Kahlo’s burgeoning sense of national identity was thrown into stark relief by her experience of living in theUnited Statesfor the best part of four years. Travelling with Rivera as he painted murals in San Francisco, Detroit and New York, she found herself marooned in an alien culture.
Two works, Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and theUnited States 1932, and My Dress Hangs There 1933, serve as manifestos for Kahlo’s ‘Mexicanidad’, or sense of pride in being Mexican. In the former, she appears on a pedestal poised between two conflicting worlds – the capitalist industry of the USA, represented by Ford’s belching factories, and the agrarian plateaus of Mexico, dotted with ancient temples and ritualistic artefacts. Holding the Mexican flag in her hand, she makes her loyalties clear.
My Dress Hangs There 1933, set amidst the skyscrapers of New York, ridicules the modern American obsession with sport and sanitation by placing a golf trophy and a toilet on top of classical columns. The temple (Federal Hall), with its steps in the form of a sales graph, and the church, with a dollar sign in its window, are dedicated to the worship of mammon. At the centre of the composition is a traditional Mexican dress, of the type Kahlo took to wearing soon after she married Rivera. By adopting regional costume, and through paintings such as these, Kahlo developed her own distinctive brand of Mexicanidad at a time when, post-revolution, the country was rediscovering its pre-Columbian and indigenous heritage.
Kahlo stated that two accidents shaped her life: the first was the bus accident, the second was Diego Rivera. They married in 1929, divorced in 1939, and remarried in 1940. A key influence on her work and career, he encouraged her to paint and to cultivate her vernacular style, drawing on Mexican folk art. However, in the double portrait shown here, from 1931, she depicts herself as the demure Mexican wife, while her husband takes the lead as the Great Artist, palette and brushes in hand. Like so much of Kahlo’s work, the pseudo-naive style masks a more complex reality. The composition is partly based on a well-known European precedent – Jan Van Eyck’s fifteenth-century portrait of the Arnolfini Marriage, a reproduction of which Kahlo kept in her studio.