Frida Kahlo is among the most well-known self-portrait artists. As it is clear from the most prominent of her works, she uses her own image to express moods and various stages of life in a masterly fashion. Self-portrait dedicated to Dr. Eloesser that appeared in 1940 is an important work showing Frida’s temporary recovery.
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The Artwork: Disease and Gratitude
The artwork discussed within the frame of the assignment was created to express gratitude to Leo Eloesser who was Frida’s close friend. At the very beginning of the twentieth century, Eloesser starts studying medicine in Germany, and his hard work helps him to become an outstanding surgeon, enjoying famous people’s confidence. In the middle of the 1920s, Eloesser meets Frida’s husband, Diego Rivera, and becomes their family friend (Courtney, O’Hearn & Franck 2016, p. 92). It is common knowledge that Frida Kahlo suffered from numerous diseases during her life, and this is why supporting the relationships with an experienced medical specialist was extremely important for her.
Following the anguish of body and mind related to bus crash and miscarriage, Frida Kahlo faces another health issue that poses a significant threat to her well-being. At the end of 1939, the artist starts suffering from intense low-back pain; apart from that, her health deteriorates due to the development of acute fusarium infection disseminated from her right hand (Self-portrait dedicated to Dr. Eloesser (1940) n.d.). Feeling anxious about her health, Leo Eloesser encourages Frida to come to San Francisco to receive appropriate and timely treatment. The treatment helps to improve her condition, and Frida creates her self-portrait, which is then sent to Leo Eloesser. After his death, the painting becomes the property of Leo’s companion who dislikes it and finds another owner.
Self-Portrait and Its Elements
In reference to the key features of the discussed work, there are many elements that carry symbolic meaning and give clues, helping to understand Frida’s psychological condition. In general, close attention to detail characterizes her approach to art. It becomes obvious when different self-portraits created by Frida are compared. This artist manages to reflect life changes with the help of secondary objects and tiny details, whereas her facial expression in the paintings remains basically the same.
The key elements presented in the painting include Frida’s earrings of an unusual shape, flowers on her head, a thorn necklace, and the hand that holds white banderole. To some extent, all the above-mentioned details refer to the changes in Frida’s health condition. It is possible that Frida’s hand-shaped earrings fulfill two purposes simultaneously. To begin with, the artist includes the earrings to demonstrate that she often wears the gift given by Pablo Picasso who admired her talent for painting (Self-portrait dedicated to Dr. Eloesser (1940) n.d.). Apart from that, the design of her earrings refers to the location of her fungal infection.
When it comes to flowers as her hair ornament, it can be suggested that they also have a symbolic meaning, indicating Frida’s hope and peace of mind following the recovery. In fact, flowers rarely appear in her paintings. The thorn necklace that the artist is wearing is another significant element that is included in some of her works as the representation of physical pain and its alleviation. In this situation, the necklace is likely to express freedom from pain that Eloesser gave to Frida – the necklace seems to be broken.
Finally, the hand near the banderole also carries two meanings simultaneously. By including this tiny hand, the artist pays tribute to her native culture, in which people use the so-called “milagros”, religious charms that are believed to accelerate physical recovery and carry out wishes (Watkins 2015). Apart from that, this element refers to the artist’s acute hand infection that was cured thanks to Leo Eloesser’s help.
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Social, Political, and Economic Context
In reference to the social context, the first thing to be paid attention to is the growth of patriotic moods in many Mexican people due to the changing aesthetic preferences of well-known art experts of the twentieth century. A few months before the creation of the discussed self-portrait, Frida Kahlo visits Paris to participate in an exhibition organized by Andre Breton (Reef 2014). The event becomes extremely important to further the development of visual arts in Mexico as the show encourages the Louvre Museum to purchase Frida’s work. During this time, Frida’s unique style wins recognition among European art experts; the growing interest in Mexican cultural richness and Frida’s friendliness helps her to establish trust-based relationships with many foreign artists (Frida Kahlo biography n.d.).
Continuing on the socio-political context, it is important to mention the influence of gender inequality and the growth of the feminist movement. Even though the end of the 1930s was not a period when the key problems of Mexican women were solved, the activity of the United Front for Women’s Rights in Mexico contributed to important changes in political and social life. Until the middle of the 1950s, Mexican women’s participation in political life was limited due to the absence of the right to vote (Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores n.d.). Nevertheless, many women of the time were active supporters of various political movements; for instance, Frida shared her husband’s opinion on the salvational nature of communism (Galea 2017).
The economic context in which the painting was created also remains significant. In general, it is possible to suppose that Frida’s active work and elastic temperament helped to increase the representation of economically disadvantaged social groups (those with physical disabilities, women, and LGBT people) in Mexican art. Therefore, her artistic career helped to make the problems of these groups more visible.
In the end, Kahlo’s work dedicated to Leo Eloesser presents a painting that actively uses visual symbols to tell about pain, gratitude, and recovery. The period of its creation is the time when Frida became more popular in Europe, and it is partially reflected in the choice of symbols. On a national level, this period presents numerous challenges to disadvantaged and underrepresented social groups to which she belonged.
Courtney, CA, O’Hearn, MA, & Franck, CC 2016, ‘Frida Kahlo: portrait of chronic pain’, Physical Therapy, vol. 97, no. 1, pp. 90-96.
Frida Kahlo biography n.d., Web.
Galea, K 2017 ‘The life and politics of Frida Kahlo’, The Socialist, Web.
Reef, C 2014, Frida & Diego: art, love, life, Mifflin Harcourt, New York.
Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores n.d., The 63rd anniversary of women’s suffrage in Mexico, Web.
Watkins, M 2015, ‘The un-doing of hard borders’, in SP Moslund, AR Peterson & M Schramm (eds), The culture of migration: politics, aesthetics and histories, I. B. Tauris, New York, NY, pp. 189-203.