- Frida Kahlo
- Niña con collar
- oil on canvas
Private Collection, Sunnyvale, California
Salomon Grimberg, Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself, London, 2008, p. 79, illustrated in color
It is unusual, an auspicious event, to be able to study one of Kahlo's early portraits and devote time to observing her creative process suspended in a moment of its unfolding. Thus, when one of her lost works comes to light, the opportunity to learn more about her feels like a garnered gift. Until recently, the whereabouts of Niña con collar was unknown. We first learned of its existence from a photograph of the painting in the archive of Lola Álvarez Bravo, who began photographing Kahlo's work about the time she married Rivera, three years before her signature style was established. The first time Niña con collar was documented was in Frida Kahlo: Das Gesamtwerk (1988), the catalogue raisonné of her complete work. At the time, we had the photo and no other information. But the photo was enough for us to feel fortunate. The Álvarez Bravo photographs of Kahlo's early works are invaluable documents for the scholar. They confirm the work's authenticity, and they also educate about early influences and the development of her style. Kahlo reworked at a later date some of these paintings, and we have photographs of various stages; yet other works are lost. Had it not been for Lola Álvarez Bravo, we would not know what many of these works looked like or even of their existence, and we would certainly have a lesser understanding of Kahlo's creative process.
We can be certain that Kahlo left Niña con collar intentionally unfinished, for otherwise, she would not have wanted it photographed. The question we are left with is, how come? The thoughtful reply is to conclude that when she reached the desired emotional content in the work she stopped for fear of losing what she had, which could have happened had she continued work on it. That she did not wish to risk. Furthermore, the painting would hold a particular meaning to her, as it became a point of departure on which she built various self-portraits over time. It is not unusual for an artist to keep a particular work, which she did until she gave it to the current owner, because it proved to be a spring well of ideas for works to come.
Kahlo recalled to a friend the history of these early portraits:
I began to paint after the accident...I was studying at the Prepa, but the accident messed me up. I returned to school, but I felt very sore and had little strength. I took my paintings to Diego, and he liked them a lot...
Then, the friendship and almost courtship with Diego began. I would go to see him paint in the afternoon, and afterward he would take me home by bus or in a Fordcito-a little Ford that he had-and he would kiss me.
One Sunday, Diego came to the house to see my paintings and critiqued all of them in a very clear manner, and he told me all the possibilities he saw in them. Then I painted two or three things, which are around the house, that to me seem very influenced by him. They are portraits of thirteen- or fourteen-year old kids.
Why does the Niña con collar seem familiar to us, as if we had seen it before, although it is essentially unknown? Clearly it brings to mind Kahlo as she portrayed herself in the marriage portrait produced in 1931 (fig. 1). Though slightly modified, all the elements are there, beginning with the frontal pose, and followed by the winged eyebrows, the hoop earrings, and the jade bead necklace. Kahlo simply reversed the colors of the dress and the rebozo. It also brings to mind what she wore to her unpretentious marriage to Rivera in the court of Coyoacán: "I asked the maid for skirts, the blouse and rebozo were also borrowed from the maid."
Niña con collar fits Kahlo's description of those early paintings and foretells and closely resembles her in the well-known marriage portrait produced two years later. Despite Kahlo's claim of Rivera's influence, a detailed study of the bust-length Niña confirms it is all Kahlo. Set against a brilliant indigo wall, a Mexican girl poses in a rustic pine chair. For her portrait, the girl has made herself look her best, with hair parted in the middle, pulled back, and carefully coiffed with spit curls around her forehead. To confront the viewer, Kahlo uses the girl's direct stare from under her spreading monobrow and the rigid symmetry of a frontal pose, as opposed to the conventional three-quarters view - rare for a secular portrait but not uncommon for Kahlo. Kahlo's reduction of the space around the girl brings her immediately to the forefront and grabs our attention as she does in the 1929 Self Portrait, Time Flies (fig. 2) or even more so, in the Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940 (fig. 3). Kahlo's merging of the girl's dark eyes and black pupils serves to highlight her gaze. The jade beads around her neck and hoop earrings complement her festive bright red dress and a deep green rebozo. Suggestions of her nascent sensuality imbue the image. Her discreetly low cut dress shows her as a girl in early adolescence. Yet, she is still a child. Her rebozo falls naturally from her right shoulder, contrasting with the left, where it is slightly pulled aside. The girl's lips are sealed in a pout, but her vacant look beckons, making the viewer wonder what is passing through her mind. This is a thought never far from the viewer's mind, when studying a Kahlo self portrait. Niña con collar is the seed of many self portraits that Kahlo will produce thereafter in her signature style.
September 28, 2016