Self-portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States (1932) by Frida KahloDetroit Institute of Arts
Frida Kahlo is one of Mexico's most celebrated artists, and one of art history's most recognizable figures. The artist herself, her life and her character, have fascinated as much as her art.
Many of her paintings explore her own conflicted Self, perhaps none more so than Self Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States of America (1932). Here, you can take an audio tour of its many symbols and discover that there's more than meets the eye.
The painting is divided into two sections, Mexico and the US, meeting in the middle at the border. The Mexico side of the painting is a whirlwind of intense, elemental forces. The lonely moon clashes with the sun, causing lightning to strike.
Kahlo's sun breathes tongues of flame. It represents the welcome light of day, but is also a chaotic, destructive power. This image draws on the Aztec sun god, Tōnatiuh, and the face of the earth god, Tlaltecuhtli, who sometimes appeared at the centre of the sun with a sacrificial knife protruding from his mouth.
The clash of elemental forces has caused tremors, cracking the temple and sending rocks tumbling. Kahlo's depiction of her homeland is complex, natural, forceful. She holds a Mexican flag pointing down to the ground, identifying it as her home but drooping the flag ironically.
Though Kahlo paints Mexico as a raw zone of conflict, elemental and historical, it's also fertile and luscious. Here, the tumbling stone skull of the Dia de Muertos appears alongside Mexican fertility symbols. Beautiful foliage takes root and grows. Life and death are everywhere.
By contrast, the US half of the painting is defined by artificial, man-made industry. You can almost hear the noises of the high-rise city, the chimneys of Henry Ford's Detroit factory.
With her husband, the socialist painter Diego Rivera, Kahlo spent time in US cities from San Francisco to Detroit. Rivera championed workers, and his success as a muralist was a blessing and a curse to the couple. Kahlo had mixed feelings about the bustle of industrial America.
Though the painting is one of opposition, it's also one of balance and unity. The electrical cords from the American side fuse with the Mexican roots, plugging into the pedestal on which Kahlo stands, straddling the border. The inscription reads, ‘Carmen Rivera Painted Her Portrait 1932’. She uses her Christian name ‘Carmen’ and her husband’s surname as an ironic pose of propriety - such a name would have seemed comically ‘polite’ or inflated to Kahlo, almost statuesque.
The lighted cigarette and the inscrutable expression on Kahlo's face show her determination, self-possession, and sense of ironic distance amidst the noises all around.