VisualAnalysis of Frida Kahlo`s "Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress"
FridaKahlo’s painting of her portrait in a velvet dress forms part ofher protracted desire to communicate her experiences as well as honorher Mexican culture and indigenousness. During that time, many in thearts fraternity contended that European influences had taken a hugeleap in Mexican culture. Other than her intention to communicate herexperiences and desire to highlight Mexican culture, the portraitalso has spiritual connotations where she urges her audience to havetime to themselves, focus inwards, and spend a lot of time thinkingabout the past. The future as well is not within the discretion ofany person to control and it often turns out contrary one’sexpectations. As such, Kahlo’s “portrait in a velvet dress”embodies arts unchanging principle where the opinion of the wise isvital and it should be used as a tool to convey societal values withan attention to a particular period of time or context. This essayentails a discussion of the emotional and cultural aspects of Kahlo’sportrait in a velvet dress as an artistic tool to convey herperspectives about the past, the future, her personal experiences,and intimate life. A visual analysis of the painting also reveals anartistic contemplation about the role she intended to play on the artscene and the impending prominence she was poised to gain on thevisual art scene of her time.
Fig.1: Kahlo’s Self-portrait in a Velvet Dress (1926)
Source:Every Painter Paints Himself
Itis worth noting that the portrait is among her first at 19 when shestill had little knowledge about European art. However, it alreadyembodies her potential of being an icon even in the eyes of visualart critics of her time and on the contemporary art scene. A fewfeatures about the portrait are sufficiently suggestive of future asan artist. First, her thumb is conspicuously separated from otherfingers on her right hand. The artist’s hand in a portrait is asymbol of the palette hand and many painters often depicted it as“stretched through the hole of a palette” (Sheleg102). The portrait reveals that Kahlo’s right hand is herpalette-hand while the invisible left hand is her active hand. It is,consequently, worth concluding that she uses her left hand to paintthe canvas. The portrait is one of her early works and it elicits thehidden mastery of a future icon that the world of art would laterembrace. Besides, it is an exaltation of indigenous art, which alsohas a relationship with her future role as an artist withnationalistic ideals that sought to diminish the predominance ofEuropean art during her time. Perhaps an artist of Kahlo’s caliberhas the ability to use their capability to make clairvoyantinferences about their future. Kahlo knew that she had the potentialto become a world icon and she, therefore, decided to convey itthrough her “portrait in a velvet dress.” The theme is also intandem with her emphasis on reflective art. The art principle thatKahlo invokes to convey her feelings about the future through theportrait is the adherence to spiritual traditions. The traditionsdictate artists to pay attention to future aesthetics and shun a darkpast that has bad memories or negative thoughts. The aesthetics arereverent of the present so that an individual maintains the rightstate of mind to deal with the future.
Kahlo’s“portrait in her velvet dress” communicates social and culturalthemes. The social theme is that it targets a particular audiencethat is of interest to Kahlo herself. It is evident that the audienceof the portrait is her lover. She comes across as a normal personwith a social life and emotional connections. She also seeksacceptance like any other human being. The acceptance she seeks fromher lover could also be extrapolated to mean her desire to beaccepted by her future audience because it was 1926 when she paintedthe portrait at the onset of her career. The cultural theme is thatshe attempts to exemplify indigenous art with subtle reflections onEuropean art (Carmona,María del Mar Rivas, and Fernández 181). She thus uses the paintingto show that she is an agent of a cultural shift in art.
Theportrait is also about her personal life. While it reflects herinitial interest in the paintings of the Italian renaissance, herintention was to give it as a gift to her then boyfriend AlejandroGomez Arias. She uses it to convey her emotions by painting herselfas melancholic and aristocratic so that she looks accepted to herlover. Again, she emphasizes the present and not the past. She feelsher Alejandra should focus on their future rather than be stuck inthe past challenges of their relationship. By painting her neck aselongated in the Amedeo Modigliani’s style, she uses the principleof proportion and scale. She creates an emotional depth with her faceas the focal point. She literally occupies much of the foreground inthe painting so that Alejandro pays attention to her elegant dressand her countenance. The painting is a tool to seek acceptance fromsomeone she loves. She also employs the principle of contrast tocreate the huge emotional depth that the painting is supposed tocommunicate. Contrasting elements in a picture using color alsoenhances the focal point of the viewer. The background is dark sothat it contrasts the bright velvet dress, the long neck, and theelegant face. There is real emotional tension that Alejandro wassupposed to see in the painting. At this time, her relationship withAlejandro was on problems due to her liberal attitude towards life.The letter she wrote to him after producing her portrait in a velvetdress shows that the choice of the wine-red velvet dress wasdeliberate and she intended to create a princely look. Interestingly,the portrait worked the magic she hoped for because they went backtogether after Alejandro received the portrait. In the early years ofher work, she was able to use her talent and ability to convey heremotions to her lover while at the same time prepare her audienceabout the great work that she would do later in her life.
Inconclusion, Kahlo’s painting reflects her personal experiences aswell as her early cultural perspectives about art. This papercontributes to work that has already been done about the painting byoffering a multiplicity of meanings derived from the portrayed. It isa compilation of Kahlo’s humble beginnings that later culminatedinto the icon the world came to know years later. One issue that wasnot addressed in this paper is how Kahlo was able to share her innerfeelings with her audience without being overly personal. Futureresearch should focus on various artistic elements that artists canuse to convey personal messages without compromising their work andprofessionalism.
Carmona,María del Mar Rivas, and Manuel Balsera Fernández. "EchoicRepresentations of Two Feminist Models of Women: The IndustriousRosie ‘the Riveter’ and the Eccentric Frida Kahlo."InternationalJournal of Social Science Studies3.6 (2015): 181-196.
EveryPainter Paints Himself. “Kahlo’s Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress(1926).” 2014,http://www.everypainterpaintshimself.com/article/kahlos_self_portrait_in_a_velvet_dress_1926.Accessed 19 December 2016.
Sheleg,Moran. "A Girl who Paints." Object17(2015): 100-123.