Analyze a painting by Frida Kahlo to identify its them
Objective: Analyze a painting by Frida Kahlo to identify its theme.
Now we come to our most challenging example. Frida Kahlo’s use of symbols that have multiple meanings, combined with the complex relationship between her life and art, makes the act of interpreting the painting particularly personal for the viewer.
On this page, you will examine elements of a modernist self-portrait by Frida Kahlo to determine its theme. Use the images and information provided to answer the questions below.
Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird
(see file attached)
The genre of self-portraiture was central to Frida Kahlo’s art: she painted at least 55 self-portraits, including some of the most memorable self-portraits of the 20th century. She said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best.”
Kahlo herself is immediately recognizable by her distinctive black unibrow, which for her was a sign of her Mexican heritage and a statement of her independence from the expectations of others (in this case, expectations associated with a particular conception of feminine beauty). On her shoulders are a monkey and a cat. Although the subject of this painting is the artist herself, the image is much more than a visual representation of Kahlo’s appearance. Demonstrating how a work of art is about more than creating a depiction of appearances, this self-portrait explores aspects of Kahlo’s personality and sense of personhood that are not visible. For example, by transforming Christ’s crown of thorns into her own necklace, Kahlo explores a paradox between feminine beauty and suffering, between death (the dead hummingbird) and new life (the butterflies in her hair). The interpretation of this work is complicated by the fact that Frida Kahlo employs symbols that are personal to her.
While there is, of course, always a connection between an artist’s life and art, Kahlo made this connection central to her project. By 1940, the year that she painted Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, Kahlo had survived a near-fatal traffic accident and a tumultuous marriage to the artist Diego Rivera. (At the time she painted this particular work, Kahlo was divorced from Rivera. They would remarry in December 1940.)
Kahlo was born to a German father and Mexican mother; this mixed heritage was important both to her identity and to her art. In Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, Kahlo develops a visual language, combining elements of native Mexican art and European modernism, that is uniquely her own. When the French writer André Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement, wanted to include Kahlo in that group, she said, “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” Indeed, in her art (through her unique visual language), Kahlo created her own reality.
Throughout history, artists have created self-portraits using mirrors, because the act of painting a self-portrait requires artists to look at themselves. Kahlo, as a 20th-century artist, would also have had access to photographs of herself. This particular self-portrait of hers combines intimacy and confrontation. The thick vegetation in the background creates a shallow space that pushes Kahlo toward the viewer (there is only a bit of open space at the top of the composition to offer some visual relief).
The directness of the artist’s gaze (at the viewer and at herself) seems to evoke the questions “Who am I?” or “Who do you think that I am?” Kahlo’s work of art deliberately, and successfully, evades answering these questions.
1. A painting is something that you look at; it’s appearance is everything. And yet, as a work of art, this image goes beyond mere depiction of Frida Kahlo. How does this work go beyond appearances?
2. Self-portraiture, as a genre, treats the artist as the central motif of the work. Are there any events in Frida Kahlo’s life that might be referenced in this painting?
3. Kahlo’s use of thorns makes an iconographic reference to what?
4. The necklace is a. symbol associated with beauty. This particular necklace, however, is made of thorns, which are piercing halos neck. What might a necklace of thorns say about the burden of beauty?
5. Khalo said “they thought I was a Surrealist, but I wisen’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” What do you think she meant by “painting [her] own reality”?
6. Khalo was married to the artist Diego Rivera, https://www.theartstory.org/artist/rivera-diego/artworks/ and they knew each other’s work very well. What are some similarities (in subjects and visual methods) Between their art, and what are some differences?
7. In art history, not only in Kahlo’s art, butterflies are often symbols of rebirth or resurrection. What might butterflies be used in this way?
8. It has been suggested that the monkey, which in Mexican iconography can be a symbol of lust, is there to represent Diego Rivera. Note that monkey is pulling on the thorns, causing Kahlo to bleed. Why might Kahlo use the monkey to symbolize her ex-husband?
9. Notice how Kahlo stares straight ahead but does not make eye contact with the viewer. Does the painting suggest someone looking at herself in a mirror, or someone interacting with her viewer?
10. Consider how this painting makes you feel. Does it encourage you to adopt the feelings of the artist?
Please answer each question 50 Words minimum, and put in order just way you read them Thank you!