When curators Leah Dickerman, Luis Pérez-Oramas, and I began to discuss our plans for creating a new gallery dedicated to Mexican Modernist art made in the 1930s and 1940s—which opened in May of this year—Frida Kahlo’s Fulang-Chang and I was one of the works we were determined to include. We were intent not only to show the painting, but also to display it alongside the mirror that Kahlo made to accompany it, for reasons I’ll elaborate on a bit later.
For me, this self-portrait is one of the most intriguing works in MoMA’s Painting and Sculpture collection. Although Kahlo lacked formal artistic training, she read voraciously in three languages (Spanish, English, and German) and drew upon a sophisticated knowledge of art history to make her work. This particular self-portrait, for example, recalls Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and child. Instead of presenting the customary cherubic infant, however, she offers an unlikely protagonist: Fulang-Chang, one of several spider monkeys that she kept as pets. The pet monkeys that frequently appear in her paintings are often interpreted as surrogates for the children she and her husband, the artist Diego Rivera, were unable to conceive. While personal hardship may have played a role in prompting Kahlo’s unconventional decision to include her monkey in this self-portrait, I think her sense of humor is equally evident in the choice. What other artist would draw our attention to the way her facial features resemble an animal’s? This painting is, among many other things, an irreverent ode to hair—the hairy body of the monkey and the wooly, white-haired cacti surrounding Kahlo accentuate her famous monobrow and faint mustache. If you look closely at her neck, loose strands of hair add to the chorus. In early Christian and Mayan art, monkeys are also associated with promiscuity and sin, adding yet another layer of possible meaning to the painting. One of the things I have always admired about Kahlo’s art is the way contradictory notions cohabitate in her work: in this single painting, Kahlo managed to allude to licentious behavior and fidelity, exuding both pain and levity in the process.
Kahlo’s New York Debut
The exhibition history of this painting is as complex as its iconography. Almost exactly 71 years ago to this day, it was displayed in the first—and only—major solo exhibition of Kahlo’s work held in the United States during her lifetime. Julien Levy Gallery, one of the most respected galleries in New York City, hosted the exhibition from November 1 to 15, 1938. Closely connected to the Surrealist movement, Levy was responsible for hosting the first solo exhibitions of numerous important artists in this country, including Alberto Giacometti, Salvador Dalí, and Lee Miller. Although the show happened in the midst of America’s Great Depression, it marked a high point of Kahlo’s career—André Breton, the impresario of the Surrealist movement, wrote the essay that accompanied the exhibition; Georgia O’Keeffe, Isamu Noguchi, and other prominent American artists attended the opening; approximately half of the paintings were sold; and the show was well-received by the press, even if their praise (Time magazine raved about “Little Frida’s pictures”) betrayed the sexist and patronizing attitudes prevalent at the time.
Kahlo only added the mirror to this painting after it was exhibited at Julien Levy’s 1938 show of her work. Intrigued by this unorthodox decision and eager to learn the story behind it, I dug through our Department of Painting and Sculpture files. What I discovered is that the painting and the mirror were combined when Kahlo decided to give Fulang Chang and I to her close friend in New York, a woman named Mary Sklar. The sister of well-known art historian Meyer Schapiro, Sklar became fast friends with Kahlo after meeting her in Mexico in 1935. As a gesture of gratitude for a different painting Sklar purchased from the Levy show, Kahlo gave her this one, telling Sklar that she had added a mirror so that they could always be together.
Kahlo often gave her self-portraits as presents—the very first self-portrait she made (in 1926) she gave to her boyfriend at the time, and a year before making this work, she presented one as a birthday present to Leon Trotsky, the Russian Revolutionary leader who lived in exile in Kahlo and Rivera’s Mexico City home. While the act of giving a self-portrait to a friend was commonplace in her practice, the inclusion of a mirror was not. For me, the mirror is a particularly fascinating element in light of the crucial role mirrors played in her artistic practice. Kahlo began painting while convalescing from a serious bus accident, using a mirror that was fastened to her canopy bed so that she could paint while recuperating. According to the photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo, who photographed Kahlo throughout her life, “Frida lived surrounded by mirrors.” In addition to the mirror she had attached to her canopy bed, she had one on the front of her wardrobe, by her dressing table, even imbedded in the stucco wall of her patio outside. While this proliferation of mirrors might at first seem like a sign of vanity, the mirror included in Fulang Chang and I strikes me as a fundamentally generous gesture—an open invitation to enter the work. We are invited to see ourselves (literally) and to enter her world. I often step into our Mexican Modernism gallery when I have a free moment; when I do, I invariably see people clustered around the work, snapping pictures of themselves with the painting. Clearly Kahlo’s invitation is one that many are happy to accept….