Frida Kahlo’s Politics Reflected in Self-Portrait with Monkey

Frida Kahlo painted her life story in 55 small but powerful self-portraits, like Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938, which was on view in Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Gallery. She exposed her life honestly through her paintings, but her portraits went beyond documentation of her own biography. A passionate nationalist who advocated for the revolution of Mexico and supported the peasants and workers who were oppressed by the ruling elite, she deftly wove a political thread through her work. Her commitment to reclaiming pre-Columbian traditions and purging the effects of colonization in Mexico was expressed in her dedication to indigenismo (a political, intellectual, and artistic movement that celebrated indigenous peoples in Mexico). These principles can most notably be seen in her fashion and in the themes and compositions of her paintings that evoke ancient Mexican cultures and comment on contemporary politics.

Frida Kahlo's Background

Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico City on July 6, 1907, just three years prior to the start of the Mexican Revolution, one of the most complex and violent conflicts in Mexico’s history. This event shaped her political views and deeply impacted her life and work, to the point that around 1922 she began to tell people her birth year was 1910 to align with the start of the revolution.

Her life and marriage to Diego Rivera has been romanticized in text and film, but even without a little Hollywood magic, her life story reads like a movie script. She best described this in a 1951 interview in the Mexico City newspaper Novedades, saying “I suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down … the other accident is Diego.”

Kahlo's Bond with Nature

In Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938 Frida Kahlo does not reference the trolley accident or Diego; instead, she paints her portrait with subtle references to her indigenismo politics. Stylistic links in the painting highlight her indigenous religious beliefs in the cyclical connection between human beings and the natural world. These philosophies are seen in the verdant leaves and tall yucca with wispy white hairs behind her that allude to the flora of her homeland and her belief that all life contributes to a single flow.

Flora and fauna were vitally important to her pre-Columbian ancestors and during her life this precious resource was cultivated by the oppressed indigenous population she championed. She connects herself to the natural world by echoing the hairs on the vegetation and monkey in her own tresses, styled in her signature indigenous fashion. This bond with nature is reinforced by the curves of her monkey’s arm that embrace her neck, the root-like ribbon slung around the monkey (which she used as a symbol for life-lines), the bone-like necklace Frida wears, and the green ribbon woven so skillfully into her hair that she becomes a part of the leaves.

Frida explained her pride in Mexico and her desire to change the political situation through her art in a letter to Antonio Rodriguez in 1952. She wrote, “I wish to be worthy, with my paintings, of the people to whom I belong and to the ideas which strengthen me.”

Update: Some of the images referred to in this blog post have been removed following the close of Modern Masters at the Denver Art Museum. Please visit the Albright-Knox Art Gallery Collection search page to find the related artworks. This appeared on this post while the exhibition was open:

Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907-1954). Self Portrait with Monkey, 1938. Oil on Masonite. 16 x 12 inches (40.6 x 30.5 cm). Collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Bequest of A. Conger Goodyear, 1966. © 2013 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jesse Laird Ortega is a research assistant in the modern and contemporary department at the Denver Art Museum. Jesse has a masters in art history from the University of Denver and wrote her thesis on the portrayal of La Malinche in the post-conquest manuscript, El Lienzo de Tlaxcala. Jesse has been at the DAM since 2011 and her favorite artworks on view are the Moche portrait head vessels in the pre-Columbian study galleries and Brad Kahlhamer’s Eagle Claws.

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