Frida Kahlo: I Portray Myself

Museo Dolores Olmedo

This exhibit is an invitation to identify Frida the painter, beyond the iconic figure, understand the path that lead her to become the representative of Mexican art to the world.

I portray myself
"I paint myself" is a completely revealing phrase, not only because it refers us to the work of the artist, but to the character herself, that is, who Frida Kahlo is and was. The exhibition highlights the three pictorial genres developed by Frida: portraits, self-portraits and still lives.

If we go back to the time of her youth, we find a young lady, who seems to have recovered from the serious accident she suffered in 1925. She poses not only for her father, the photographer Guillermo Kahlo, but also for the viewer. From that moment, we see an intentionality that will last until her last days: knowing and enjoying being observed.

Around 1945, at the age of 38, Frida knew herself to perfection: an adult woman who had accumulated countless life experiences, perhaps more than any other woman of her age. Her artistic production included a number of famous self-portraits, but it is in Self-Portrait with Small Monkey that we see her surrounded by all the elements of her personal world.

We do not need a crown to recognize the queen she saw in herself. You just need to see her attitude of serenity, challenging the spectator, as she would so often appear in her self-portraits or photographs.

Tree of Hope, Stand Strong
The provenance of the Frida Kahlo collection at the Museo Dolores Olmedo could not be explained without the presence of the Engineer Eduardo Morillo Safa, the leading collector of the artist’s works during her lifetime.

Alicia de Morillo Safa had to sell the collection after the engineer’s death. The works were initially offered to Diego Rivera, who lacking resources, advised Dolores Olmedo to buy them.

Morillo Safa had commissioned the artist several portraits of members of his family, such as that of his mother, Rosita Morillo, who was a mother figure for Frida.

Your Pal Who Loves You...
Friendship was always of great importance for Frida. From a young age, she surrounded herself with people whom she loved and stopped loving. Many of the letters written in her youth reveal that restless kid who craved the affection of her friends; a bold girl who sought the company and acceptance of those of her age and tried to escape from family control.

Self-Portrait with Red Beret (1932) reminds us of “pal Frida” (the friend- girlfriend-lover of Alejandro Gómez Arias). By that time, we find an teenage girl immersed in a world literature, excited about traveling, passionate about a young love that would never blossom the way she hoped, and at the same time, a woman who would discover her own inner strength.

Frida’s earliest canvases were portraits of her friends and neighbors in Coyoacán or at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. Among them was the Portrait of Alicia Galant, on the reverse of which she wrote the following: My first work of art, Frida Kahlo, 1927.

The people she met after her marriage to Diego Rivera are also depicted in the portrait series, such as Lady Cristina Hastings and Eva Frederick, whom she met in the United States.

They belonged to a circle of women who accompanied artists, intellectuals, critics, journalists, scientists, magnates, and assistants surrounding Rivera in the country up in the North.

I Am Disintegration
One of the most fascinating aspects of Frida Kahlo’s work is its symbolism. She developed it in her paintings by using specific colors and certain elements of special significance to her, and that she had embraced over the years, based on her readings and experiences.

Frida revisited the perfect life-death binomial from the pre-Hispanic worldview and captured it in several of her canvases, such as those that portray and pay homage to Luther Burbank.

Kahlo’s symbolism in these works refers to the Mesoamerican belief that at the end of earthly life, men’s souls are destined to go to another spiritual space.

That same symbolism is conveyed in The Deceased Dimas Rosas, a piece in which she depicts one of the children of the couple who worked for Rivera and Kahlo, and whose death must have been very painful, not only for the family, but for Frida herself.

Fertility became another symbol in her painting, at times combined with erotic-sexual elements, as in The Flower of Life, where life and death are again intertwined.

She took the idea that she possessed the power to give life or death to its maximum expression in My Nurse and I. Here we see Frida feeding herself, depicted with a double personality: Frida-baby and Frida-nanny.

She appears as a small helpless creature—as she often felt—fed and cared for by herself. In other words, the strong Frida provided support and livelihood to a weak Frida.

In all these paintings, references to Mexican symbolism, culture, and history appear throughout. They came from the education she received in her family home, at school, on her jaunts through the city’s streets and marketplaces. Perhaps that is what makes them more approachable and appealing to the viewer, much more than the intentionality of the painters who were part of the art movement known as the Mexican School of Painting. Artistically, Frida grew as an individual, without belonging to any school; she created her own style and therefore, she became both timeless and eternally modern.

If Only I Had His Caresses Upon Me...
Frida Kahlo didn't only captivate the viewer through her painting. That sensuality was never visible in her self-portraits, but it was always present in her life, without a doubt. In her paintings, for example, the subject of the nude appears in a dozen works, generally associated with her own body. However, these nudes are anything but sensual.

The same applies to nudes of other people, such as Ady Weber's, who was her cousin, her cousin, a young teenager whose body had not yet reached womanly maturity.

Another is the nude of Eva Frederick, which depicts an adult woman, her American friend, who serenely gazes out at the spectator.

I Wanted to Drown My Sorrows in Liquor...
Pain was constantly reflected in her self-portraits, sometimes as a consequence of the accident, other times for a variety of reasons, such as her inability to have children, her miscarriages, and even Diego Rivera’s endless infidelities.

One of the most emblematic self-portraits is The Broken Column . It was painted shortly after Frida had spinal surgery. The operation left her bedridden and “confined” in a metal corset that would help alleviate her physical discomfort.

