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The Importance of Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird
A closer look 04 Apr 2022

The Importance of Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird

Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas
Frida Kahlo, Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas, 1940 © La Camara del arte

Frida Kahlo painted many self-portraits throughout her career. Following her divorce from her ex-husband and fellow Mexican painter Diego Rivera, Kahlo painted the self-portrait Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas; a composition that featured herself, a black cat, hummingbird and monkey. Otherwise known as Self-Portrait Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, this painting has come to be viewed as a strikingly realist representation of Frida Kahlo’s inner emotional struggle. Let’s explore the meaning behind each of the elements that come together in this highly symbolic and allegorical introspective self-portrait.

The life of Frida Kahlo

Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas was painted as an oil on canvas self-portrait in 1940. Despite suffering several misfortunes including a collision accident at the age of 18, it was the decade in which this iconic self-portrait was painted, that proved the most tragic of her life. During this period Kahlo experienced 3 miscarriages, several dozen operations (one of which included the removal of her toes), the passing of her mother and numerous rumored affairs that occurred within her marriage to Diego Rivera. Tragedy stained this Mexican female artist’s life and this can be seen in Frida Kahlo’s creative outlook. 

Pain and Painting—the Tragic Tale behind Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait

This introspective self-portrait testifies to a painful period within Kahlo’s life. It reflects a deep sadness that went beyond her chronic pain brought on by a debilitating accident in early adulthood. It reflects an emotional anguish as well. The only escape Kahlo found from this enduring pain was through art. Thus, pain and painting go hand in hand within Kahlo’s career as an artist. She began painting whilst in her convalescence recovering from her life-defining bus accident in her bed ridden teens. Painting offered a release from her anguish as a mode of self expression and freedom. 

Frida Kahlo in her youth
Frida Kahlo in her youth ©Fridakahlo.org

Kahlo is said to have said the following, “My paintings carry with them the message of pain.”

No other sentence Kahlo is quoted to have said, truly describes Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird more concisely than this one. This painting was conceived after her first divorce from Rivera and the end of her affair with photographer Nickolas Muray. She would later remarry Rivera that year. Before this, ironically, Muray would purchase the painting in order to assist Kahlo’s financial situation.

Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait

Scholars have interpreted Kahlo’s self-portraits, of which there are many (55 out of her 143 total paintings), as her attempt at establishing her freedom through the reclamation of her body depicted through her own gaze. Explaining her penchant for the style Kahlo said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best.” In a period where the hypermasculine art world still depicted the female form as an object of desire to the male painter’s eye, Kahlo redefined her own subject. In doing so she went against the contemporary ideals on gender conformity and archetypal standards of beauty. Kahlo, using her own image, goes against a patriarchal tradition in art.

Kahlo on Politics

Another outlet of escapism that Kahlo pursued was through her interest in politics. Now a modern-day feminist symbol, Frida Kahlo also played a prominent role in another political movement—that of Mexico’s revolution. 

In her paintings of a so-called naive or folk style, depictions of Mexican symbols take precedence. As a fervent supporter of the revolution beginning in 1910, Kahlo’s art reflects her nationalistic and patriotic ideas. In 1948 Frida Kahlo rejoined the Mexican Communist Party. In 1951 she supported Mexico’s Peace movement. Kahlo is able to portray her ethnic heritage through her depiction of the self in her paintings. In later works she was inspired by her husband Rivera’s concept of “Mexicanidad.” Kahlo is said to have taken on the identity of a Tehuana woman of Mexican descent in a passionate identification with Mexican pre-Hispanic indigenous roots.

Frida the Feminist

Kahlo, who’s face now emblazons the modern day feminist movement in popular culture, had a lot to do with the rise of a so-called cult of Mexican femininity of the 20th century. Her portraits reflect a growing feminine movement within Mexico at the time that valued “selflessness, martyrdom, self-sacrifice, an erasure of self and the negation of one’s outward existence” according to Jolie Olcott. In the rejection of a patriarchal, limited conception of femininity, Kahlo fashioned herself as a Mexican counterpart to the flappers of the United States and Europe in the decades before her.

