A feature in two volumes.
Vol.I: Life
Vol. II: Paintings

Fulang Chang and I:

Frida Kahlo, Fulang Chang and I, Oil on Masonite, 28 x 40 cm, 1937, Museum of Modern Art, New York City (fridakahlo.org)

CHICAGO- Against a leafy backdrop, the artist and her beloved spider monkey stare at viewers with the same side-glance. Kahlos thick, black hair and facial hair parallel with that of Fulang in the same way her white shirt resembles the primate’s light-colored chest hair. The clearly distinguishable lines which constitute every single hair in the piece are rendered as meticulously on Kahlos head as they are on the monkey and surrounding cacti. The organic forms in the image mimic each other; the roundness of Frida‘s head is reciprocated by that of the cacti, top-right leaf, and Fulang‘s head. There is hence a clear connection between the two figures and their environment, a bond which is reified by the pink ribbon gracefully winding about them; the viewer sees a tight-knit relationship and a harmony between all the entities present with no hierarchical discrimination between them.

To spite this, an interlocutor may point out the contrast between the warm and fleshy tones of Frida‘s face and the relatively colder hues which compose the rest of the painting. They may add that this tonal emphasis, along with the fact that the artist’s face is placed at the center of the composition, betrays the innately anthropocentric quality of the artwork. However, while the “I” in the title may stink of egoism, it is worthwhile to consider the fact that it follows the spider-monkey’s name and does not precede it, even though such an arrangement would have been grammatically sound even in Spanish. To add, some of the light yellows on Frida‘s face, the highlights, are also used on the foliage, mollifying the juxtaposition. It cannot be claimed, however, that the painting is entirely impersonal either, as it is a portrait. Rather, while the artist is the focal point of the artwork, the polyphony which exists between the various formal elements of the piece expresses Kahlo‘s sense of belonging within her natural surroundings.

Further, there is some humor in the subtle smirk on Kahlo‘s lip, a rarity in her self-portraiture. Coupled with the directness with which she and Fulang Chang stare out at the viewer, this engages the audience and attracts empathy. When Fulang Chang and I was gifted to Mary Schapiro Sklar in 1938, it was given with a mirror to be hung beside it so that giver and receiver are always close; due to this, and as Veronica Roberts has asserted, the mirror is a rudimentary component of this artwork, one which hooks the viewer in a face-to-face conversation with Frida and Fulang –a fellow person and a representative of the more Darwinian parts of nature. Distance is minimized and rapport is achieved.

Self-portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States:

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States, Oil on metal, 30 x 34cm, 1932, collection of Mr. and Mrs. Manuel Reyero, New York (fridakahlo.org)

Painted while homesick in Detroit during her sojourn there for Rivera‘s work, the piece presents Kahlo standing on a pedestal which is the border separating Mexico from America. To her left is a heavily -perhaps hyperbolically- industrialized cityscape representing the latter nation. While to her right rests the more spacious landscape of primordial Mexico. A smaller portion of the canvas is dedicated to the American side, and this may have been done in order to accentuate the semblance of crowdedness created by the overlapping forms of contrasting hues –the skyscrapers and buildings. While there is a temple on the Mexican side, its features are less aggregated and more symmetrical, and its outline is that of an unchiseled mountain. Such a rugged appearance could indicate that the built environment of Mexico was harmoniously integrated into the natural one, unlike American architecture which seems to overwhelm its side of the landscape.

What is more, in Gringolandia, the little earth visible in the middle-ground is gradually desaturating from brown to grey, supposedly due to the alien row of metal pipes and tanks above it. On the other hand, the soil in Mexico takes on a richer and more intense tonality of browns. The meaning of this seems to be suggested by the different crop yielded on either side of the border: Mexican land spouts botanical biodiversity while the land of Ford Industries manufactures strange technological contraptions. High above this all, the Sun, Moon, and American Flag dominate the sky with the celestial objects coalescing magically atop the temple and the flag floating above a Ford factory, obfuscated by smog; in unison with the pre-Columbian idols, this astronomical spectacle identifies the Mexico in question as one which is pre-colonial rather than modern like the United States.

