About Frida Kahlo's

Self Portrait Between the Borderline of Mexico and the United States


REPRODUCTION: What can I learn about how this reproduction is different from the original artwork?

The image on the computer is a digitized image. The original image is a small oil painting on tin (11 3/4" X 13 1/2"). When the original painting is viewed up close, Kahlo's painstakingly fine brushstrokes are visible. The original belongs to the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. Manuel Reyero in New York.

SUBJECT MATTER: What can I determine about what the artwork depicts, if anything?

This painting shows Frida Kahlo standing in between Mexico and the United States. In her left hand she holds a Mexican flag made of papel picado (cut paper--a traditional Mexican art form) that crosses over to the Mexican side. In her right hand she holds a cigarette. Frida wears a pink dress, lace gloves, a coral and jade necklace, braided hair and stands on top of a concrete block inscribed "Carmen Rivera painted her picture in 1932."

The right side of the image is dominated by what Kahlo sees as a representation of industry and the US. The right half has in its foreground a red blaring speaker, a dark flood light, some type of machine, the concrete block, and cables from all these mechanisms inside the earth. The middle ground is dominated by gray unidentified pipes and shafts in a dirty beige background. The background is engulfed by a sky scraped horizon. Smokestacks spew fumes in which flies the American flag. The name "Ford" is written across these industrialized chimneys. A small part of the painting is devoted to a piece of blue sky.

The left half of the panel illustrates nature and a Mesoamerican/Mexican landscape. The foreground shows a colorful variety of plants and cacti, in bud and in bloom. The roots penetrate the earth to form a weblike pattern. The middle ground is dark brown and has two fertility figures (one light and one dark), along with rubble and a stone skeleton's head. The horizon is dominated by a mountainous Mexican pyramid. The sky has two cloud formations: one containing a fire spewing sun and the other embedded with the moon. The meeting of these two formations yield a red lightning bolt.

TOOLS, MATERIALS, AND PROCESSES: What can I learn about how the artwork was made?

The original is a small oil painting on tin. This is a traditional art process in Mexico. Small paintings on metal are known as retablos. Retablos are devotional paintings, that through the process of their creation, commemorate and/or thank saints and deities for salvation in a time of crisis. Kahlo works with the retablo form but for thematic purposes that are very different than those for which the devotional paintings were intended.

Sensory Lesson Index

SENSORY ELEMENTS: What visual elements do I see?

Frida Kahlo used fine brushstrokes to illustrate gradual changes in value (light and dark). All the forms in this painting are smooth and given special attention to details. Fine lines give form to varied shapes. The ground is dark which gives a three-dimensional illusion to the objects. Bright colors are found throughout the painting. The colors range from dark muted earth tones to industrial colors like gray and beige, to bright greens and reds defining particular objects, to pastels like sky blue and Frida Kahlo's pink dress.

FORMAL ORGANIZATION: How do the elements in the artwork work together?

This painting is composed symmetrically. The space is broken into foreground, middle ground, and background. A horizon line is used. All images revolve around Kahlo. Her prominence is emphasized by her pink dress. She divides the painting in half. In the foreground, all objects are placed neatly in a row and establish a border that guards the middle ground. The objects in both the Mexican and U.S. sides balance each other. In the U.S. side, rhythm is enhanced by the repetition of shapes throughout. All of the objects seem to push forward in order to assume the front positions. The total (U.S.) image is dominated by a confused proliferation of inorganic, geometric, industrial shapes (e.g., pipes, tubing, factories, and so on) that compete for the foreground. In sharp contrast, the Mexican half of the painting is dominated by organic shapes (such as those depicting vegetation, landscape, fertility images, etc.) with the exception, however, of the semi-ruined pyramid that is made from geometric forms. As opposed to the U.S. side, the Mexican side, because it is uncluttered and makes use of space, readily gives the viewer visual passage from the foreground to the background.


Frida Kahlo's full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón de Rivera. She was born in Coyoacán, Mexico on July 6, 1907. She later changed her birth year to 1910 in order to affiliate herself further with being a product of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910. Her father, a Hungarian Jew, immigrated from Germany to Mexico and married a Mexican woman of both Native and Spanish descent.

As a child, Frida accompanied her father on his photography assignments and to his studio, learning his art and craft. Frida was one of the first girls allowed into the National Preparatory Academy of Mexico City. There she first met her future husband, Diego Rivera, who was painting a mural at that institution.

