In this room, My Grandparents, My Parents and I (Family Tree), 1936, sets out Kahlo’s genealogy. Her mother was a Mexican mestiza and her father a German immigrant. This bloodline is at the root of her divided loyalties, on the one hand to the indigenous culture of her native Mexico, and on the other to Europe. Kahlo’s scrutiny of her mixed race heritage and its relationship to national identity in her newly democratic homeland would resurface throughout her career.
The self-portrait Thinking of Death, 1943, deals explicitly with Kahlo’s preoccupation with mortality and the fragility of her body – the legacy of polio in childhood and a near-fatal bus accident. She drew on many different types of funerary imagery in her paintings, including Aztec art and Mexican folk traditions. Later, she extended her range of sources to include Eastern religions. In this work, the third eye chakra in the centre of the forehead, which denotes wisdom or spiritual truth according to Indian Yogic beliefs, has been supplanted with a death’s head.
These two paintings, one of beginnings and one of endings, reflect Kahlo’s enduring obsession with the universal cycle of life, and her search for harmony between dualistic principles such as life and death, male and female, light and dark, ancient and modern; thematic currents that will be encountered at every turn as the exhibition unfolds.