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“In this research paper I will discuss a brief biography on the artist Frida Kahlo and a cultural and historical context of the two images I chose for this paper. I will focus on a formal analysis on two of Kahlo’s famous paintings, Henry Ford Hospital (Fig 1.) and Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States (Fig 2). I will be comparing/analyzing the two paintings based on the subject, space, size, and dimensions. My research question for this paper states: How does Frida Kahlo depict herself through her culture and history in both Henry Ford Hospital (Fig 1) and Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States (Fig 2)? The research I am about to discuss will be the key to finding my answer and interpretation of my question, which I will explain later throughout this paper.Frida Kahlo’s original name was, Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón. She was born July 6, 1907 in Coyoacán Mexico and died July 13, 1954 in Coyoacán. She is best known for her beautiful self-portrait paintings. Her portraits focused on the human body, identity, and death. Her style of painting is often considered to be surrealist painting.
Kahlo was known for her intense relationship with muralist painter, Diego Rivera. They married in 1929 and divorced in the year of 1939 and then remarried again in 1940. Frida’s parents were of different descents, like her father who was German and Hungarian and mother who was Spanish and Native American. Kahlo’s career as an artist gave her the opportunity to explore her identity by portraying her ancestry through relationship differences, one being the colonial European side and the other as the indigenous Mexican side. Frida did suffer a lot in her life, like polio that left her with a small limp and chronic disease that she had to live with for the rest of her life. Kahlo did have a very special relationship with her father, who was a professional photographer.
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Frida would spend time assisting him. Kahlo did take drawing lessons but was more interested in the subject of science. In 1922 is when Kahlo entered the National Preparatory School located in Mexico City. At this time, she started to develop an interest in medicine. While attending this school she met Diego Rivera. She met him when he was working on a mural for the school’s auditorium. It wasn’t until 1925 that Kahlo was in a bus accident where she was seriously injured and had to experience 30 operations. While she was recovering she started to teach herself to paint.
After her recovery, Kahlo joined the Mexican Communist Party where she met Rivera again. From there she started showing Rivera her work and he motivated her to continue painting her beautiful works. Frida had a couple of solo exhibitions, like her very first one that was held at the Julien Levy Gallery located in New York in 1938. She then traveled to Paris to show her work and the Louvre exhibited one of her famous works The Frame rendered in 1938, which made Kahlo the first Mexican artist of the 20th century to be showcased in the museum.
To begin with, the first painting I will be analyzing by Frida is, Henry Ford Hospital Fig 1.). I will focus on the empty space, scale, perspective, and precision of representation. This painting was created in the year of 1932. It measures 30.5 cm in width and 38 cm in height. This painting is another one of Kahlo’s self-portraits. The medium is oil on metal. The provenance this painting is at the Dolores Olmedo and was bought by Eduardo Morillo Safa’s wife, after he died. This painting depicts a biography of Frida’s life, industry, medicalized body, and landscape. It is a representation of the trauma of Kahlo when she had a miscarriage. Kahlo is laying down on a bed full of blood that surrounds her. When looking at the painting there does not seem to be a consistent perspective. I can see Frida is on her side and it looks like the painting is being looked at from a bird’s eye view. The landscape is of a river rouge plant. There are super detailed representations of everything. I get a sense of the two sides of the bed. I can also see that there is no shadow, which is missing from the painting. It is not entirely monochromatic. I can see that Kahlo is not worried about having a consistent perspective. I think the way Kahlo illustrates the bed enhances the detachment and openness. She also plays with different styles in one picture. The geographical cultural context of this work is pictured in the background, but Frida seems to want viewers to focus on the foreground. On the bottom left of the foreground is an illustration of a machine. In the middle is a depiction of an orchid given to Kahlo by Diego and the last thing on the bottom right is a pelvic bone.
