Self-Portrait with Monkey and Parrot was made in the early 1940s, when Frida Kahlo, having gained international fame through exhibitions in New York and Paris, was trying to speed up her production in order to make a living from painting. The work follows a standard compositional format used in portraits and self-portraits of the early 1920s: the subject, seen from the waist or chest up, occupies a narrow space between the picture plane and a wall of vegetation that is sometimes reaches the edges. In most of these self-portraits, Kahlo’s position varies only slightly; here, exactly as in Self-Portrait with Monkey (1940, private collection), he seems to turn slightly to his right: if it is a mirror image, he actually rotates to the left and turns his eyes to look forward; but it is more likely that the artist painted her portraits from photographs. Her clothing and hairstyle, her accompanying monkey and bird, as well as the background, all deserve careful analysis, as they connect the work to other works. related paintings, but also distinguish it from similar compositions.
Kahlo’s 1942 self-portrait is executed with rigorously controlled brushstrokes – except for fur and feathers – typical of paintings she completed at the height of her career. The direct, frontal presentation of the character follows a model inspired in part by popular 19th-century portraiture, a type that Kahlo and Rivera collected and displayed in their family home in Coyoacán, which the artists shared at the time. But Kahlo’s work is not exactly provincial naïveo, nor was it considered so by her dealers, critics and collectors. In reality, his painting is deeply and consciously linked to a broader history of art, ranging from Mannerism to Neue Sachlichkeit or new objectivity, and including Surrealism, to which he adhered despite public declarations to the contrary (due more to André Breton’s political allegiances than to his aesthetic ideas).
In Malba’s painting, Kahlo wears a short huipil with yellow machine-made embroidery, typically worn by women from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The same huipil appears in other paintings from this period, although it is only one of about twenty similar blouses that she owned. Two braids of hair are intertwined with thick green wool cords, tied together and coiled on top of her head, in a generic style common among indigenous women from central and southern Mexico. Both costume elements derive from pre-Columbian and European sources, and are emblematic of miscegenation or cultural mixing. Although subtly here, they are part of his much more theatrical and (occasionally) flamboyant style of dress, which was both political – in that it claimed a nationalist identity based on indigenous culture – and personal – in that it erased the German-Hungarian heritage of his father in favor of his mother’s Oaxacan roots–.
Spider monkeys and different varieties of parrots were part of a vast and constantly changing menagerie at Kahlo’s home in Coyoacán. In this work, the monkey is probably the so-called Caimito de Guayabal, which Rivera had given her after a trip to southern Mexico. Kahlo introduced monkeys in eight different self-portraits (nine, if we count Two Nudes in a Forest). a forest], 1939, private collection); its inclusion was specifically requested by collectors, probably due to its exotic connotations. However, it is not clear what exactly they meant to the artist: beloved pets; promiscuous, funny and furry alter egos; hyperactive contrasts for her calm look, or substitutes for absent children. She complained, however, that these sparsely tamed, rambunctious creatures were difficult to paint.
In Malba’s painting, Caimito looks at a green and yellow bird perched uncomfortably near Kahlo’s left shoulder; the bird echoes the artist both in its color and in her direct gaze. Although somewhat cartoonish, it is most likely a yellow-headed parrot, of the genus Amazona, like Bonito, a particularly prized bird that had died in December 1941. Although parrots (particularly macaws) appear in pre-Columbian art, in especially that of the Mayan civilization, those of Kahlo were mostly imported from South America.
The artist did not pose with any of these skittish animals, but rather relied on photographs of them. Not surprisingly, the animals in Kahlo’s paintings have been interpreted primarily as autobiographical references to her own pets, and relate to them. with daily life in your home. For example, American artist Emmy Lou Packard, Rivera’s assistant and Frida’s friend, recalled that Frida created elaborate still life paintings on the dining room table to amuse Rivera and her guests; like the portraits, they included arrangements of flowers, fruits, and animals, caged or not. However, as often happens in studies of Kahlo, autobiographical readings limit the possible meanings of her work too much. The artist may be alluding to the complex symbolic associations of monkeys and parrots in pre-Columbian cultural traditions, but all of her self-portraits with animals (including hairless dogs) should be viewed within the framework of a widespread European (and American) pictorial tradition that shows models with pets. For example, Rosalba Carriera’s Girl with a Monkey (1721, Louvre) closely resembles Kahlo’s work, both in composition and subject matter. And, whether or not she was aware of that painting, she could hardly have missed the great paintings by Courbet and Manet – both entitled Woman with a Parrot, and dated 1866 – in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In these French paintings, the parrots symbolize the close confidant who shares intimate secrets, which have a greater erotic charge in Courbet’s nude.
Kahlo and her pets are arranged in front of a set of brownish plants; the closely intertwined shapes closely resemble the dried inflorescences of bromeliads (such as Tillandsia cyanea), perhaps cut from his garden or bought at the market for one of his paintings. A few tendrils, barely visible against the flat background, point to the artist’s signature in the upper right corner. Although the rich pattern of these plants enlivens the image, much like the veining of tropical leaves in other portraits, here the general atmosphere seems somewhat less fertile.
Self-Portrait with Monkey and Parrot was acquired shortly after its execution by Thomas J. Watson, founder of the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), through the Gallery of Mexican Art in Mexico City (then the painting was known simply as Self Portrait). Although Inés Amor, the gallery’s director, was not Frida Kahlo’s exclusive dealer, she sold several of her works in the early 1940s. The IBM Collection was one of the leading corporate art collections in the United States, but it was auctioned off in 1995. Kahlo’s self-portrait was purchased by Sotheby’s of New York in May 1995, and graced the cover of the sales catalogue.