ART - Sense of self

25th January 2013 at 00:00
Frida Kahlo's tragic portraits expose her turbulent life

GCSE art pupils must learn to contextualise the works they study. Who was the artist? Why did they choose certain subjects? What were their beliefs? What was their life like and how do their paintings represent this?

The work of few artists lends itself so well to such analysis as that of the unconventional Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Born in Coyoacan in 1907, she became an icon of Mexican culture and has been the subject of exhibitions and films worldwide.

A third of her 55 paintings were self-portraits. However, this was less due to vanity than an attempt to show how tragic experiences affected her: she had polio as a child and was severely injured in a bus accident, with the result that she spent much of her life in and out of surgery. She also had fertility problems, leading to miscarriages and an abortion. She believed honesty was of the utmost importance and her paintings can be shocking.

My Birth (1932) explores her miscarriage and the death of her mother by showing an adult head - that of Kahlo - emerging from her mother's womb in a sea of blood, while her mother's face is covered by a white sheet. In The Broken Column (1944) the artist's nude body, cut down the middle from head to waist, is part-covered by a body brace, with a fractured column where her spine should be, representing the pain that overshadowed much of her life.

Kahlo was not classically beautiful: she had a unibrow and a moustache and was often incapacitated, either in a body cast or recovering from surgery. Yet she had many admirers. She married the philandering Diego Rivera twice, had several female lovers and also an affair with Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, whom she honoured with Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937).

She dressed outlandishly, often wearing men's clothes or Tehuana traditional costume. In The Two Fridas (1939) she depicted herself in two ways. One Frida, in Tehuana dress, has a healthy red heart shown through a tear in her clothing; the other Frida, in a lacy Victorian dress, is divorced, with an exposed, broken heart.

Kahlo was obsessed with her body, often sketching parts of it in her diary. She explored the distortions and physical pain she saw in others and suffered herself. Some critics believe she used the image of her body as a metaphor for her fractured homeland, which descended into chaos during the revolution three years after her birth. Others believe her self-portraits were a form of pain relief. Explore them in your classroom and discuss your pupils' conclusions.

What else?

Introduce your class to the life and work of Frida Kahlo using slafhaj's worksheets and activities. bit.lytesFridaKahlo

Be inspired by the art of South America with PowerPoint tutorials from artyspice.


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