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Frida Kahlo: A Mexican Painter

Updated on January 29, 2014

The Self Portrait

Art historians and art critics rely on the historical context in which an artist lived and worked to help elucidate the concerns and the meanings of particular art works. The simplest way of representing history is in a chronological narrative, which is essentially an objective account of the significant events of a particular historical period or of the elements of a particular historical event. Of course, deciding which details are important, and which are not, is not an objective endeavor.

Self-portraits have been made by artist since the earliest times. It is not until the early renaissance in the mid 1400s that artist can be frequently identified depicting themselves as either the main subject, or as important characters in their work. More than two-thirds of Frida Kahlo's paintings were self portraits. She painted using vibrant colors in a style that was influenced by cultures of Mexico as well as by European influences that include Realism, Symbolism and Surrealism. Many of her works are self-portraits that express her own pain and her sexuality.

Kahlo's Lifestyle

One of the most dramatic occurrences of Kahlo's life, which explains the pain she depicts in her work, was on September 17, 1925. On this rainy day, free spirited, eighteen year old Kahlo and her boyfriend Alejandro Gomez Arias were in Mexico City waiting for a bus that would take them to her home in Coyocan, Mexico.Kahlo was riding in the bus when the vehicle collided with a trolley car. She disappeared in the wreckage, and Alejandro, also injured, discovered her with a metal bowl protruding inside her. She was rushed to the hospital and suffered serious injuries, including a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. An iron handrail pierced her abdomen and her uterus, which seriously damaged her reproductive ability.

After months of recovery a close friend, German de Campo introduced art salons to Kahlo, where she met Italian model Tina Modotti, whom modeled for Kahlo's future husband, muralist, Diego Rivera. Rivera was forty-two years old. He was by this time a very well-established, renowned artist. Her marriage to Rivera fully immersed her in the art world. They shared political views. Although she has long been recognized as an important painter, public awareness of her work has become more widespread since the 1970s.

Kahlo married Rivera on August 21, 1929 and later went to the United States with him in 1930. Kahlo intensely hated America, with its extremes of poverty and wealth. Their marriage was a shaky one. Both Kahlo and Rivera had numerous affairs. Kahlo was openly bisexual and had affairs with both men, including Leon Trotsky, and women. Kahlo became outraged when she learned that Rivera has an affair with her younger sister, Christina. The couple eventually divorced but remarried in 1940 because of Kahlo's poor health.

Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera in 1932, in a photograph by Carl Van Vechten
Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera in 1932, in a photograph by Carl Van Vechten

Border Line

The 1920s and 1930s was the decade of the Mexican Revolution and the wave of communism that crashed through Latin America. The self portrait was painted while Kahlo was waiting for Rivera to finish a mural in Detroit. During this time she has a traumatic miscarriage and stayed in the Henry Ford hospital. She gelt very alone and isolated from reality. This painting is an expression of how Kahlo saw her situation stuck somewhere in limbo, in a space disconnected from her homeland. Frida uses her name Carmen Rivera as the author of the painting. This may be for several reasons. The Detroit press called her by the name only in reference to Rivera. Frida may have eanted to emphasize her Mexican while in the U.S. or because of the rise of the Nazis, in which Frida Kahlo is a Germanic name.

Kahlo painted Self-Portrait on the Border Line in 1932. One side is the United States and the other Mexico. In the U.S. everything is electric, cords root into the soil, skyscrapers stand where trees once stood. Clouds of smoke coming out of the factories give the American flag above the smoke stacks a transparent, disturbing look. The piece is centered by a woman, Kahlo, holding a Mexican flag, a cigarette, her arms across herself and her nipples glaring through her dress. The woman divides what looks like Mexico. Everything is dead. All you see is bone, rock, and ruins. The skill and two fertility dolls represent the cycle of life and death. More importantly the skull, representing death, because it shows how death is unavoidable and Kahlo has been on the edge of death before. The juxtaposition of the sun and moon represent the ancient Aztec of duality, a belief that opposites such as night and day, male and female, life and death, define life. Next to the woman is a garden of wild flowers, giving beauty to the natural surroundings of Mexico. Kahlo stands in the middle to represent her dual heritage and how she has lived in two different worlds. She was a child during the Mexican revolution and grew up in an era of social change. In the 1920s she took on a Communist philosophy and not agree with Capitalism. The official stance of the Mexican government was hardly communist, but it was much more left-leaning than the United States. The government split up numerous ranches and dealt the land out in the form of jointly owned farms to many Mexican rural communities. Kahlo believed that industry was part of Capitalism, and even though Rivera believed in the necessity of technological progress, she believed machines to be bad luck and the cause of pain, which is relevant and clearly represented in her painting Self-Portrait on the Border Line.

Self Portrait on the Border Line, 1932
Self Portrait on the Border Line, 1932 | Source

Fight the Good Fight

Kahlo was deeply influenced by Mexican culture, which is apparent in her use of bright colors and dramatic symbolism. She frequently included a monkey, symbolic of lust, but portrayed it as a tender and protective symbol. She depicts Christian and Jewish themes in her work and combines elements of the classical religious Mexican tradition with surrealist renderings.

During her life, Kahlo was recognized primarily by the intellectual elite, both in Mexico and internationally, but was not well known among ordinary Mexicans, particularly because she worked in mediums that did not lend themselves to mass distribution. She did not so murals, no mass-printed graphics, both of which were the mediums of choice for the purpose of accessing the Mexican masses. As one autobiographer stated, "A visit with Frida was becoming obligatory for every important person traveling through Mexico City. Through her home passed the Rockefellers, Edward G. Robinson, Josephine Baker, poet Gabriela Mistral, and presidents of various countries, many ambassadors, and other luminaries," (Kupiec).

Drawing on noted personal experience, including her marriage, her miscarriages, and her many operations, Kahlo's work is characterized by their portrayals of pain. Of her one hundred and forty three paintings, fifty five are self portraits which incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds. She insisted, "I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."


Kahlo, Frida. Self-Portrait on the Border Line. 1932 Dolores, Mexico.

Kettenmann, Andrea "Kahlo" WETA, 2005.


Kupiec, Jake "About Frida Kahlo's: Self Portrait Between the Borderline of Mexico and the United States" Hispanic Research Center, Arizona State University, 2001.


Miller, Carol "Self-Portrait on the border line between Mexico and the United States, Frida Kahlo, 1932". Frontier, 1996. 06 May. 2008.



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