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Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkey

Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938, by Frida Kahlo is one of the most important works of art in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. Kahlo’s art embodies Mexicandad—the unique spirit and quality of being Mexican—combining the country’s indigenous heritage, colonial history and post-revolutionary future. Many of her works and self-portraits are also artistic expressions of the numerous challenges she faced in her lifetime. She was haunted by an unfulfilled desire to have children after surviving a bus accident when she was 18 and looked to her pets, such as her monkey Fulang-Chang, for comfort. She also included them in her works often. Learn more about “Self- Portrait with Monkey,” 1938, with Janne Sirén, the Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(Jazz music plays) Hello, I'm Janne Sirén, Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. Welcome to Bank of America's Masterpiece Moment. Today I would like to talk about one of my favorite works in our collection, Frida Kahlo's "Self-Portrait with Monkey," and tell you why I think it is truly a masterpiece. Although the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is located in Buffalo, today we are at one of our sister museums on the Great Lakes, the Detroit Institute of Arts. Kahlo was thirty-one when she painted this small but visually super-charged image that is one of the most beloved paintings in the Albright-Knox's collection, inspiring viewers around the world. Through its warm colors, the intensity of its graphic detail and subject matter that pokes our curiosity, it beckons the viewer to visually dive into Kahlo's dynamic world, in which local and global cultural trends collide and private and universal aspects of life converge. Given that we are in Detroit, it is interesting to look back to the early 1930s- the days of the Great Depression, when Kahlo in fact lived here with her husband, Diego Rivera, who at the time was working on the famous "Detroit Industry" murals, the subject of a previous episode of Masterpiece Moment, that still today frame the interior courtyard of this museum. Frida was an interesting individual already as a child. She planned to be a doctor, but as fate would have it, she dedicated herself to art. Kahlo met painter and fellow progressive activist Diego Rivera while still a schoolgirl, and theirs was an unconventional, and often stormy, union. They married in 1929, divorced in 1939 and remarried in 1940, and bonded over a shared sense of humor, political outlook and love for "Mexicanidad." The couple were collectors of Mesoamerican artifacts and books about Aztec people and culture. Kahlo's life was marked by significant physical suffering. She contracted polio at the age of five and suffered a catastrophic trolley accident in 1925, which left her with debilitating, life-altering injuries at the age of eighteen. As a result of the accident, Kahlo was in and out of hospitals throughout her life and subjected to numerous painful surgeries. Many of her works were created while she lay in bed recovering. A self-taught artist, Kahlo created imagery that primarily focused on personal stories, on love and its connection to pain in her life. A common feature in Kahlo's work is duality, for example: the body she lost through injury and the body that remained; traditional and modern ways of Mexican and European identity; the closeness of those she loved but also their betrayal; sadness and joy. Additionally, Kahlo was haunted by an unfulfilled desire to have children and looked for comfort in pets. Kahlo was drawn to monkeys for their symbolism and their playful, childlike nature. Kahlo took a particular interest in self-portraiture, creating fifty-five self-portraits during her lifetime, comprising nearly one-third of her known body of work. Frida Kahlo once said, "I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone. I am the person I know best." Many of these self-portraits feature the artist in the company of her various pets. Featured here is her favorite pet monkey, Fulang-Chang, who sits behind her right shoulder with his arm lovingly and protectively draped around her neck. The artist's dark brown eyes stare directly out, arresting the viewer with the intensity of her confident gaze. Around the monkey's neck is a collar, a leash made of green ribbon. The end of the cord continues off the painting's bottom edge but is presumably in the artist's hand. Her lips are pursed, and expression is set. Her choice to depict the facial hair above her lip and along the left side of her face gives her portrait an intriguing combination of masculine and feminine features. She wears a traditional Mexican blouse and unusual, Mesoamerican- inspired necklace made of segments of bone connected by a thin, blood-red cord. In the background, a lush curtain of leaves envelops her. The bright color palette, vegetation and traditional costume and jewelry featured in this painting reflect Kahlo's interest in her heritage and native Mexican art. Throughout her life, she would don the clothing and jewelry of traditional Mexican culture as a form of political statement. Frida Kahlo was instrumental in the revival of traditional Mexican culture in the early twentieth century, and while this is an important source of inspiration for her work, understanding Kahlo also requires seeing her work within the context of Mexico's history. I want to thank you for taking the time to watch today, to learn more about Frida Kahlo's "Self-Portrait with Monkey" from the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. I encourage you to join the conversation and discuss this piece with friends and family. And please visit the Bank of America Masterpiece Moment website to sign up for alerts and ensure that you never miss a moment. To sign up to receive notifications about new Bank of America Masterpiece Moment videos, please visit: www.bankofamerica.com/ masterpiecemoment.