The Early Work of Frida Kahlo

Instituto Tlaxcalteca de la Cultura

Discover a selection of the pieces painted by the artist early in her career, from the collection at the Tlaxcala Institute of Culture.

Watercolors
Frida's earliest watercolors show an awareness of the most widespread cultural trends in Mexico, and particularly the style of children's drawing that Manuel Rodríguez Lozano promoted after 1924, as head of the Department of Drawing at the Ministry of Public Education. This program encouraged children to paint directly from nature, guided only by a few academic rules of composition, perspective, and color.

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.

Small-Town Girl
Her early watercolors highlight her immediate surroundings, and particularly the calm atmosphere of Coyoacán, which she portrays as a remote, sleepy town. The simplest of these is "Muchacha Pueblerina" (Small-Town Girl), which shows a young woman standing in front of an almost empty landscape.

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.

Although not necessarily a self-portrait, the face bears a resemblance to the ones that illustrate the letters Kahlo sent to Lira and Gómez Arias when they were students.

Have Another One
"Échate l'Otra" (Have Another One) is named after the "pulquería" bar at the bottom of the painting, identified by its decorative "papel picado" (cut paper bunting) and traditional "pulque" glass painted on the wall.

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).

Frida in Coyoacán
The 2 versions of "Frida in Coyoacán," one in pencil and the other watercolor, are virtually identical. The sketch was drawn on the back of a notepad that reads "Ministry of Public Education/Department of Libraries." Perhaps her friends brought her these sheets so she could take books out of the library during her convalescence. The watercolor, on the other hand, was painted on more elegant, watermarked paper (probably a gift from her father).

In both works, Kahlo is standing close to the viewer with the street scene behind her. Placing a figure in the foreground, with a street scene in the distance, is visual evidence that Kahlo was inspired by the work of Abraham Ángel and Manuel Rodríguez Lozano from around 1923–24.

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.

Paintings
The 2 oil paintings in the Miguel N. Lira collection are, pictorially speaking, very different from the watercolors. They directly reference the sophisticated, urban, and intellectual life of "Los Cachuchas," and employ more openly avant-garde visual strategies in doing so. However, the works occupy a space somewhere between "traditional" and "avant-garde," as if Frida had felt dissatisfied with the restrictions of the former, but unwilling to fully adopt the risks of the latter.
Pancho Villa and Adelita
The painting that is now mistakenly known as "Pancho Villa and Adelita" remains one of her least understood works. It is unfinished (besides the vague lower section, it has no signature) and there is evidence that Kahlo repainted the central self-portrait years later. Perhaps frustrated by its unconventional composition, she set it aside, incomplete, rather than destroying or finishing it.

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.

Portrait of Miguel N. Lira
In 1927, Kahlo painted portraits of at least 2 members of "Los Cachuchas": one of Miguel N. Lira, which is kept at the Tlaxcala Institute of Culture, and the other of Jesús Ríos y Valle, which Kahlo later destroyed, apparently leaving no visual record. The portrait of Lira is unique in Kahlo's career. Although the image of her friend is rigidly academic, the general composition—a collage-like montage of poetic references—is more experimental than any of her other early portraits.

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.

Credits: Story

Text: James Oles

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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