Frida married Diego Rivera in 1929. She was 22 years old and he was 42. While they remained residents of Mexico City, because Diego Rivera was commissioned to do murals in the U.S., they lived in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York while he worked on those commissions. They had a tumultuous "open" relationship, in the contemporary sense of the term. They divorced in 1939 and remarried the following year.

Kahlo's life was marked by tragedy. At the age of 7 she was stricken with polio and was left with a smaller, thinner leg. At the age of 18 Kahlo was involved in a horrendous streetcar/bus accident. Not only was her lower body impaled on a metal rod, she broke her pelvis and also her spine in three places. She spent most of her life hospitalized and in bed. She endured plaster corsets for long periods of time. During her life she had three miscarriages because of her prior injuries. Later in life she developed more severe complications connected to the past and suffered a gangrenous leg, which was later amputated. Shortly after this, her condition and demeanor worsened. She died in 1954.

Frida explained that the reason why she painted many self-portraits stemmed from her loneliness and that she was the person she knew best. Her childhood house, the Casa Azul (The Blue House) in Coyoacán, is now a museum.

NATURAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about the natural environment where the artwork was made?

Frida Kahlo was born, lived, and died in her Casa Azul (Blue House) in Coyoacán, Mexico. The valley of Mexico is very fertile. Frida's house was filled with flora, trees, and cacti.

FUNCTIONAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about how the artwork was used?

As a portrait the painting records the appearance of Frida Kahlo.

Frida, has stated in her personal correspondence and her own writing that one of the main functions of this work was to alleviate her sense of isolation. She said that she painted Self Portrait Between the Borderline of Mexico and the United States in order to express the trauma of not only being homesick but also because she felt tremendously isolated especially after her second miscarriage. Later she told a friend "My painting carried with it the message of pain.... Painting completed my life. I lost three children.... Painting substituted for all this." Dore Ashton (1990), "Mexican Art of the Twentieth Century," Mexico: Spendor of Thirty Centuries, John P. O'Neill, editor in chief, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, p. 683.

CULTURAL CONTEXT: What can I determine about what people thought, believed, or did in the culture in which the artwork was made?

Frida Kahlo was a child during the Mexican Revolution and grew up in an era of social change. In the 1920s Frida espoused a Communist philosophy, and did not agree with Capitalism. The official stance of the Mexican government was hardly communist, but it was much more left-leaning than the United States, and the government did split up numerous haciendas and ranches and parceled the land out in the form of ejidos (jointly owned farms) to many Mexican rural communities. Frida believed that industry was part of Capitalism, and even though Diego Rivera believed in the necessity of technological progress, Frida believed machines to be bad luck and the cause of pain.

ARTWORLD CONTEXT: What can I learn about the art ideas, beliefs, and activities that were important in the culture in which the artwork was made?

As a child, Frida Kahlo spent most of her time with her father in his photography studio. There she learned precision and patience. She married Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist, at the age of 22. Rivera was 42 years old. He was by this time a very well-established, renown artist. Her marriage to Rivera fully immersed her in the artworld. She knew many famous painters such as Picasso, Duchamp, Siqueiros, and Orozco.

Kahlo was told by André Breton, the surrealist poet, that she was a surrealist. She was aware of the art movements of the time but she did not necessarily affiliate herself with Surrealism, instead she said she painted her own reality. But because of this association she was given shows in New York City and Paris. Still she did not have her first solo show in Mexico until 1953, a year before her death.

MAKER'S INTENTION: What can I learn about why the maker wanted the artwork to look the way it does?

Frida Kahlo executed this painting while she waited for Rivera to finish his mural in Detroit. During this time she had a traumatic miscarriage and stayed in the Henry Ford hospital. She felt very alone and isolated from reality. This painting is an expression of how Kahlo saw her situation stuck somewhere in limbo, in a space disconnected from her ancient homeland. Frida uses her name Carmen Rivera as the author of the painting. This may be for several reasons. The Detroit press called her by that name only in reference to Rivera. Or Frida may have wanted to emphasize her Mexicanism while in the U.S. or because of the rise of the Nazis (Frida Kahlo is a Germanic name).

Viewer Lesson Index

ARTWORLD VIEWER UNDERSTANDING: What can I determine about how the viewer, patron, or user understood the artwork?

