Isabel Radford reflects on one of Frida Kahlo’s best known works, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, and sees the artist as a source of empowerment for our current times.
This Frida Kahlo self-portrait sits on my small mantelpiece facing my bed and is the first thing I see the moment I wake up. Arguably the queen of quarantine, it is her who is getting me through these testing times. Although her life seemed to go hand-in-hand with isolation, Kahlo was still able to strive for freedom and hope during moments when it looked like all was done for. She is an inspiration to artists for her beautiful creative work and to many people, especially women, today.
I first came across this wonderful self-portrait during the Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up exhibition in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Embarrassingly ignorant about this artist beforehand, I recognised her iconic monobrow and voluptuous use of colour to be of great integrity and importance. The painting, Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, is one of Kahlo’s best-known works and was completed in 1940, 15 years after a tragic accident on a bus left her in pain for the rest of her life. Kahlo’s painting is from the shoulders up, concealing the corset which held her damaged body in place. She stares back at the viewer defiant and powerful, reflecting a regal stature and appearing unphased by the thorn necklace brutally piercing her décolletage. In the lower centre is a hummingbird with its wings splayed looking up at the artist. Just behind her right shoulder sits a monkey, whilst behind her, to the left, creeps a black cat. This intense black is also reflected in Kahlo’s thick hair which is held in a tight braided bun and decorated with two butterflies. Above her, two dragonflies also hover, as she sits amongst a luscious green jungle of stifling leaves.
This is a particularly potent piece from Kahlo’s experimental artwork collection because it was painted just after her divorce from Diego Rivera. Although she would remarry him later that year, Kahlo’s depiction of herself reflects her independence and solitude. Her choice to surround herself with nature and animals gives a sense of freedom or sublimity, away from industry or anything man-made (themes she has often been drawn to). On the surface it is a reflection of her rebirth as a free woman, as an individual who can exist without a man. However, upon closer inspection, one may see this more as a reflection of pain and heartache instead of strength. The deep cutting thorn necklace acts as a collar and the claustrophobic forest behind could reflect the extreme agony Kahlo was in throughout her life, especially after her divorce. She is therefore restrained and unable to escape her body or the environment which surrounds her. Even the animals have more freedom than Kahlo and I feel this sense of entrapment the more I stare back at her. She stands strong and unbeatable, yet her eyes cannot hide their sorrow.
I believe Kahlo’s reflection in this painting mirrors similar experiences across the world at the moment. Not only does the isolated depiction of herself physically reflect the state of lives today, this artwork is also an equal reflection of internal thoughts and battles. She wonderfully illustrates both strength and weakness, pain and peace and the complexity of external and internal worlds colliding. Ever since seeing this painting, I have yet to encounter such a vivid and extensive depiction of human emotions within a piece of art. So I hope, like me, you turn to Frida Kahlo as a source of empowerment during these times. An artist who suffered, persevered and showed strength through the darkest of days.
About Isabel Radford
Isabel Radford is currently a student at the University of Edinburgh studying Geography and Anthropology with a great interest and growing passion for Art History. She has admired Frida Kahlo since learning more about her life when visiting the V&A Exhibition of her work. She has always been fascinated by feminism and feels naturally drawn to powerful women who can also express emotions and empathy, which she believes Kahlo embodies most admirably. You can find Isabel on Instagram @izarascal
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts now wants to open the series up to other writers. Is there a postcard or a work of art that speaks to you at this time? If so, send your submissions to Rochelle via firstname.lastname@example.org and see here for more information.