The middle ground shows Kahlo’s body on a humongous bed with her helpless body bleeding. Her belly is still in healing from her miscarriage. There are six different pieces that are shown around her. Attached to her hands are red ribbons, which were used as representations of umbilical cords. On the right side above Frida’s head is a floating snail, a symbol of slowness of the abortion of Frida Kahlo. The illustration in the middle is a male fetus, a representation of Fridas wish for a son. Then on the left is a pelvic orthopedic cast of the pelvic zone, which represents the fractures of Kahlo’s spinal column. Also, if seen up close, I can see tears pouring out of Fridas eyes.
The next work by Kahlo I will be analyzing is, Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States (Fig 2.). I will be discussing the oppositions, likeness, and flowers. This painting was produced in the year of 1932, the same year Henry Ford Hospital (Fig 1.) was created. This work measures 31cm by 35cm. This painting is part of a private collection. The very first things my eyes are drawn to are the sun and the moon. The sun is seen on the background, on the top left, including the moon, but is painted towards the middle. These symbols are seen in many colonial Mexican paintings and murals. On the foreground I can see an emergence with the tubes on the right. Frida is wearing a quinceanera dress, which is a celebration of a girls 15th birthday. Quinceanera are highly celebrated in Mesoamerica and is now becoming a popular celebration in the Americas. Kahlo is also holding a Mexican flag that was created using “papel picado.” Papel picado is an ornate craft using tissue paper to cut out intricate details and designs. It is also considered to be Mexican Folk Art. Frida has also included a coral necklace with silver attachments around her neck. Also, the eyebrows, the thing Kahlo is most famous for, called swallow shape eyebrows, which were very popular in the 19th century. It looks to me that Frida is standing like a statue, very still and posed in one place. Frida is also holding a cigarette on her right hand maybe used as a symbol of “danger.” This work seems to be painted as a mechanical landscape. There are different scales, scales of objects that are not consistent. There is also an importance of pre-Hispanic objects (side note: Diego Rivers carries a lot of pre-Hispanic objects in museums and houses).
Frida Kahlo’s Henry Ford Hospital (Fig 1) and Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States (Fig 2.) are both under the surrealist and modern art periods. Surrealism is a representation of an unconscious mind, which is an example of images that are organized in a juxtaposition. The style of this painting is naïve art, which means visual art created by an artist who is not as advanced as a trained artist.
Kahlo had many cultural and historical aspects depicted in her work, like disturbing and tormented iconography of her Mexican legacy and the stories based on her traditions that came from the Mexican people. Kahlo also incorporated her own stories that came from her diaries. Her diary does have written dates, like the Communist Party meetings, doctor appointments and listed dates with Diego Rivera. There is also imagery of Aztec goddesses, monkeys, flowers, ghosts, including Kahlo’s own sick body. Kahlo would make notes and play with her ideas and sketches. She also experimented with different mediums as a way of practice. Kahlo made several mistakes in her sketches and drawings, but she somehow managed to turn them into new images and symbols. She focused on history, animals, horticulture, and myths. The artist evoked Aztec and Zapotec cultures and their modernity. Politics was another important topic highlighted in Kahlo’s work, like the Mexican Revolution that began in 1920. She portrayed herself through her life and pain in many of her paintings, which have been comprehensive, psychoanalyzed, and concealed through bloody, harsh, and exaggerated political content. Kahlo stuck with her own roots and would stand up for herself and her country by voicing her own opinions because of the struggle her country had when it came to independent cultural identity. The life she lived, and her death became a political ideology. French theorists like Héléne Cixous and Luce Irigaray mention, “women must “speak” and “write” their own experiences, but the speaking must also be related to the context (Culture, Politics, and Identity: Frida Kahlo, Janice Helland).”
