Frida Kahlo & her self-portraits
Posted on May 08 2019
I am far from being the only one with Frida fever at the moment but a visit to the incredible V&A exhibition "Frida Kahlo; Making Her Self Up" at the end of last year followed by a recent trip to Mexico in a search for new textiles and to see our wonderful artisans there, has left me buzzing over both our products and her story.
”They thought that I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t, I never painted dreams. I paint my own reality.”
To me this is heart wrenching. Her reality was one dominated physical and emotional trauma, resulting from her appalling injuries; her love of Mexico and adoration of her husband, Diego Rivera, all of which she vividly portrayed in her self portraits. The emotions and pain she shared through her art, stayed within me long after I left the exhibition.
"I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best."
With so many years spent lying in traction, recovering from operations, flat on her back alone, she had had to give up her medical studies. She was left with little to divert her attention, except for the study of herself. With a mirror above her bed and a paint brush in her hand, she painted her internal and external world.
Out of 145-odd paintings, 55 of them are self-portraits. Each one portraying much more depth and insight than our modern photographic selfies. She paints her physical and emotional pain so starkly and her physical attributes in such a harshly self critical light.
From the photographs I have seen of her life, especially later life when she really embraced her Mexican roots, she was a striking, vivacious and colourful person. Her smile would dominate a picture. Yet in her self-portraits, not only does she rarely smile, she heavily exaggerates her black monobrow and dark moustache. I wondered, was it a self critical view of herself as ugly both on the inside and outside, or an intentional blurring of traditional physical gender expectations because she did not want to be stereotyped, or a determined fighting message to say .. this is who I am.
Far more agonisingly, however, is the raw emotional and physical pain she portrays, as a result of illness and accidents and betrayal. From a young age, Kahlo suffered from polio, leaving her right leg withered in comparison to her left. At 18, she was riding a bus that collided with a tram leaving her with a broken spinal column, collarbone, ribs and pelvis, 11 fractures in her right leg, and a crushed and dislocated right foot and shoulder. She had 33 surgeries throughout her life, but never fully recovered from them.
“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the [tram], and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”
Frida's love for Diego Rivera was all consuming. However, they had a tumultuous relationship with countless affairs and a divorce (followed shortly by re-marrying). Her loss of him resulted in arguably her most famous self-portrait "The Two Fridas", which expressed her desperation and loneliness with her separation from Diego.
Kahlo was half German and half Mexican. In her earlier life, she would wear predominantly modern European attire - here on the left is Kahlo wearing the traditional European style dress she wore prior to her marriage to Rivera. However, the influence of Rivera's strong nationalism encouraged Kahlo to become expressive with traditional Mexican costume, which she wears in the portrait on the right. The stormy sky in the background, and the artist's cut, bleeding open heart, all too vividly show her heartbreak and distress at the separation from Rivera. On the left, is her European side where life is dripping from her, on the right in Tehuacan dress, she clutches a miniature of Rivera, where her heart is complete.
I felt such a pang of emotion and admiration for the brutal honesty of Frida’s Kahlo’s self portraits. She was a true inspiration, not only in her time but for today too. She expressed herself through her paintings, her colourful clothing and statement jewellery, her love for Diego Rivera and her politics.
Diminutive in stature, physically and emotionally broken, she remained determinedly and overtly her own person, with her own inimitable style. For this, I have the most immense admiration.
Please click here to see our beautiful range of tableware inspired by the traditional designs and skills of our artisans in Central Mexico. Items sold out on the website can be specially ordered within an approximate 8 week time frame. Please bear in mind that each item is handmade, involving 4 different stages, 4 very different skill sets from artisans based in different villages in Mexico, according to the traditional skills of each individual area.