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Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Relationship

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This exhibition is all about the experience; yours and Frida’s. From the ‘selfie’ opportunities at the entry and exit to the manifestation of her pain. For fifty years Frida Kahlo’s personal possessions were locked away following her death in 1954. In Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, the Brooklyn Museum has put together the largest U.S. exhibition featuring the iconic artist and the first in the United States to display her clothing and personal effects. The exhibition is based on an original exhibit by Circe Henestrosa at the Frida Kahlo Museum in 2012 and last year’s Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, curated by Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa. Through this exhibition, you experience the multiple Frida’s and the struggle of living them all.

Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving is far more than the usual spectacle of celebrity culture. Organizers Catherine Morris and Lisa Small, curators at the Brooklyn Museum, worked with Ms. Henestrosa to build a more profound exhibition by acquiring new loans and interjecting dozens of pre-Columbian antiques from the museum’s own collection. Another thoughtful addition is the wall texts and labels written in Spanish, as well as English, a gesture to Kahlo’s dual Mexican and European heritage. Of more than 350 objects on show, there are only 11 paintings, however, this exhibition is about addressing how Kahlo crafted her appearance and shaped her personal and public identity. It reflects her cultural heritage and political beliefs with the underlying circumstances of dealing with her physical pain.

Who are these various Frida’s? By examining three of the remarkable self-portraits in this exhibition we may gain a better insight into the phenomenon that is Frida Kahlo.

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Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943; Fig. 1) portrays Kahlo in a lush tropical setting, dressed in traditional costume, surrounded by four angelic-faced monkeys. The colors are muted except for the crisp whiteness of her blouse (huipil) and the striking contrast of the blue in the strelitzia flower. Every care has been taken with the details: the folds in the fabric, Kahlo’s breasts showing from beneath the blouse, the fine features and fur on each monkey, the placement of the monkey’s hands and their gaze, the veining in the leaves and the shading used to define her appearance. Many of Kahlo’s self-portraits depict her face – or self – framed in different surroundings to depict either personal, political, or social dimensions that represent the significance of the work. We know that Kahlo was unable to have children and surrounded herself with pets and dolls to fill this void. Her sanctuary, La Casa Azul, was planted with lush gardens in and around the enclosed structure and these were used by Kahlo as a feature in many of her paintings as we can see in Self-Portrait with Monkeys (1943; Fig. 1). The significance of the strelitzia is that is synonymous with the lush tropics and the flower itself is the ultimate symbol of paradise and freedom. As we can see from this exhibition, Kahlo was neither living in paradise nor freedom, constantly bound by her physical limitations. Kahlo is renowned for using Aztec imagery in her work. Barson (2005) says the red ribbon on her blouse represents the umbilical cord; red being a metaphor for blood. I would tend to agree as the monkey is the Aztec God of fertility and we know Kahlo kept the monkeys to fill the void of a childless marriage. We also see the monkey on the right with his hand on her right breast and tail wrapped firmly around her upper arm, suggesting he/she has a close bond with Kahlo. Four monkeys are significant in that Kahlo had four pregnancies; unfortunately, none came to term and leaving Kahlo grief-stricken. Under the hand of the monkey on the left-hand side is the red and orange glyph for earthquake or movement. At the time Kahlo painted this portrait, she was participating in many exhibitions and it may reflect the direction of her career and standing in the art world. The fact that this painting is painted in such fine detail eludes us to believe that the subject matter is close to Kahlo’s heart and she spent a great deal of time capturing it on canvas.

