Self-portraiture was Kahlo’s most consistent and successful mode of expression, and the genre that allowed her to penetrate and dissect the very core of her being. Yet compared to other paintings in which she depicts herself, the works on these walls reveal surprisingly little variation in pose or mood. Kahlo’s characteristic features are as impassive as a mask. It is only the addition of symbols, such as teardrops, thorns, or arterial red ribbons that indicate psychological intent. In this respect, the self-portraits could be compared to religious icons.
Viewed as a series spanning a decade, however, a gradual refinement over time can be discerned. The increasingly stylised presentation has been compared to the way in which celebrities of the period cultivated their image through publicity photographs – Kahlo counted a number of American and Mexican film stars amongst her friends, and certainly, paintings like these helped to increase her public recognition. A saleable commodity compared to her more excoriating works, self-portraiture allowed her to establish herself as an artist in her own right and to gain financial independence from Rivera.
Kahlo’s fascination with identity and delight in masquerade was apparent even in her early life – she appears in a number of family photographs wearing a man’s suit. Soon after she met Rivera, Kahlo began to dress in the traditional Mexican clothes that would come to define her image for posterity. In particular, she chose the regional costumes of the Tehuana women of southern Mexico, who were known for their matriarchal society and associated with a proud indigenous culture – Kahlo sports an elaborate Tehuana headdress in two of the self-portraits shown here.
The full skirts, shawls, braided hairstyles, and heavy jewellery that she adopted were worn in part to please Rivera, and in part to conceal her physical ailments. Yet it was also a political statement in support of an authentic and independent Mexican heritage. Similar ideological principles informed her inclusion of the landscape and native animals of Mexico in these paintings.
If many of the self-portraits assume the fixity of a mask, in one, the principle is reversed. In The Mask 1945, Kahlo conceals her features behind a papier-mâché caricature of a figure from Mexican history known as La Malinche. La Malinche was the Indian mistress and translator for the conquistador Cortés, who overthrew the Aztec empire and claimed Mexico for Spain. Though reviled as a traitor ever since, as the mother of Cortés’s child, she is also regarded as the founder of Mexico’s mixed-race culture. In this conflicted character Kahlo found a mirror for her own anxieties, sometimes signing her letters ‘Frida, La Malinche’.