In her own day, the artworld press usually referred to Frida Kahlo in the context of her husband. For example, Time magazine stated: "The flutter of the week in Manhattan was caused by the first exhibition of paintings by famed muralist Diego Rivera's German-Mexican wife, Frida Kahlo." "Bomb Beribboned," Time, November 14 1939, p.29.

On the other hand, major artists such as André Breton appreciated Frida's originality immediately. Bretón wrote "My surprise and joy was unbounded when I discovered, on my arrival in Mexico, that her work has blossomed forth, in her latest paintings, into pure surreality, despite the fact that it had been conceived without any prior knowledge whatsoever of the ideas motivating the activities of my friends and myself." André Breton, Frida Kahlo de Rivera, p.144.

Over the decades since her death, she has attained worldwide recognition as an artist and serves as a model for women artists and art viewers. In fact several authors have written biographies of Frida Kahlo including: Frida Kahlo The Brush Of Anguish, Zamora, Martha, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1990.

CULTURAL IMPACT: What can I learn about how the artwork was understood within culture in which it was made?

During her life, Frida Kahlo was recognized primarily by the intellectual elite, both in Mexico and internationally, but was not well known among ordinary Mexicans, particularly because she worked in mediums that did not lend themselves to mass distribution. She did not do murals, no mass-printed graphics, both of which were the mediums of choice for the purpose of accessing the Mexican masses. As one autobiographer of Kahlo stated, "A visit with Frida was becoming obligatory for every important person traveling through Mexico City. Through her home passed the Rockefellers, Edward G. Robinson, Josephine Baker, poet Gabriela Mistral, the presidents of various countries, many ambassadors, and other luminaries." Frida Kahlo The Brush Of Anguish, Zamora, Martha, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1990, p. 99.

Almost 30 years after her death, her biographers, especially Hayden Herrera, wrote influential works that brought both her extraordinary personal life as well as her art to the center of attention within the international artworld.


STYLE: How does the artwork look like other artworks?

Frida Kahlo was considered a naive painter even if she was well-read and educated. Frida's work combines dreamlike imagery with realism. For these reasons Frida may be understood as a surrealist.

Her paintings share stylistic and technical characteristics with traditional Mexican retablos or devotional paintings. Many of her works are small paintings, some on tin. They were executed with great attention to detail and sometimes include text.

INFLUENCE: What can I learn about how earlier artworks influenced this artwork or about whether this artwork influenced later artworks?

"Influenced first by Italian fifteenth- and sixteenth-century painters such as Boticelli and Bronzino, Kahlo was later influenced by Rivera himself, and then more profoundly by Mexican folk Art, and especially by retablos." Latin American Art of the Twentieth Century, Edward Lucie-Smith, Thames and Hudson, NY, 1993.

Frida Kahlo has inspired many artists. Edward Weston, Héctor García, Imogen Cunningham, Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, Nicholas Murray, and Guillermo Zamora have all photographed Frida. Many Chicana/o artists have included versions of her self portraits in their work, among them Rupert García, Alfredo Arreguín, Yreina D. Cervántez, Marcos Raya, and Carmen Lomas Garza.

THEMES: What general ideas connect this artwork to other artworks?

One central theme of Frida Kahlo's work includes the evocation of dualities in life, nature, and society. Such dualities as life/death, earth/industry, woman/man, and dark/light are found in the majority of her work. Self-portraits define Kahlo's work. Her deep introspection has influenced many artists to do the same. Self-portraiture unites Kahlo's work with many contemporary artists, such as Ana Laura Garza, and Gilberto Luján.

A second theme is her adaptation of elements of Mexican folk art into a contemporary evocation of social and personal identities. Self Portrait Between the Borderline of Mexico and the United States is a notable example of this theme. The traditional Mexican art form is the retablo, painted on tin, which has the function of providing a devotional image. Kahlo uses the traditional medium but alters it rather drastically, even iconoclastically. Instead of a traditional, serene, divine image to whom someone would normally pray, she uses the retablo medium to represent a duality between the U.S. and Mexico and a duality in her own persona. Kahlo's persona thus becomes the center of attention, not as an object of reverence or awe, but as an example of contemporary dualities, complexities, and confusion. Whereas Yolanda López, radically offers an alternative image of a divine figure, Kahlo substitutes her own persona instead of a divine image.