Kahlo is recognized as having two types of self-portraits in her oeuvre: her official portraits painted from the mirror and her narrative portraits that describe certain events in a form like that of the traditional ex-votos. When we look at Self-Portrait with Tahuana (1943, Fig. 2) we need to ask what story Kahlo projecting is here. This painting was in fact started in 1940 when Kahlo and Rivera divorced, and this is significant in historical context, in that Rivera was obsessed with the traditional dress of the Tehuana. Although Kahlo found its loose-fitting style hid her deformed leg and medical braces, she wore it to please her husband and it became part of her identity. Here we see Kahlo adorned in the Oaxacan shawl and ruff of white lace trimmed with pink ribbon. The light has been captured on the ribbon and lace to accentuate the folds and softness of the shawl. Her hair is crowned with an array of colorful flowers, also reflecting the traditional dress. We know that Rivera is attracted to Kahlo wearing the Tahuana. Could it be that she is trying to attract and lure him back into a relationship given that they had recently divorced? What first attracts a viewer’s attention however is the miniature portrait of Rivera sitting in the chevron of Kahlo’s famous brow. It seems clear that Kahlo is saying that Rivera is always on her mind and this can be substantiated when we look at the other names that this painting was given: “Diego in My Thoughts” and “Thinking of Diego”. Her serious, self-confident expression aligns with our knowledge of Kahlo in that she painted deep emotions associated with significant events in her life. There is a spider’s web-like pattern in the roots coming from the leaves in her hair. Perhaps the Tehuana is to lure him away from the affairs he dabbled in and the web is to trap him into a committed relationship with Kahlo. Or is Kahlo so trapped in her thoughts of Rivera that she can’t see her way out? Arnold (2005) stated that “(Kahlo’s) work is deceptive, ambiguous, intelligently designed and deeply concerned with the ways in which painting stimulates mind games”. Self-Portrait with Tehuana (1943, Fig. 2) is a very good example of that definition.

Finally, we will look at Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940, Fig. 3). Again, this portrait is a narrative of her emotions following the divorce from Rivera but with a very different outcome. Although executed in the naïve style for which she is renowned, it has overtones of the Surrealist movement that Kahlo was likened to; a dream-like atmosphere, animated twisting hair, wording, and indefinite landscape. The muted colors suggest a state of the melancholy bar the bright yellow of the chair in which Kahlo is occupying surrounded by what we can assume is her own hair that Rivera loved. In her right hand, she is holding the sacrifice – a lock of her hair. Her left-hand holds the scissors – the tool of self-destruction. The hair is strewn about her as if it has been tossed in anger and landed wherever. She is obviously wearing an oversized dark men’s suit and shirt but kept her feminine earrings and heeled shoes. The wording above her head is from a traditional Mexican song and reads, “See if I loved you, it was for your hair, now you’re bald, I don’t love you anymore.” Helland (1990) regarded Kahlo as having a “talent for black humor” and if you could look at this as retaliation, it is dark. Barson (2005) explored Kahlo’s use of androgyny and suggests it is a gesture of retaliation for Diego’s affairs.’ Kahlo explored duality in her paintings and in Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940, Fig 3) we can see this as Kahlo/Rivera or female/male. The figure has a man’s stance with slightly open legs while facing at a slight angle. Is Kahlo not ready to leave this relationship yet? After their divorce, we know that Kahlo no longer wore the Tehuana that Rivera loved, but men’s suits; however, they have always coupled with her carefully coifed hair and colorful earrings. This bleak scene of vengeance could spell the need for freedom and independence of an unfaithful man, an expression of loss and sadness, or an act of self-reliance and independence. However, you interpret Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940, Fig. 3) you cannot help but think that whatever drove Kahlo to paint such a scene she must have been experiencing extreme emotions.

In Kahlo’s early paintings she was finding her style. In these three paintings, we can see self-affirming, explicit portrayals of life events: an expression of feeling to which spectators are invited to eavesdrop (Collingwood 2007). As we can see by this exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, Kahlo has become a cult figure, acclaimed for a tragic life that generated confessional image-making (Arnold, 2005). ‘I paint self-portraits because I am the person I know best. I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any consideration.’ This statement captures the crux of Frida Kahlo’s work.

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Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Relationship. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 29, 2023, from
“Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Relationship.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
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Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Relationship [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 27 [cited 2023 Sept 29]. Available from:
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