As opposed to the conventional understanding of the painting as a political comparison, it might also be a concession of Kahlo‘s cultural ambivalence. This would explain the balance which the artist creates between the otherwise contradictory settings to her figure’s sides. Like the leveling of ground and how machines replace the plants. Other examples are seen in the tanks which parallel a pile of stones, the temple’s base which extends horizontally as the factory’s roof and how the clouds coincide with the smog. Such an argument would not be as cogent, however, if it were not for Kahlo‘s figure. She seems to gracefully stand between the two societies, rebelling with her cigarette but conforming with her equanimity and the name Carmen Rivera below her, her name as a Christian wife. She is dressed in European garb but holding a Mexican flag which she is nonetheless not waving. Even underground, the wire and root connect rather than clash.

By offering a parallelism between the two countries, the piece epitomizes the way Kahlo linked nationality to nature. Simultaneously, by accomplishing harmony and boasting some sort of nonpartisan moderation, Kahlo is sending a message about the rashness of choosing between the extremes of reckless urbanization and complete desolation in favour of the environment, preferring, herself, to embrace both attitudes. She stands between Marxism and Capitalism, antiquity and modernity, and the wilderness and humanity.

The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xólotl:

Frida Kahlo, The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xólotl, oil on canvas, 60.5 x 70 cm, 1949, Jacques and Natasha Collection, Mexico City (fridakahlo.org)

In the artwork, a baby Diego rests on Kahlos lap with what Kettenmann describes as the “invisible eye of oriental wisdom” on his forehead. Kahlo, in turn, sits on the lap of what could be the pre-Columbian earth goddess Cihuacoatl who is then followed by a background of clouds which is anthropomorphised with arms and a face. Each figure in the sequence embraces the next. Although indigenous Mexican flora sprout from this heavenly hug, the figures form a pyramid redolent of the triangular compositions popular in the Renaissance paintings of Madonna and Child. This emulates the hierarchical but harmonious arrangement thereof, Kahlo creates an atmosphere of tranquility. Line delicately divides the figures from each other and give the plants an intricate quality, though it becomes more unequivocal in the case of the final, biggest face in the background, which melts into the clouds as if its identity is obfuscated by its own mysterious nature –that of the Universe.

As in Self Portrait on the Borderline, the motif of duality is tackled by representing the Moon and Sun –and Night and Day- on the same canvas, uniting them. It is also manifest in the contrast between Kahlo‘s red dress and the goddess’s green skin as well as between the dark tones of the nocturnal side and the bright ones of the diurnal one. While this may be a reflection of Kahlo‘s own bipartite personality, the mythic symbolism implied by it is worth noting. Kettenmann elaborates:

This dualism is based in the Aztec concept of permanent war raging between the white god Huitzilopochtli, who is the sun god, the personification of day, summer, the south and fire, and his opponent Tezcatlipoca, the black god of the set sun and the personification of night and the firmament, winter, the north and water. The battle between these two forces ensures that the world remains in equilibrium.

The significance of such pre-Hispanic symbolism is its linkage of spirituality and nature. Although viewers of the painting may not be familiar with all the extensive symbols within it, the formal elements and principles of the painting imbue them with a sense of belonging to a much larger, transcendent structure. The Love Embrace portrays this grand structure as fundamentally based in the connection between the natural world and humanity. While Fulang Chang and I is a piece about personality and identity and Self Portrait on the Borderline is a political one and The Love Embrace deals with ideas of spirituality. The variety of themes encompassing Kahlo‘s oeuvre allows it to evoke an affinity towards nature in viewers from a multitude of angles.

Following this exploration, it may be concluded that the circumstances surrounding Frida Kahlo throughout her life infused her with a love of the natural environment. Frida portrayed this passion authentically in her artworks, making them more capable of conceiving similar emotions in viewers. In the decades that have passed following her relatively early death, Frida Kahlo‘s fame and related material culture have only exponentially grown due to technological advances such as film, book publishing, and the internet, placing the artist in galleries as well as on socks. As such, she can indeed be considered a cultural icon of the consolidation between humankind and nature on both a conscious and an unconscious, collective level as her work profoundly expresses and educes highly humanistic values pertaining to environmental integrity.

Read more from Jad Dahshan

Image courtesy indicated in captions.

Adapted from an IB Visual Arts Extended Essay.