Frida Kahlo’s name has become synonymous with her striking, bold self-portraits. A celebrated Mexican artist, Kahlo used her life as inspiration for her art, resulting in deeply personal pieces like The Wounded Deer. In this article, Singulart explores the colorful life of Frida Kahlo, as well as the interpretations surrounding The Wounded Deer.
Who was Frida Kahlo?
Frida Kahlo was born July 6, 1907, in Coyoacán, a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City. At the age of six, Kahlo contracted polio, which left her with permanent damage in her legs resulting in a limp. After she recovered, her father Wilhelm enrolled her in the German College in Mexico City, prompting a deep interest in her German heritage and the works of philosophers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friederich Schiller. After Kahlo left the German College due to an incidence of sexual abuse, she became one of the first 35 girls allowed to attend the National Preparatory School. It was during this period that Kahlo began to grow interested in politics and activism, eventually joining a group of student activists called the Cachuchas.
In 1925, Kahlo was involved in a near-fatal accident when she was hit by a bus on the way home from school. She spent a month in hospital, unable to move, as she recovered from multiple fractures including a crushed pelvis. Upon returning home she was still bedridden for many months, and began experimenting with self-portraiture. Once Kahlo had recovered enough to reignite her association with the Cachuchas, she met Diego Rivera, himself a highly influential Mexican artist. Despite reservations from her family – Diego was known for being a womanizer and had been married twice before- the two embarked on a passionate love affair and married in 1929.
After the couple moved to Cuernavaca, Kahlo began to embrace her Mexican identity through her artwork. She distanced herself from her German heritage, changing the spelling of her name from Freida to Frida, and began wearing the traditional Tehuana costume. Kahlo and Rivera lived in various places in the United States during the early 1930s, and upon their return to Mexico, their relationship was put under considerable strain after Rivera had an affair with Kahlo’s younger sister. This prompted Kahlo to launch into a series of affairs herself, most notably with Hungarian photographer Nikolas Muray and Leon Trotsky.
Kahlo’s work was discovered by art dealer Julien Levy, who produced Kahlo’s first solo exhibition in New York. She was embraced by the New York art scene, who were drawn to her exotic personal style. After enjoying the success of her exhibition, she sailed to Paris to exhibit her work alongside other surrealist artists, but became disillusioned with the surrealist scene and returned to Mexico City. Upon her return, Rivera requested a divorce, but the two would go on to remarry in 1940.
Although Kahlo continued to receive critical acclaim for her work, her personal life was in turmoil. Spinal problems forced her to wear corrective back braces, she was suffering from syphilis, and she was devastated by the death of her beloved father. From 1950, she would remain in a wheelchair after a botched spinal surgery, although she continued to work. Although she was choosy about taking commissions, she was able to support herself through national prizes she received for Moses.
Kahlo passed away at the home she shared with Rivera in 1954. Although her death was believed to be from a pulmonary embolism, it has also been suggested it may have been an accidental or deliberate suicide.
The Wounded Deer
The Wounded Deer is a small painting only 22.4 by 30 centimeters. The artwork portrays a deer, with Kahlo’s face, struck with arrows in multiple places. The deer lies on the floor of a desolate forest, surrounded by bare trees. Kahlo has painted herself as a deer, but not a docile animal; the animal is a strong, supple stag, with prominent male genitalia. Although there are arrows piercing the deer, Kahlo has portrayed herself with a steady gaze fixed on the viewer, suggesting she is stoic through the pain.
A tree on the right of the painting is depicted with a section broken off, possibly the same branch that lies on the ground in front of the deer. In the bottom left corner of the piece, Kahlo has written the word carma (karma), along with her signature and the year the painting was completed, 1946.
The artwork uses a fairly muted color palette, particularly when compared with the vibrancy of pieces such as Weeping Coconuts or The Two Fridas. Small amounts of blue can be seen through the brown shades of the forest, as a gap between the trees opens up to show a body of water and a lightning bolt overhead.
Kahlo created The Wounded Deer as a wedding present for her friends Arcady and Lina Boytler. The piece was accompanied by a note that read:
“I leave you my portrait to remember me all the days and nights since I left you. The sadness is portrayed throughout all of my paintings, but that’s how my condition is, it cannot be fixed.”
Interpretations of The Wounded Deer
Kahlo created The Wounded Deer as a response to her failed back surgery. The painting shows some similarities to the religious figure of Saint Sebastian, who was killed after being struck by multiple arrows. It also calls to mind the story of Saint Eustache, who refused to shoot a deer and was then converted to Christianity.
However, the piece also brings in elements of other religions. Kahlo’s use of the word carma points to her interest in Buddhism, and the belief that her life was predetermined and the effects of her illness were a result of her actions in a previous life. The Wounded Deer also shows Kahlo’s interest in the significance of the Aztec calendar. According to the calendar, Kahlo was born on day nine- nine symbolizing earthly elements, as well as the underworld. Nine trees can be seen on the left side of the painting, and there are nine arrows striking the deer’s body.
The branch on the floor in front of the deer could allude to the Mexican tradition of placing a broken branch on a grave. Kahlo could be acknowledging her failing health and the inevitability of death.
The fact that Kahlo has painted herself with antlers suggests to Kahlo’s interest in combining two genders to make an androgynous figure, and could also hint at her bisexuality. Kahlo may have also given herself male features to suggest that she was on par with the great artists of her time, the majority of which were men.
The Wounded Deer is a juxtaposition of Kahlo’s beliefs, her sense of identity, and a portrayal of the physical and emotional struggles she was experiencing at the time.