is clearly misplaced in the open fields on the outskirts of the city.
The church and the square could depict a real place in Coyoacán. Kahlo ambiguously applied the traditional rules of perspective and used bright colors, now slightly discolored, to capture the decorated facades. "Échate l'Otra" is dedicated to Ángel Salas, one of Frida's school friends, who would later study at Mexico's National Conservatory of Music and become an important musicologist.
The bilingual inscription on the back reads: "This infantil dibujo is for my buten de buen amigo Ángel Salas. Friducha, Coyoacán, D.F. Julio 18, Muerte del Benémerito B. Juárez" (This childish drawing is for my good friend Ángel Salas. Friducha, Coyoacán, D.F. July 18. Death of Benemérito B. Juárez).
This distance between the subject and the background also evokes portraits from photography studios, a style with which a photographer's daughter would have been very familiar. As in "Échate l'Otra," Kahlo includes signs and churches that are suggestive of Coyoacán. Once again, there is evidence of the electric streetcar: a symbol of modernity that also strangely alludes to her accident of 1925.
Together, the watercolors in the Tlaxcala Institute of Culture collection reveal Kahlo's confinement, in the years following her accident, to the streets around her family home in Coyoacán. If Kahlo appears alone and fragile, it is partly because she felt removed from the city center and her friends. However, the vivid colors and seemingly timeless subjects indicate the young artist's sophisticated adherence to a post-revolutionary aesthetic that embedded national identity in popular culture.
Although the central image at the top of the painting depicts the revolutionary leader, Pancho Villa, it is not so prominent as to make him the subject. Instead, Frida takes center stage. Kahlo does not, however, portray herself as "Adelita," the female soldier who was the subject of several "Villista" ballads. Her fashionable, elegant dress bears no relation to the simple shirts, blouses, bandoliers, and military hats worn in photographs by female soldiers of the time. Some of them can be seen in the top left corner on one of the trains that transported troops, but they are incidental figures in the painting.
The image of Lira was taken from a photograph, although the original source is unknown. Both the curtain (typical of baroque portraits and 19th-century photography studios) and the night scene appear in some of Kahlo's other portraits from this period. Lira is formally dressed, just like the men in her "Café de los Cachuchas" painting.
Kahlo used flecks of gray and white paint on some of the darker areas to give his coat the appearance of a woollen texture. She also used a type of gold paint (known in Mexico as "purpurina," or a metallic bronze powder) for the star, the harp, the skull's mouth and nose, and the angel's halo. The relatively experimental use of paint reinforces what was, for her, an equally experimental composition.
These 2 works by Kahlo appear to demonstrate that her group of friends led an active social life in cafés, just like the famous Mexican literary groups of the period: the Stridentists and the Contemporaries. Kahlo and her friends were undoubtedly influenced by the activities and lifestyles of their intellectual predecessors at the Preparatory School (Torres Bodet, Pellicer, and Villaurrutia, among others), who were still meeting in public in the late 1920s. Whether real or imaginary, those works that dream of a "Café de Los Cachuchas" explore the (lost) possibility of a rich social, cultural, and intellectual life in the heart of the city, as remembered from the town of Coyoacán.
Text: James Oles