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Behind Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird

Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird is among Frida Kahlo’s most celebrated self-portraits. Kahlo was well known for the autobiographical elements in her work, and Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird is rich with symbols from her Mexican heritage. Singulart reveals the symbolism portrayed in this iconic work, as well as exploring Kahlo’s self portraits and how her pride for her culture influenced her style.

Frida Kahlo’s Famous Self Portraits 

Kahlo famously stated, “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” During her lifetime, Kahlo completed 143 artworks, 55 of which were self-portraits. She has become renowned for the autobiographical elements of her pieces, unashamedly portraying her life through her artwork. Her self-portraits all have some element of pain and anguish, whether it is physical, as portrayed in The Wounded Deer, or emotional, like Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.

One of Kahlo’s earliest self-portraits was titled Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress. In contrast to her later work, this shows some influences of European artistic techniques, particularly in the elongated hands and neck, and the stylized waves in the background. As Kahlo began to explore her Mexican roots, with a particularly fervent interest after her marriage to Diego Rivera, she began to include more Mexican symbolism in her work. The influence of the surrealism movement also began to show in her portraits, particularly in pieces such as Henry Ford Hospital and The Broken Column

It seemed like there was no subject matter Kahlo was unwilling to portray through her portraits. Her pain over her divorce from Rivera can be seen in pieces such as The Two Fridas and of course Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, while pieces such as The Broken Column and Without Hope suggest Kahlo’s anguish towards her ongoing physical deterioration. Even her infertility is explored in works such as Roots, with Henry Ford Hospital directly referencing the miscarriage she experienced at said hospital. She stated, “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.”

Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird 

Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940)

This self portrait was created following Kahlo’s divorce to Diego Rivera. Although the two had experienced a tumultuous relationship, with both conducting extramarital affairs, Kahlo was particularly devastated when Rivera embarked on an affair with her younger sister Cristina. However, it was Rivera who requested a divorce when Kahlo returned from exhibiting her work in New York and Paris. 

Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird shows Kahlo looking squarely at her audience, immediately engaging the viewer. She is painted in front of a forest of tropical green leaves, dressed in a white robe. On her head, two butterflies rest on her elaborate hairstyle, with two dragonflies flying close to her. Kahlo has painted herself with a necklace of thorns, with the spikes puncturing her skin and causing her to bleed. A monkey on her right shoulder pulls at the necklace, while a black cat on her left arches its back. An upside down hummingbird rests at the base of her throat. 

There are obvious religious overtones to the piece through the use of Jesus’s crown of thorns. Kahlo has painted herself as a Christian martyr, enduring the pain of her failed marriage. It has also been suggested that the butterflies symbolize resurrection, so Kahlo could be portraying herself as Jesus Christ. 

The hummingbird holds particular resonance to Kahlo’s Mexican heritage. In Mexican culture, hummingbirds signify falling in love and are used in love charms, but the fact that this hummingbird is black and lifeless suggests the desolation Kahlo felt following the end of her marriage. Alternatively, the hummingbird could symbolize Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. This god was often depicted as a hummingbird, or with a helmet in the shape of a blue or green hummingbird. 

Rivera gave Kahlo a monkey for a pet, so the monkey on her back could be a direct reference to Rivera. It is also thought that the monkey could symbolise the devil, and that in the artwork he is antagonizing Kahlo by tugging at the thorn necklace. The black cat is a symbol of bad luck and death, and Kahlo has also painted the cat to be gazing directly at the viewer. The cat has an arched back, suggesting an agitated state. 

Kahlo often used vibrant flora and fauna as backgrounds for her self-portraits, to create a claustrophobic space teeming with fertility. It is thought that the emphasis of her monobrow and moustache – with the lines of her eyebrows mimicking the wingspan of the hummingbird around her neck – was intended as a feminist statement. 

Frida Kahlo and Mexicanidad

Kahlo was heavily influenced by the Mexicanidad movement, which began in the aftermath of the Mexican revolution. The movement was a resistance of “mindset of cultural inferiority” that had resulted from colonialism, and aimed to promote the history and culture of the indigenous Mexican people. The Mexican elite believed that Mexico should emulate Europe and European culture, so the traditional Mexican culture was looked down upon. After joining an activist group called the Cachuchas, Kahlo began dressing in the Tehuana style, the colorful Mexican dresses and shawls that appear in many of her pieces, such as My Dress Hangs There

Frida Kahlo, My Dress Hangs There (1933)
Frida Kahlo, My Dress Hangs There (1933)

Critics have argued that Kahlo’s self portraits do not only portray her personal life, but also the political and social reform that was happening in her beloved Mexico. In her essay Culture, Politics and Identity in the Paintings of Frida Kahlo, art historian Jane Helland writes, “Kahlo’s personal pain should not eclipse her commitment to Mexico and the Mexican people. As she sought her own roots, she also voiced concern for her country as it struggled for an independent cultural identity.”

The aforementioned My Dress Hangs There can be seen as a critique of the United States: the United States is depicted as a place that is soulless with skyscrapers and machinery, while Mexico is portrayed as a naturalistic, lush, fertile ground. A similar theme is explored in Self-Portrait on the Border, showing a stark contrast between Mexico and the United States. 

 Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait on the Border (1932)
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait on the Border (1932)

Kahlo’s love and fierce pride for her heritage secured her place as an icon in Mexican culture. Her former home shared with Rivera, La Casa Azul, is now a museum dedicated to her life and her work

Want to see works in the style of Frida Kahlo? Check out Singulart’s Inspired by Frida Kahlo Collection.

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