Radical Acts

Frida Kahlo. Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair. 1940 541

Oil on canvas, 15 3/4 x 11" (40 x 27.9 cm). Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. © 2019 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Artist, Kerry Downey: Frida Kahlo sits alone holding a pair of scissors in one hand and a clump of hair in the other. It's an image of rebellion and personal transformation. What does it mean to cut off your hair? She's looking directly at us getting us to think about this gesture this action.

It’s a strange image. There is hair all over the floor. It's in her lap. Her braid is on the floor, and then she's got this pair of scissors conspicuously in the center of her lap.

She’s wearing this oversized gray suit and crimson shirt. That’s a reference to Diego Rivera, the Mexican mural painter. She was married to him, but they divorced a few months before she made this painting. If you look up at the top, you can see words and musical notes she included from a popular Mexican folk song. It’s about a man who loved a woman for her hair. But now that she’s cut it off, he doesn’t love her anymore.

So to me this painting is asking what is it we are loved for? And at what cost? Are we loved for our hair? Do we have to subscribe to certain standards of beauty in order to be valued and cared for?

Frida is pointing out something here about gender and how it has structured the conversation around her identity. She’s been defined in part by her relationship to her husband, as so many women have, and in this picture she’s expressing her autonomy. By wearing that suit, and sitting that way with the chopped-off hair, she’s asking us to see her as a person with her own agency and power.

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