Along with the physical distress was her emotional anguish, caused by Diego’s absences and philandering. The mask (of madness) is a painting associated with one of these infidelities.

Dressed as a Tehuana, bejeweled and elegant, Frida hides behind a cardboard mask, one of many pieces of folk art that she collected. Her pain is obvious, but we do not see it . . . for it is the mask that weeps.

No One Will Ever Know How Much I Love Diego
Without doubt, her marriage to Diego Rivera was one of the most crucial events in her life, not only personally, but also artistically, as it contributed to the development of her painting.

Rivera was Frida’s greatest love; letters, poems, and portraits attest to this, including the double self-portraits she executed, half Frida, half Diego and at the same time rolled into one: Diego and I.

Rivera’s artistic influence is reflected in Kahlo’s work, in some of the subject matter that the muralist was working on in those years: Mexican children. From those years is her Little Virginia, a portrait with combinations of bright colors and the same clashing characteristics typical of Mexican folk art.

An interesting detail is on the back of the portrait of Virginia, where one can see, upside down, the Sketch for Self-Portrait with Airplane. The painting based on this sketch was auctioned in 2000, breaking three major records: the highest price at an auction for a Latin American work; being a painting by the most highly sought-after woman painter in the world; and the most expensive work by any Mexican artist up to that time.

Long Live Life
In the 1950's, Kahlo was constantly painting still lifes; the third most important artistic genre in her painting, after self-portraits and portraits.

All the elements seen earlier in her self-portraits are still here: the pre-Hispanic pieces that remind us of Diego Rivera; the parrots, which at other times surrounded her, are now perched on the fruit; the ribbons, which she used to accompany the dedications in her portraits and self-portraits, are replaced by small Mexican flags stuck into the fruit, but with the same intentionality of affection as before.

A coconut weeps and the fruit “bleeds” instead of her body. The sexuality that she conveyed in her paintings on other occasions now becomes even more evident, less veiled, in the ripe fruit cut open to reveal their succulent flesh, in a direct invitation to pleasure.

The last still life that Frida Kahlo painted in 1954 was Long Live Life. It is a canvas with watermelons arranged in a simple beautiful composition. The title is significant; it might refer to the life the artist yearned to continue living, to continue painting.

Curiously, at the end of his life, Diego Rivera also painted, as his final work, a still life titled The Watermelons. Fate, coincidence? Perhaps.

Each (Tick Tock) Is a Passing Second of Life...
Around 1938 in Mexico, Frida met André Breton, French poet, art critic, and leader of the Surrealist movement, which advocated an illogical, subconscious, metaphysical, and oneiric world over the logical, conscious and physical world.

Drawings such as The Dream or Oneiric Self-Portrait and Fantasy remind us why for Breton, Kahlo was a Surrealist painter. Regarding this drawing, Frida said: Surrealism is the magical surprise of finding a lion in the wardrobe where you wanted to grab a shirt.

Tragedy Is the Most Ridiculous Thing that “Man” Has
From folk art, Frida Kahlo extracted one of the most typical elements of her paintings: the small format and the use of metal sheets as a painting surface. The first time she used one of these metal sheets was in 1932 for the painting "Henry Ford Hospital".

During the period after her abortion, the artist produced a lithograph Frida and the Miscarriage. Only three of the twelve copies she made of this lithograph survived, for she destroyed all the others. On the left margin she wrote in English: Those proofs are not good; not bad considering your experience. Work hard and you will get better results.

Another painting, also on a small scale, is A Few Small Nips of 1935. This work arose from two situations in Frida Kahlo’s life: on the one hand, Diego Rivera’s affair with her sister Cristina around 1934, that she soon found out about, and on the other, her evident sense of black humor: unable to render her own pain, she focused on the misfortune of another woman.

Without Hope of 1945, although not painted on metal, retains the characteristics of the small format employed in the other works and alludes to the fattening diets that she was submitted to, because her lack of appetite had led to severe weight loss.

But where does this story begin? Where does Frida Kahlo the painter come from? She explains it in a text from 1947:

I started to paint (...) from the sheer boredom of being bedridden for a year, after an accident in which I fractured my spine, my foot, and other bones. I was sixteen then and was very keen on studying medicine. But the collision between a Coyoacán bus and a Tlalpan streetcar put an end to that (...).

It is paradoxical that in her Diary she had written, “Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing that ‘man’ has”. If there is a life that has been tragic, it is precisely that of Frida Kahlo: polio at the age of six, an accident at 18 (with severe injuries to her spine that would plague her throughout her life), several miscarriages, gangrene of the right foot at the age of 42, and finally, the amputation of that same foot at the age of 46. If this is not tragedy, then what is?

Credits: Story

Carlos Phillips Olmedo
Director del Museo Dolores Olmedo

Josefina García Hernandez
Directora de Colecciones y Servicios Educativos

Jean-Renaud Dubois Langlet
Director de Museografía del Museo Dolores Olmedo

Adriana Jaramillo
Directora de Comunicación y Relaciones Institucionales del Museo Dolores Olmedo

Fernanda López Cano
Coordinadora de Difusión y Contenidos Digitales del Museo Dolores Olmedo

Archivo del Museo Dolores Olmedo
Erick Meza y Javier Otaola

Credits: All media
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