The Hidden Meanings In Frida Kahlo's Paintings

Explore the wonderful details included in the artist's works with the help of Art Camera

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Rebecca Fulleylove

Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937) by Frida KahloNational Museum of Women in the Arts

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.

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.

Kahlo painted this portrait of her and her husband Diego Rivera for his 58th birthday and it provides us with an insight into the deep love she had for him, despite their tumultuous relationship. Her marriage to the artist had a great and lasting impact on her painting and this is one of many artworks that visualized her love.

The double portrait of the two sees her make herself and Rivera into one, with his face on the left and hers on the right. There’s a preciousness to this artwork that is highlighted by the shell frame, painted like jewels, that she’s put the portrait in. Within the actual painting, she also depicts the sun and the moon as another great pairing, and the conch and scallop also symbolizes their union.

During the 1950s, Kahlo was constantly painting still lifes and in the years of 1951 to 1954 her own image virtually disappears from her canvases. In this painting, Kahlo uses fruit, birds and artifacts native to Mexico to make political statements on Mexican nationalism and independence.

Sexuality is another theme present within this image, which is explored through the exposed fleshiness of the cut fruit, an invitation of pleasure for the viewer. In Kahlo’s later years her allusions to sex and passion become less veiled and more direct. This painting in particular, with the succulent fruit bearing the Mexican flag, signals the beginning of including more erotic imagery.

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.

In 1934, Kahlo was made aware of the affair between her husband, Diego Rivera and her sister Cristina Kahlo. Many believe this painting, created a year later, relates to this revelation as well as demonstrating the artist’s penchant for dark humor. The idea initially came from a newspaper article Kahlo read in which a man murdered his wife in a drunken rage, stabbing her several times after discovering she’d been unfaithful. Before the judge he said: “But all I did was give her a few small nips!”

The raw violence is hard to ignore as Kahlo portrays a naked, bleeding woman with a thin trail of blood flowing from her mouth. A look of sinister nonchalance plays on the face of the killer as he stands besides the bed with the knife still in hand. It might seem insignificant at first, but the clean pink walls and blue wainscoting create a contrast with the rest of the bloody scene: Kahlo’s way of emphasizing the violence within the painting. To further highlight this, the artist framed the painting in smooth wood, which she then gouged out and sprinkled with small drops of blood. This was to make it look like the woman’s blood had splattered beyond the frame and into the world of the spectator, forcing viewers to become eyewitnesses to the scene.

Kahlo’s mother, Matilde Calderón, gave birth to the artist's sister Cristina, when Frida was 11 months old. As Matilde was unable to breastfeed both daughters, the family hired a wet nurse to feed Kahlo. This painting is the artist’s memory of this period, but there’s some elements within this work that suggest it wasn’t an entirely happy time.

Kahlo has painted herself with her adult head attached to her baby body because she is looking back on the memory. The wet nurse was an indigenous woman whose face is concealed by a pre-Columbian mask. This is mainly because Kahlo couldn’t remember what the woman looked like, but it also creates a distance between her and baby Kahlo. This is a feeling that is echoed in the way she’s being held and the fact the artist stares off into the distance.

If you zoom in you can see the ducts of the mammary gland carrying milk into baby Kahlo’s mouth, and next to that is the milky rain in the background. This is from Kahlo being told by her wet nurse that raindrops “are the milk of the Virgin Mary” and it’s seen giving life to the vegetation in the background, including a large, milky leaf.

This painting has two distinct themes within it. The first is Kahlo expressing her political attitudes and anguish over the disproportion of wealth, by representing the different classes within Mexican society and sitting them side by side on the same bench. From left to right there is a housewife holding a shopping basket, a blue-collared man in work overalls, a barefoot mother feeding her baby in a Madonna-like position, a boy looking outside, a businessman holding his money bag (a symbol of capitalism) and a young girl, which is suggested to be Kahlo herself.

The second theme is a lot more personal and alludes to the bus accident Frida endured in 1925. The artist was on a bus to Coyoacán on the way home from school. The bus collided with a trolley car, sending a metal handrail into her abdomen, forever changing her life and causing infertility, extreme fatigue and chronic pain.

Kahlo never depicted the accident directly in a work, but this painting represents the moments before the accident happened. The little boy looks out of the window seeing a calm and serene landscape before him. Yet on the left-hand side of the painting a small shop called La Risa (The Laugh) can be seen. This detail is a perfect example of the artist’s black humor by addressing her accident in this way.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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