TEACHERS

Use the background information and discussion questions below to introduce this important artwork.

 

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Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

Frida Kahlo

Background

Mexican-born artist Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) once said, “My painting carries the message of pain.” And it’s not difficult to see why. When Kahlo was in her teens, she was grievously injured in a bus accident that left her in near-constant pain for the rest of her life. It was during her recovery from this accident that she painted her first self-portrait. She had planned to study medicine but soon decided to become a painter.

Kahlo had always admired the art of Diego Rivera. In 1927, she approached him with some of her paintings and he encouraged her to develop her talent. Kahlo and Rivera were married two years later. Their relationship was rocky: They divorced in 1939, remarried a year later, and often lived apart. Many of Kahlo’s 55 self-portraits allude to not only her physical pain but to the emotional pain caused by her unstable marriage. Although Kahlo did not consider herself part of the Surrealist movement, her paintings contain surreal elements, such as odd juxtapositions of animals and objects. Like Rivera, Kahlo filled her paintings with native Mexican imagery, vivid colors, and symbolism.

Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird shows a woman who appears trapped in a life of unending pain. Her neck and shoulders are encased in a network of thorns, which may be a reference to the crown of thorns Christ was forced to wear when he was crucified. The thorns have drawn blood, and a hummingbird hangs from the necklace by a twist of barbed wire. Kahlo’s image nearly fills the canvas; she is flanked by a spider monkey and a menacing black cat. A jungle-like arrangement of leaves forms the background. The composition is symmetrical, divided in half by the bird’s wings, the eyebrows, and the center part in Kahlo’s hair. Surreal elements include dragonflies and butterflies that appear to be made of lace.

Discussion

  • How did a terrible accident change Kahlo’s life?
    (Although a bus accident left Kahlo in near-permanent pain, it was during her recovery that she began painting self-portraits and decided to become an artist.)
  • How did Diego Rivera influence Kahlo’s art?
    (Rivera encouraged Kahlo to develop her talent, and his use of traditional Mexican imagery influenced her work.)
  • In Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, how has Kahlo created a sense of pain and being trapped?
    (The thorns draw blood, and the scratches appear to be painful. The way in which Kahlo appears encased in the thorns gives a sense of her being trapped.)
  • What kind of composition has Kahlo used in this work?
    (The composition is symmetrical—the same on both sides. Kahlo is at the center, balanced by the animals on either side. The bird’s wings, Kahlo’s heavy eyebrows, and the center part in her hair all divide the composition in half.)