Frida Kahlo painted this self-portrait in 1945, by which time her renowned artistic and technical expression was fully developed. At that time, the satisfaction offered by her professional career was tainted by a particularly difficult personal situation. Her relationship with Diego Rivera was incredibly complicated, and her physical health had deteriorated significantly. The pain, anguish, and extreme fatigue were unbearable; so much so that in June 1946, Frida underwent a spinal operation in New York. Unfortunately, the surgery was not a success, and marked what has been called "the beginning of the end."
Self-portrait with Monkey (1945) by Frida KahloMuseo Robert Brady
Frida's famous self-portraits offer an insight into her troubled inner world, with images that express and reflect on her reality. They have their own symbolism, as it were, and meaning can be inferred from certain clues.
The self-portrait as a mask. Frida's face itself does not openly display the pain and anguish that are latent in her work; her stony expression masks all feeling. In The Mask (1945), Frida chooses to paint the suffering on her face, but she does so ingeniously by using a sorrowful mask which cries bitter, choked tears.
The dead tree stump. There is a very dark background covered with leaves on which a large, dried out tree is painted. It is actually a tree stump, the part of the trunk that remains attached to the roots when the tree is cut down. Bare, with its few remaining branches broken, it alludes to both Frida's broken spine and, above all, to death. In another canvas from 1945, Moses or The Solar Nucleus, dried out tree trunks also feature, but with tender buds, as if life were resprouting from old age. In Self-Portrait with Monkey, Frida is one of those trees that, unlike those mentioned above, still has no new branches to offer new life.
The Tehuana dress. As per custom, her chosen clothing is an embroidered Tehuana huipil, the traditional dress of indigenous women. This example is made of black velvet. The Tehuana dress was Diego's favorite, and in itself conveyed the wearer as a strong woman, of equal or superior social stature to any man.
The hairstyle. The ends of Frida's hair fall loosely behind her, like a veil, while the rest is gathered on top of her head, plaited with a green ribbon.
The green ribbon. The dull green tone reflects for her the color of the leaves and of sadness: Frida is in mourning.
The unibrow bird. Above her tense features, overloaded with restraint, is one of Frida's most identifying attributes: her unibrow. It is so prominent that it resembles a bird: herself as a bird with outstretched wings, free at last.
The monkey. Frida has a spider monkey as her companion. She proudly presented her Fulang Chang in 1937, and went on to appear with monkeys in 8 self-portraits. The creatures accompany her, wrap her up, and cross their long arms over her chest, mirroring the shawls she crosses over her body, or the cartridge belts worn by the Adelitas in the Mexican Revolution.
The little alter ego. The little monkey is small, thin, and hairy, much like Frida, and also like her has dark hair. Their headdresses also match. He is a little alter ego that comforts her, takes care of her (for example removing the thorns in the Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940), and here he sits behind her to support her.
The brushstrokes and color. With each delicate brushstroke, Frida conclusively registers, one by one, every minute detail of herself and her surroundings. Her palette is dominated by sad, dark, muted, and earthy tones, while the bursts of color in her dress depict pain: the bleeding red of the decorations, and the purple of the ribbons, the same color as her lips.
The signature. The only vibrant brushstrokes used are those for her signature. This is no accidental detail; Frida leaves nothing to chance. Through the entire painting she has shown herself to be dark, sad, rigid, and hard, whereas her final brushstrokes are a fiery red, evoking life, but also suffering.
Frida multiplies. With the tree stump, the monkey, the dress, the headdress, and even the face, managed like charms, Frida multiplies, spreading into each corner of the painting and expanding. All this comes together to create one of her most devastating, sad, and distressing images.
Frida at the Robert Brady Museum. This painting was acquired by the collector Robert Brady, a true lover of faces in their most varied expressions and forms. Brady displayed it in the Yellow Room—the room leading into the bedroom dedicated to Josephine Baker—in his Casa de la Torre in Cuernavaca. Its decoration, with pictures of women or painted by women, African tribal pieces, and anthropomorphic wooden furniture, makes it the ideal location to give new life to Frida's portrait.
Photography: Courtesy © Humberto Tachiquín Benito "Tachi" / Tachiphoto
Text: María Celia Fontana Calvo, Universidad Autónoma of the State of Morelos, Mexico