Narrator: The artist Frida Kahlo made Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair in 1940, using oil paint on canvas. It measures 16 inches high and 11 inches wide. In metric units, it is 40 centimeters high and about 28 centimeters wide.
The painting is mounted inside of an antique varnished wood frame. It depicts a person sitting in a yellow chair set against a gray background mottled with other muted colors. We know from the title that this is a self-portrait of the artist. Her close-cropped, brownish black hair is slicked back over her head and she wears an oversized men’s suit. Her figure takes up about two-thirds of the canvas.
She looks directly at us with brown eyes, her expression calm and impassive. Her thick eyebrows arc above her eyes in a nearly continuous line. Her tan skin is accentuated by flushed rosy cheeks and lips, as if she were wearing make-up. An earring made of three stacked beads dangles from her right ear. A thin sprinkling of hair covers the skin between her nose and lips.
Her chair is turned so that her body appears in a three-quarter view, sitting erect with feet planted firmly on the ground. Her oversized suit is dark gray with wide, notched lapels. Beneath her suit jacket, she wears a burgundy shirt, buttoned up to the collar. She wears shiny black shoes with low heels, and a single gray sock is visible on her right foot.
The wooden chair is painted yellow and its seat bottom—just barely visible beneath Kahlo’s form—is tightly wrapped with natural fibers. There is no other furniture in the space.
Appearing on our left, the figure’s right hand loosely holds a pair of silver scissors. Her hands and the scissors rest on her thighs, along with a lock of dark brown hair that dangles down past her knees.
Many more clippings of long, dark brown hair are scattered haphazardly across the reddish clay-colored floor. Some drape over, or wind around the chair’s frame. The loose strands of hair on the floor extend toward the edges of the canvas and to the wall behind Kahlo. In some places they seem to defy gravity, as if floating above the floor.
Two lines of black text frame the top edge of the painting. Appearing in delicate hand-written script above a single staff of musical notes, the text reproduces words from a Mexican folk song: “Mira que si te quise, fué por el pelo, Ahora que estás pelona, ya no te quiero.” Or in English: “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.”
At the bottom right corner of the painting, using the same delicate script, the artist has signed her name and added the year 1940.
Now we'll learn more about this work from an educator.
Educator, 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 beside her, 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 then 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 chopped-off hair, she’s asking us to see her as a person with her own agency and power.