Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter in the early 20th century whose life and works have inspired millions. A fiercely independent and incredibly talented painter, Kahlo’s paintings were reflections of her life, loves, struggles and, most intimately, her identity. She is a proto-feminist icon and has paved the way for female artists to be regarded equally alongside their male counterparts.
Most famous for her self portraits, Kalho’s paintings are usually categorised under surrealism and magical realism. Her works also featured recurring motifs such as ribbons that were representative of her understanding of motherhood, hair that represented her feminist ideals, and animals that she thought of as her children as she was unable to give birth despite multiple attempts. She spent much of her career overshadowed by her husband, Diego Rivera, one of Mexico’s most famous painters of the time. His large frescos helped establish the Mexican mural movement and it wasn’t until the 1970s, 16 years after Kahlo’s death, that her works were rediscovered by art historians and political activists. By the early 1990s she had been established as an icon for feminism and the LGBTQ movement.
Kahlo’s life was characterised by numerous struggles and she often found herself ill and alone. She suffered from polio as a child, was in a horrific traffic accident when she was eighteen years old and also suffered multiple miscarriages throughout her life. These experiences intimately influenced her art and can be seen throughout her works.
Arguably her most iconic work is “Self Portrait with Cropped Hair” which Kahlo painted in 1940, one month after her divorce with Rivera. The painting features the artist seated staring directly at the viewer with a pair of scissors in her right hand while locks of her own freshly cut hair are strewn around her on the floor. She is wearing an oversized black mens suit with earrings and petite high heeled shoes. Atop the painting are lyrics from a popular Mexican folk song. The painting represents her divorce not only from her husband but also from her forced identity as little more than the wife of a famous artist. As Rivera always adored her long hair and colourful Mexican dresses she often wore, Kahlo’s act of changing her hairstyle into a masculine short crop and donning an ill fitting men’s suit communicates her desire to go against these feminine stereotypes and assert her own independence as an individual. It is also widely speculated that the suit itself is one that Rivera often wore and this symbolizes her assertion that she is also an artist worthy of recognition in her own right. The song lyrics translated read “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.” The work is a powerful portrayal of the pain of separation from a loved one along with the struggle of being recognised as a female artist in the 1940s.