photo of one of the galleries in the Mexican Modernism exhibition featuring paintings on dark teal walls and gauzy cloth hanging from the ceiling casting light and shadows

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

Over 20 artworks by Frida Kahlo are on view at the Denver Art Museum in Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection through January 24, 2021. This exhibition features Self-Portrait with Monkeys, which was painted in 1943.

This blog refers to a different painting: Self-Portrait with Monkey, which was painted in 1932 and was on view at the DAM in 2014 in Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Gallery.

Frida Kahlo painted her life story in 55 small but powerful self-portraits, like Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938. 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 farmers 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-Hispanic 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.”