Coming from the two-theorist interpretation of “speaking,” Kahlo communicates her political self and the love of her country in her paintings, especially in the Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States (Fig 1). In the painting, Kahlo is standing on the border of the United States and the agricultural, pre-industrial Mexico setting, which is rendered in a robotic and highly industrialized way. Also, this painting and many of her other ones provoke past cultures, but also incorporates modernization. Kahlo does not think modernity as part of cultural identity. The sculpture pictured on the Mexican side of the image is pre-Columbian. The piece standing on the bottom of the left side has many similarities of pre-classic sculptures that are found in Monte Alban located in central Mexico. These sculptures are very historical and date back from ca. 500 B.C. On the right side of the painting a squatting figure is pictured as a pastiche bending over, showcased in most Aztec sculptures or in figurines of kneeling death goddesses who wear skulls and jewelry. There is also a temple in the top left, which is close to looking like a duplication of the main temple area at the Tenochtitlan. The temple is a symbol of the blood-drenched sun and the moon, which all implied Aztec practice during ritual sacrifice. This temple is designed in a basic or naïve folkloric style. This painting is also representing the pre-Columbian side. Kahlo illustrates a luxurious and ornate vegetation that completely contrasts the industrial United States.
The industrialization of the US is a representation of technology, pollution, and skyscrapers. The skull is an indication of the Aztec temples and their skulls that line up on to the stone walls, which is a metaphor for life-sprouting from death. This is a contrast of the vegetation. This painting also illustrates a contrast between Kahlo’s Mexico with Western Industrial Civilization. This can also be easily identified because Kahlo is standing right in the middle of the image holding a Mexican flag. Kahlo related this work to her pre-Columbian ancestors. The temple had deep meaning for Kahlo because it was a symbol for sacrifice, which is a specific example of how Kahlo idolized the Aztec past. When it comes to the cultural and historical aspects of the Henry Ford Hospital (Fig 1.) painting by Kahlo, in her culture the idea of a miscarriage was shameful. According to David Lomas and Rosemary Howell, “shamefulness” meant, “the abject failure of a socially conditioned expectation of motherhood and a travesty of creation in which birth yields only death and detritus.” There were no formalities to help perpetuate the loss of Kahlo’s miscarriage, but only the idea of silent grief. Kahlo depicted this idea in a hybrid language that came from traditional arts, but also came from books of anatomy. She showed the process and imagery of her emotion that surrounded her accident and medical complications. These were all experiences she painted as recognition and inspiration for others feeling pain, who are in hospitalization, and are afraid of separation. Kahlo depicted the effects of her physical and emotional pain, so viewers are able to understand her life of suffering.
As my research question stated: How does Frida Kahlo depict herself through her culture and history in both Henry Ford Hospital (Fig 1.) and Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States (Fig 2.)? Based off the research I explained in the previous paragraphs Kahlo depicted herself through her Mexican culture and tragic life experiences. Kahlo had her own beliefs, including her Mexican heritage. She incorporated all these ideas in many of her works. She was not afraid to express herself. She wanted to capture her life and pain using symbolism and cultural/historical content. Her color scheme and visual presentation is captured beautifully. Viewers can understand and see her pain, especially many women who are able to relate to her life.
This paper focused on the biography of the artist Frida Kahlo. I discussed and analyzed the culture and history of two of Kahlo’s paintings, Henry Ford Hospital (Fig 1.) and Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States (Fig 2.). I was also able to answer my own research question; how does Frida Kahlo depict herself through her culture and history in both Henry Ford Hospital (Fig 1.) and Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States (Fig 2.)? It was interesting to learn and research the background story of Kahlo’s paintings. I learned about the symbolism, the life of Kahlo as an artist, and her devastation. The symbols she used were graphic, but without these symbols’ viewers would not be able to capture Kahlo’s reality. Her visual presentation is always spot on because Kahlo gets the point across. I also had a better understanding of how Kahlo incorporated her own culture. I learned the importance of Kahlo’s home, Mexico, and the way she represented it in her work. This research has had me become more knowledgeable in the cultural history of Mexico and Frida herself. Frida Kahlo is a very iconic artist, especially to many women, including myself. Her way of expression fascinates me and inspires me to not be afraid to show my true self.”
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