Saturday, May 21, 2011

Frida Khalo: Long Hair and Symbolism

 Frida Kahlo: Self-Portrait With Loose Hair, 1947. Private Collection


Artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) started painting at the age of 18 when a serious bus accident confined her to bed for several months. Her mother erected an easel and mirror on her bed so that Frida could be her own model. Over the next nearly 30 years, Frida perfected her surrealist style and became most famous for her self portraits. In them, she often used her long, dark hair to communicate feelings of freedom, pride, and despair. Art experts believe that Frida exaggerated her hair in paintings because she saw it as an integral part of her femininity.

 Frida Kahlo portrait by Nickolas Muray/George Eastman House

Frida often wore her hair in elaborate braids complete with ribbons or flowers. These hairstyles were usually accompanied by brightly-colored, native Mexican dress, which reflected pride in her Mexican heritage and gave her a composed, almost regal air.

Frida Kahlo: Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair, 1940. Museum of Modern Art, NY

Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair shows Frida with shears in hand, while the freshly-cut hair surrounding her seems to come alive. Without her long hair, Frida undoubtedly felt she had sacrificed her femininity, as evidenced by the man's suit she wears in the portrait. At the top of the painting, Frida quotes a Mexican song: “Look, if I loved you, it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don't love you anymore.”

Shortly after her divorce, Frida wrote to a friend, “I have to give you bad news: I cut my hair. . . Well, it will grow again, I hope!”

Once the couple reunited, Frida reportedly threatened to crop off her hair again if Rivera continued his affairs.

Frida Kahlo's portraits are powerful representations of one woman's often tumultuous and painful life. Her use of hair as symbolism brings us closer to understanding and sharing her experiences.

Houston art curator Janet Landay summed up Frida's appeal to Smithsonian Magazine (Nov. 2002, p. 52):

“Kahlo made personal women's experiences serious subjects for art, but because of their intense emotional content, her paintings transcend gender boundaries. Intimate and powerful, they demand that viewers – men and women – be moved by them.”