A portrait of Kahlo
A portrait of Kahlo ©Fridakahlo.org

In her portrayal of the self, she actively reconsiders standards of beauty. Depicting her tanned face, crooked teeth, monobrow and moustache, her idiosyncrasies are highlighted with deliberate emphasis. Kahlo contemplates her dual relationship with femininity and androgyny. “Of my face, I like the eyebrows and the eyes. Aside from that, I like nothing … I have the moustache and in general the face of the opposite sex.” 

The Symbolism behind the Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird

The autobiographical details of Kahlo’s life can be found directly in the canvas via the vehicles of imagery and iconography. Her naive or folk painting style demonstrates a heavy reliance on symbolism. Her artistry is often composed of an assortment of symbols—a composition of visual intertextuality if you will. Founding her artwork upon layers of cultural significance, she relates a narrative of a young Mexican woman. The honest expression of her reality is what has led her work to go on to receive international recognition. Ironically, in her work so closely related to her native homeland, Frida first gained international recognition before she saw real success in Mexico. Kahlo realized her first solo exhibition in the United States (Julien Levy’s gallery, New York in 1938), before, a few years later, doing so in Mexico. 

Mexican Iconography

The merger between Mexico’s rich ethnic past as well as Kahlo’s look towards the US and modern Western society can be seen in the combination of Christian and Aztec iconography in her artworks. From the characteristic eyebrows, the tightly pulled back hairstyle, to the vibrant Mexican clothing, Kahlo’s appearance speaks to a definitively Mexican young woman proud of her heritage. By using powerful iconography from indigenous Mexican culture, Kahlo situates herself in a tradition of rebellion against colonial forces and male rule. 

Filling a void through Animals

The dead hummingbird which hangs around her neck is considered a good luck charm for falling in love in Mexican folklore. Some interpret the hummingbird pendant as a symbol of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. Meanwhile, the black panther is symbolic of bad luck and death and the monkey is a symbol of evil. The natural landscape, which normally symbolizes fertility, contrasts with the deathly imagery in the foreground. Certainly the painting speaks to the pain inflicted by her relationship and struggles with infertility. In real life, Kahlo received a spider monkey as a gift from her husband, thus suggesting that it could be a symbol of her husband who allegorically inflicts pain upon Kahlo by tugging the thorn necklace that breaks her skin.

Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas © La Camara del arte
Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas © La Camara del arte

Alternatively, in Western belief systems, the thorn necklace could allude to Christ’s crown of thorns, thus likening herself to a Christian martyr. In line with this interpretation, the butterflies and dragonflies could symbolize her resurrection. Art historians note that Kahlo’s hinting at martyrdom might allude to an intentional blasphemy.

Animals play an important role in this painting and Kahlo’s artistry as a whole. She closely related herself to the animal kingdom. She treated a number of her pets as surrogate children and this love was underlined by their featuring in several of her paintings. 

Frida Kahlo and husband Diego Rivera
Frida Kahlo and husband Diego Rivera ©Fridakahlo.org

The small yet mighty painting

The painting’s composition is beautifully balanced, Kahlo’s face is the focal point of the image. Though her eyes do not directly engage with the viewer, they are slightly downcast and appear sad, forcing the viewer to consider the introspective nature of this painting. Her still, semi-direct, emotionless gaze is powerful. This rather small painting (approximately 24” × 18”) shows Kahlo in a frontal position. Perhaps she directly confronts the viewer and consequently wider society of the patriarchy. Though many saw her as a Surrealist, Kahlo preferred the term realist. She carried out a trip to Paris in 1939 where she interacted with the painters of the Surrealist movement. Kahlo commented that she painted her “reality” and the subjects she knew best: herself and her sad reality—certainly not the stuff of dreams.

Since 1966, Kahlo’s cryptic masterpiece has circled the world. Furthermore, Kahlo’s legacy lies in her contribution to the feminist movement as as a Mexican artist who brought notoriety to Neomexicanismo art. Painting to Kahlo was not simply about her influence or about her legacy. It was a means of coping. It is because of this emotional intensity that people are drawn to her paintings still today. Herein lies Kahlo’s truest lasting legacy.