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.
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.
This photograph shows the reverse of how the scene would have appeared. When Silberstein took the picture, the painting was on the left hand side of the frame, and Kahlo painted with her right hand. In an article published in the September 1950 issue of Popular Photography, Silberstein writes, “For many years I have found it an excellent practice to examine all pictorial negatives reversed—as well as straight—even though I don’t always print them that way.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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