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The dawn of Frida Kahlo’s political activism began when a handrail impaled her during an automobile accident at the age of eighteen. She was left with fractures in both her spine and pelvis. After being bed-ridden for several months, she decided to bring her emotions to life through the vivacious colors on her paintbrush. Her influences were the Indigenous cultures of Mexico as well as European culture, which included: Realism, Symbolism, and Surrealism. Years later, Kahlo married another muse for her artwork, Diego Rivera. After many infidelities, the couple divorced and soon after got back together. Taking a look at “Las Dos Fridas”, her “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird”, and her “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair”, it is apparent that Kahlo created her own visual language through her artwork by depicting the heartbreak she faced in her marriage, her mixed heritage, her severe medical conditions, and the oppression of women, in an attempt to evoke thought among her audience. Today, she is well known for her harsh self-portraits that are painted with jarring colors and bizarre scenery.
One of her most known pieces is “Las Dos Fridas,” which translates to “The Two Fridas.” It was completed in 1939. This self-portrait depicts two identical Kahlo’s, one in European styled dress and one in traditional Mexican dress. She holds hands with herself on a bench outside in overcast weather. On the left is European Kahlo in a bloody, white dress holding a hemostat, which is a surgical tool that is used to control bleeding. On the right is Mexican Kahlo holding a portrait of Rivera. She is connected to her other self by a shared blood vessel that runs to her other heart. She created this new painting to replace an old painting of her and her ex-husband, Rivera. This is her way of transitioning from her rocky, past relationship with Rivera to reconciling a new growth within herself.
Kahlo utilizes heavy pathos to allow the audience to vicariously feel her pain in this piece of art. The bloodstains on her white dress illustrates that it has been a chaotic recovery, but the hemostat in her hand indicates that she has been in control of how she utilizes her pain. Even though heartbreak from a lover bears difficulty, she allows her paintbrush to be a form of catharsis for her grief. Her heart is exposed in this painting to reveal that she is in a vulnerable moment in her life. Kahlo shares a blood vessel to her other self, as well as, holds her other hand. In doing so, she attempts to unionize the separate sides of herself on both a physical and emotional level. The visual representation of this painting is realistic in the aspect that she gives attention to detail in her face and clothing, unlike the gaping hole in her chest where her heart is showing. The duality of her personas communicate that her husband’s infidelity fazes her, so she maintains a stern appearance. This is how she is able to use her emotions as an outlet for her art. Her solemn, yet thoughtful face goes against the social norms of the time. Women were expected to remain in the shadows of their husband, but Kahlo believed to be her own person. As a feminist figure, she deemed it important to be transparent when it came to her emotions. She emotionally appeals to her main audience to stand for themselves -specifically other women who are struggling with broken relationships.
Next, in 1940, Kahlo painted another self-portrait of herself wearing a thorn necklace with a hummingbird pendant. She is facing towards the viewers gaze in this piece of art. Her pout and bold eyebrows arouse the viewer’s attention as she guides the eyes of the viewer down to her décolletage, where a thorn necklace is wrapped around her with a hummingbird pendant. She sits in the midst of a dense jungle full of various creatures. The colors of the jungle are bright greens and yellows in the background, but everything in the forefront has duller color. On one shoulder, there is a monkey pulling on the thorn necklace causing her to bleed; meanwhile, a black panther peers over her other shoulder. Two butterfly clips secure her hair, which is styled like an infinity symbol. Above her head are two dragonflies with flowers as heads, flying around.
In this piece of art especially, Kahlo immerses herself in nature. Her hummingbird pendant goes against its typical symbolism, where they are usually full of life and freedom. In contrast, this portrait depicts the hummingbird as lifeless. Also, in Mexican culture, hummingbirds represent good luck. This is contrary to the black panther, or black cat, that is peering over her shoulder. The monkey, in Mexican culture represents lust, but Kahlo depicted the monkey as a protective symbol in this piece. She once received a monkey from her husband-at-the-time, Rivera. Perhaps the monkey was symbolic of him because this piece of art was painted after her first divorce with Rivera. The monkey is causing her to bleed by tugging on the thorns; in other words, there were still wounds after her divorce with Rivera. This symbolic use of pathos allows the audience to know that her physical and emotional coincide. The thorns around her neck could allude to Jesus Christ’s thorns around his head and the pain that he endured leading up to his crucifixion. As the eye naturally gazes upward, one may observe how her hair is shaped in an infinity symbol where the butterfly clips rest. In addition, butterflies typically symbolize a new birth or resurrection, which juxtaposes the meaning behind thorns around her décolletage. Above her brown hair are the dragonflies. They are placed to represent a change in self-realization. But to go more in depth, both of the dragonflies have the head of a flower. This intertwines the flora and fauna together; which represent fertility. There is significance that can be gained through the two butterfly clips in her hair and the two dragonflies above her head. The dragonflies are alive, but the butterflies are merely clips. This piece is heavy with symbolic contrasts and appeals to nature than most of her other pieces.
After her divorce, she also painted another self-portrait of her hair cut off called the “Self Portrait with Cropped Hair.” She is seen in a suit seated on a bright, yellow chair with her brown locks in her lap along with a pair of scissors. At the top of the portrait has a Mexican folk lyric that is translated in English to “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.”
This art depicts that Kahlo is independent of Rivera’s love. This is symbolized through her hair, as hair is typically a symbol of beauty and youth. In this case, it is apparent that she cuts her own hair off because she is holding the shears in her hand. Her hair is spread across the floor, while some remains in her lap. She refuses to adhere by traditional gender norms by cutting her hair off and by wearing a male suit. Her primary audience is Rivera, because she jabs at him using the folk lyrics at the top of the painting. Her secondary audience is society at large. The colors are more muted and masculine in this piece. In Kahlo’s personal diary, she writes that the color yellow represents madness and mystery. This correlates to this art because she is known to be a woman even she appears to be a man. She does not require other people’s love in order for her to grow, neither is she dependent on the approval of society, let alone, the love of her husband.
Frida Kahlo has depicted her physical and emotional suffering through her artwork. After evoking the thoughts of her audience, she calls her audience to internally reject societal norms if they do not coincide with their own beliefs. For example, she shows off her eyebrows and mustache to show that beauty is subjective to one owns perception. By doing so, she has established her own ethos as time has progressed and as people have become more familiar with her work. Kahlo did not allow her decrepit, physical disabilities to interfere with her political activism. Although she has passed, her paintings live on to acknowledge her life as a beloved Mexican painter as well as her strong views in contrast to societal norms.
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