Please note that a sketch of a self-portrait by the artist is carved on the verso.
Frida Kahlo's Self-Portrait with Curly Hair (1935), another page in the iconography that reflects significant events in Kahlo's life, is about her attempt to break away from the attachment to Rivera, following his freshly discovered amorous liaison to her younger sister Cristina, shortly after she and Rivera returned to Mexico from New York. A despondent Rivera withdrew for a time, still stunned by the destruction of the mural that he produced for the Rockefeller Center for surreptitiously including in it the portrait of Lenin. Kahlo, unable to tolerate his withdrawal without interpreting it as a form of rejection, pressured him for acknowledgement, which made him withdraw further and take refuge with Cristina. The insult, she recreated in A Few Small Nips (1935), the narrative a of a woman butchered by her lover who jokes about it and says he did not really hurt her as he only gave her a few small nips. Kahlo told a friend that after Rivera requested a divorce, she attempted to take her life. Unsuccessfully, she had tried to break away from his influence and assert her individuality by shedding the Tehuana costume and cutting her long hair, both of which Rivera treasured. Out of that experience, Kahlo produced the androgynous Self-Portrait with Curly Hair, wearing regular clothes, and with her hair in a permanent curl. The painting is a precious object of devotion with its small size and gigantic emotional content: richly painted, eyebrows thick and sensuous frame Kahlo's long lashes and caressing gaze. Following her separation from Rivera, Kahlo had a liaison with Ignacio Aguirre, himself a talented muralist and printmaker. Till his death, Aguirre kept her letters and photos, including one of them of Kahlo with Cristina, in a small box made of the aromatic wood of Olinala, inscribed with his name, likely a gift from Kahlo. Her letters recall those she wrote to Rivera, making one wonder whether she sought more the amorous experience than the person. Like a treasure, I kept your letter. Your voice gave me the cleanest joy - I did not know what to do! - And I began to write you this letter that will not know how to tell you with words all that I would like - all that you deserve for giving me so much! - Your beauty -your hands - you.
Three months with Aguirre were not long enough to forget Rivera. With curls shed, Kahlo went to New York to commiserate with Ella Wolfe, brought with her the Self-Portrait with Curly Hair, and presented her with it as a gift. Ella Wolf owned another work by Kahlo also given her as a gift, Four Inhabitants of Mexico (1937), which she sold in order to live at home until her death on January 8, 2000; but the treasured Self-Portrait with Curly Hair, hung in her dining room, until the end.
Dr. Salomon Grimberg
October 3, 2003
At first sight Frida Kahlo's Self-Portrait with Curly Hair looks straightforward and untroubled. It has none of the anguish of the Mexican painter's Kahlos's self-portraits with tears and wounds. Instead the drama is interior. Meticulously painted with delicate, sure strokes on a small sheet of tin, this bust-length likeness has something of the simplicity and naove charm of 19th century Mexican folk portraits by artists such as Josi Marma Estrada and Hermenegildo Bustos--both of whom Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera greatly admired. The self-portrait's strange intensity suggests another source as well: Frida's face has the imperturbable but searching look of Fayum portrait panels placed on the outside of Egyptian cloth-wrapped mummies in the 2nd century A.D. Also like the Fayum portraits is the way Kahlo painted the white highlights in the eyes, the individual eyelashes, and the outline around the cheek and jaw. In spite of its modest size, Kahlo's self-portrait's packs a strong visual punch. This force comes not only from the way Frida locks eyes with us, but also from the perfectly calibrated balance between figure and ground.
The year she painted Self-Portrait with Curly Hair was one of the worst in Kahlo's life. The previous year was miserable too. In 1934 she produced no paintings at all, and the only other work from 1935 is the gruesome A Few Small Nips, a panel showing a woman stabbed to death by her boyfriend. Kahlo said she needed to paint this scene because she too felt 'murdered by life'. What caused Kahlo's artistic paralysis in the period following her and Rivera's return to Mexico from the United States in December 1933 was marital anguish. Sick and depressed, Rivera was unable to work, and he blamed Frida for insisting that they leave New York. She was hospitalized at least three times in 1934, once for appendicitis, once for a therapeutic abortion and a third time for an operation on her right foot. It was probably in the summer of 1934 that Rivera began an affair with Kahlo's younger sister Cristina. The liaison lasted well into 1935.
Usually Kahlo dismissed Rivera's philandering with a laugh and a shrug. As she once put it 'Being the wife of Diego is the most marvelous thing in the world I let him play matrimony with other women. Diego is not anybody's husband and never will be, but he is a great comrade.' But her husband's affair with her favorite sister was not to be condoned.On October 24, 1934 she wrote to her close friend, Dr. Leo Eloesser: 'I have suffered so much in these months that it is going to be difficult for me to feel completely well soon, but I have done everything I can to forget what has happened.' The following month she wrote again, telling the doctor that she had forgiven her sister and that she was trying not to be 'carried away by idiotic prejudices'. She was, she said, determined that 'this sate of unspeakable troubles will pass and someday I will be able to be the same as I was before'
Early in 1935 Kahlo moved out of her and Rivera's home in the San Angel section of Mexico City and took a small apartment in the city's center. To spite her husband, she cut off the long hair that he adored and she stopped wearing the native costumes that he felt Mexican women should wear. (She cropped her hair and donned European-style clothes again when Rivera divorced her for a year in 1939.) Self-Portrait with Curly Hair shows Kahlo summoning all of her immense will power and turning a bold face to the world.
Except for her poodle haircut, Kahlo looks very like the beautiful young woman wearing a similar necklace of pre-Columbian jade beads seen in her last self-portrait painted in Detroit late in 1933. There are, however, a number of subtle changes. In the 1935 painting she has exchanged her habitual Tehuana skirt and blouse for a simple red dress and what appears to be a dark shawl or stole. Her joined eyebrows are heavier now; her mustache is more pronounced, and her nose is larger. Although her eyes retain their challenging glint, they now have a sad knowing-ness, as if she had just forced herself to stop crying, and was looking in the mirror as a way of steadying her emotions. Perhaps the slow, painstaking process of laying down stroke after stroke and depicting her willfully composed features on the metal panel was a way of finding calm. Yet this self-portrait gives us not just Frida the heroic sufferer. The woman depicted here is also the feisty, flirtatious, fun-loving twenty-eight-year-old whose beauty and ribald speech charmed the sculptor Isamu Noguchi who became her lover the year she painted this portrait.
In July 1935 Frida flew to New York where she confided her troubles to Bertram D. Wolfe, Rivera's biographer and friend, and to his wife Ella.It was probably at this time that she gave Self-Portrait with Curly Hair to Ella. A photograph of Frida in New York shows her resting her head on Ella's shoulder. Her hair is short and straight. The only other appearance of the poodle cut in Kahlo's painting is in Memory, in which she recorded the desperation caused by Rivera's and Cristina's betrayal by showing herself with her heart extracted.
In New York Kahlo made up her mind to go back to Rivera. She wrote to him on July 23, 1935, saying that his affairs were really only flirtations and that 'at bottom you and I love each other dearly.' Their problems, she said, had 'served only to make me understand in the end that I love you more than my own skin, and that, though you may not love me in the same way, still you love me somewhat. Isn't that so? I shall always hope that that continues, and with that I am content.'
Self-Portrait with Curly Hair is a testimonial to Frida Kahlo's strength
October 3, 2003