Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo

“My painting carries with it the message of pain.” 

Perhaps, no other quote describes Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird more succinctly than this one.

Many of Frida Kahlo’s paintings are more like painted collages of symbols. Painted after her (first) divorce from Diego Rivera, every symbol in this painting gives specific clues to Frida’s mental state. Her still, direct, emotionless gaze seems to express the immediacy of her pain (she was madly in love with Rivera). In a direct reference to Christ and his suffering, she showed herself wearing a necklace of thorns. Is she showing herself to be a martyr? The blood trickling from the wounds could be interpreted as an illustration of her emotional crisis.

Hummingbird detailAlso on the necklace we see a dead hummingbird, the shape of its wings echoing the shape of Frida’s own eye brows. In Mexican culture the bird is a symbol of good luck and that could have been Frida Kahlo’s own way of hoping for better luck after the painful divorce. Yet at the same time she placed a black cat over her left shoulder, a symbol of bad luck and death. Is she doubting her recovery after all? Now look at Frida’s right shoulder and you’ll see a monkey, a gift from Diego Rivera but also a symbol of the devil. It seems to be tightening the necklace around her neck, making her bleed even more. As we move upwards, we see her hope for a new life in the form of the butterflies, alluding to resurrection in the form of transformation.

One of the foremost female Mexican surrealists of the early 20th century, Frida Kahlo’s work was always rich with imagery of her native Mexican and Aztec cultures. In 1938 André Breton, principal initiator of the surrealist movement, described Kahlo’s art as a “ribbon around a bomb”. Some of her other themes originated in the mental and physical anguish caused as a result of a devastating bus accident she suffered as a child in 1925.

She was quoted saying “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best”.

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