Frida Kahlo: Self-Portrait On the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States

9 Aug

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait Along the Boarder Line Between Mexico and the United States, 1932

In 1932 Mexican painter Diego Rivera was working on a series of twenty-seven frescoes in the courtyard of the Detroit Institute of Arts in Midtown Detroit, Michigan. His wife Frida Kahlo accompanied him on this trip to the States, but she shared none of his enthusiasm for the modernity and industrialised landscape of this city, preferring the ancient ruins over factory chimneys, nature over industry. And she expressed her feelings beautifully in the painting “Self-Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States”. She expressed her disdain for the Americans and their lifestyle: “Although I am very interested in all the industrial and mechanical development of the United States, I find that Americans completely lack sensibility and good taste. They live as if in an enormous chicken coop that is dirty and uncomfortable. The houses look like bread ovens and all the comfort that they talk about is a myth.” But, as a painter, she expressed herself better visually then verbally and this painting is a direct a comment on the differences between the perceived idyll of her beloved Mexico and the coldness of the modern urban landscape.

The painting can almost be read as a story because it is filled with details and each detail has a something to tell. In the middle of the painting is the twenty-five year old Frida dressed in a pretty pink gown and white mittens. A cigarette in one hand and a Mexican flag in the other. On the left is an idealised landscape of Mexico, conjured from her memory and imagination, from her loyaly to her country and the nostalgia that she must have felt, especially in the contrast with the ugliness she felt all around her. On the left is a world led by the forces of nature, the power of sun, rain and soil. The fertile soil which gives birth to vibrant flowers and cactuses, their roots are deep and hard to pull out, just as Frida’s art was deeply rooted in the traditions of her homeland. Ruins of a temple and statues of ancient Gods represent the pre-Columbian Mexico. The sun and the moon represent the ancient gods of Mexico; Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca.

On the right is the industrial landscape; skyscrapers and tall factory chimneys; their smoke is slightly obscuring the flag of the United States and there are no clouds on the sky, the dirty chimney smoke has concealed them all. The word Ford is written on the four factory chimneys. There is an obvious contrast between the natural and artificial in the manner in which the buildings were made, ancient temples, although made by humans, were made from natural material, and are therefore still connected to the earth and nature. The colour scheme also conveys this contrast; the left side of the painting is painted in earthy tones, a bit of orange and green, and the right is greyish-blue representing coldness and sterility. American skyscrapers and ugly factories are the complete opposite of nature, they rise towards the sky as if they want to be as far away as possible from the earth. Precisionist painters such as Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth have portrayed the same industrial landscape in the same years with great fascination and admiration, but Frida doesn’t share their enthusiasm because she sees beyond the glossy facade of the industrial progress and she sees how disconnected from nature people can become.

Tired and weary, surrounded by people who don’t understand her and culture she doesn’t belong in, she is eager to return home. In 1933, Diego and Frida have indeed returned to Mexico, but not because of Frida’s yearning alone, but because by the irony of the faith, Rivera’s contract was cancelled after he incorporated an image of Lenin in one of the murals. Frida got what she wanted in the end, though probably not in a way she had imagined it to be. There is a page from her diary, a watercolour I assume, with the words “ruinas” inscribed bellow which shows a ruin of a temple which made me think of this painting so I included it in the end of the post. In a way, Frida’s love for nature and Mexico’s pagan past is a sentiment shared by many artists before her who have fantasised about an escape from the clutches of the civilisation; escape from everything artificial, cold and conventional; Delacroix’s travels to the vibrant and sunny Morrocco, Charles Baudelaire’s reveries of distant exotic lands and the “langorous island, where Nature abounds/ With exotic trees and luscious fruit” (from his poem “Exotic Perfume”), not to mention Paul Gauguin and his paintings painted during his stay in Tahiti.

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