Self-Portrait with Monkey (1938) by Frida KahloAlbright-Knox Art Gallery
Frida Kahlo’s paintings have always been much more than simply depictions of herself or the world around her. Rather her artworks act as a tool of expression, a way for her to visually translate her memories and the complex ideas that ran through her mind. Her self-portraits in particular are laden with hidden details and rich symbolism that, once unpicked, reveal a deeper insight into the artist. Here, with the help of Art Camera, which has captured these works in incredible detail, we explore eight of Kahlo’s paintings to uncover the hidden meaning within them.
Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937) by Frida KahloNational Museum of Women in the Arts
As the title suggests, this painting from 1937 was a gift to Leon Trotsky and commemorates the brief affair Kahlo had with the exiled Russian revolutionary leader shortly after his arrival in Mexico.
It’s a flattering self-portrait of the artist, where she presents herself dressed elegantly in a long embroidered skirt, shawl and delicate gold jewelry. Her traditional attire alludes to a movement among Mexican artists working during the Revolutionary decade, which saw them reject European influences and return to their country’s roots and folk traditions. This influence can also be seen in the composition of the painting where Kahlo stands on what looks to be a curtained stage. This is reflective of Mexican vernacular paintings called "retablos" that Kahlo collected, which were devotional images of the Virgin or saints painted on tins.
In the painting, Kahlo stands confidently holding a bouquet of flowers and most interestingly a letter to Trotsky. Zooming in, we can see the letter reads: “To Leon Trotsky, with all my love, I dedicate this painting on 7th November 1937. Frida Kahlo in Saint Angel, Mexico”. This portrait comes at the end of the pair’s secret affair, which fizzled out after the summer months when Kahlo “grew tired” of Trotsky.
Retrato de Miguel N Lira (1927) by Frida KahloInstituto Tlaxcalteca de la Cultura
This portrait of the Mexican poet Miguel N. Lira was requested by the subject himself, who was a close friend of Kahlo. The painting is based on a photograph she was given and though the artist supposedly wasn’t happy with the final portrait, Lira was. The artwork is full of small details that capture Lira’s personality and allude to landmarks in his life. The brightly colored pinwheel and the hobbyhorse for instance refers to childhood, and the book placed in his right has an image of a guava on it with the word ‘you’, as these were the titles of Lira’s first two published books.
Other details include the painted R, which many have said could correspond to the name of Lira’s then-girlfriend, Rebeca Torres, with the figure or doll in the top right corner also a potential reference to her. With all these details placed alongside an actual portrait of Lira, Kahlo demonstrates her ability to create a rich tapestry of a person within her works, rather than simply creating a like-for-like depiction of her subjects.
Marxism Will Give Health to the Ill (1954) by Frida KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo
The presence of more politically-charged imagery within Kahlo’s work was the artist trying to “serve the Party” and “benefit the Revolution”. In this painting, we see Frida embracing the Utopian belief that she, and everyone else in the world, can be freed from pain and suffering and saved by the political convictions of Marxism.
Here we see Kahlo in a leather corset standing in front of a divided background, with half of it representing good things and peace, and the other crowded with symbols of evil and destruction. Alongside the two hands of Marxism that cure her, one of the most interesting parts of the painting is the red book she holds, which is the red book of Marxism. Fully supported in her ideology, we see Kahlo get rid of her crutches, alluding to the “giving health to the ill” part of the painting’s title.
This artwork is one of Kahlo’s last portraits and remains unfinished. The artist reworked the piece several times and even changed the title, with the original name as Peace on Earth so the Marxist Science may Save the Sick and Those Oppressed by Criminal Yankee Capitalism. Definitely a more direct interpretation of the artist’s intention for the piece.
Viva la vida (1954) by Frida KahloMuseo Frida Kahlo