Frida Kahlo: Framing “The Frame”

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) The Frame (Le Cadre), or Portrait of the Artist, c. 1937–38
Oil on aluminum fixed under glass and painted wood, with frame 12 11⁄16 ✕ 9 5⁄8 in. (32.2 ✕ 24.4 cm)
Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou
Image from Artists’ Self-Portraits, published by Abbeville Press

Frida Kahlo has become an icon in twentieth century art, a figure to challenge the dominant, male trends and to refute classical notions of beauty, especially those of the stereotypically demure role that women are asked to play. Kahlo’s self-portrait above, “The Frame,” self-consciously reduces the artist to a traditional, flat icon in which the colorful frame calls to our attention and the image begins to dominate the actual woman. In Omar Calabrese’s insightful survey of the art of self-portraiture, Abbeville’s Artists’ Self-Portraits, he contextualizes Kahlo’s “ideology of the body” in order to show fully how her many self-portraits (55 of Kahlo’s paintings, out of a total of 143, are self-portraits) expressed her conception of herself as a woman and an artist, and her rebellion against sexist and elitist attitudes even within the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century. Calabrese notes:

Kahlo emphasized the representation of her body in provocative fashion, sometimes showing herself wounded, sometimes ugly, sometimes reduced to a popular icon, always accentuating certain identifying features.

Kahlo’s imagery of herself is often nightmarish, but when  André Breton called her a “spontaneous Surrealist,” Kahlo denied the title, maintaining she painted not dreams but her own reality. When asked why she made so many self-portraits, Kahlo famously replied, “Because I am so often alone…because I am the subject I know best.” Kahlo’s life is displayed in her art, and her focus on the physical body and on suffering stems from her biography, from a tragic bus accident that left her with severe spinal injuries, and with painful complications and repercussions for the rest of her life. It was during her recovery from this accident that Kahlo learned to paint, and she developed her own artistic identity through her use of traditional Mexican painting techniques and a strong—truly unmistakable—style of personal expression.

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Click here for more information on Artists’ Self-Portraits, published by Abbeville Press.

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