‘Ugly’ art reflects inner beauty

In Frida with Monkeys, the animals symbolize the children Kahlo could not have. Her works are currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.By Jessica Maiuro

The woman with the unibrow: Does this ring a bell? Even if you aren’t familiar with many of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, her self-portraits are often memorable. She painted them with an unflinching eye, including her flaws — like her unibrow and facial hair. Others tend to view this as her taking a stand for women and revealing her true beauty.

If art isn’t your forte because you do not enjoy walking past all the beautiful, elaborate paintings, please, understand that the Kahlo exhibit is different. She is “ugly” in these self-portraits. There are photos of her in real life that look exactly the same as her paintings.

Kahlo is the Mexican Mona Lisa, minus the subtle grin. In her self-portraits she is stone-faced, some with her eyes slightly cast down lower than the viewers. While her face is natural, her hair is ornately done in all the pictures either up in a bun or with brightly colored head pieces staying close to her Mexican roots. Her husband, Diego Rivera, is included in a quarter to half of the exhibit’s photos, and three portraits in particular tell their story.

Frida with Monkeys, Frida and Diego Rivera and Two Fridas are the portraits that speak as her biography. One thing that is similar throughout all her portraits is that she has this blank yet strong, dominant stare. It’s as though while she was painting herself she was staring in the mirror asking, “Who am I?” It seems like she’s asking herself this constantly. She has these dead eyes, but at the same time that’s the way it should be because she has poured everything else inside of her out on the psychologically symbolic background of the canvas.

Frida with Monkeys is a self-portrait that seems to represent her psychological need to be a mother and a nurturer. However, her need was not fulfilled because Rivera did not want children. The monkeys are suggested as her offspring or as a substitute for the children she could not have. The role that Kahlo plays in this portrait is very natural for her; she is the grounded center that the monkeys revolve around.

The portrait of Frida and Diego Rivera shows the source of her unhappiness. When looking at this portrait, something tells you that the couple is not close. She is not the dominant one in this portrait. Instead, she is portrayed as much smaller in size to Rivera. There is a good amount of space in between them and their hands aren’t touching (it only seems like they are holding hands). Kahlo painted this portrait just before her divorce from Rivera.

The last portrait is that of the two different versions of Kahlo holding hands. Two Fridas projects loneliness very well because she is holding hands with herself. The Kahlo on the right side is supposedly the one Rivera first fell in love with, and the one on the left is the one he fell out of love with.

The Kahlo on the right seems more masculine than the one on the left. You can see her actual heart and it is solid red as opposed to the other Kahlo’s more detailed-looking heart. The less sophisticated Kahlo holds a small family portrait in her hand and a vein is coming from that portrait, wraps up around her arm, into her heart, all the way across to the other Kahlo’s heart. The sophisticated Kahlo is holding scissors and she has severed the vein, causing spots of blood to blend into the red flowers on her white gown.

There is something primal about the right side Frida, and the other Frida seems as though she wants to sever her family ties and the person she used to be. She seems more haughty in this since her chin is raised up a little. Maybe Frida became caught up in her upper class artsy, cosmopolitan lifestyle and Rivera did not appreciate that.

The Frida Kahlo exhibit will be featured at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until May 18. Tickets are $17 with a student ID.

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