“I paint myself because I’m so often alone and because I am the subject I know best”, Frida Kahlo once said. The iconic Mexican painter’s biography is riddled with sadness. At the age of six, she developed polio, leaving her right leg thinner than the left, which she disguised by wearing long, colourful skirts. Following a traffic accident in her teenage years, Kahlo went on to suffer further health problems until her death in 1954. She also had a volatile marriage with acclaimed Mexican artist Diego Rivera.
Kahlo’s traffic accident was life changing. She suffered a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, a dislocated shoulder and other complications which affected her reproductive ability. She had several miscarriages and suffered periods of depression. During three months recovering in a full body cast, Kahlo neglected the study of medicine and began to paint, encouraged by her mother. She later stated, “I was born a bitch. I was born a painter”.
Kahlo channeled her energy and emotion into her artworks and her many pets – monkeys, dogs, birds and a fawn – which lived at her home, Casa Azul (Blue House) in Coyoacán, Mexico City. Of her 143 paintings, 55 are self-portraits which feature her treasured animals and incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds. Perhaps one of the most famous is her Self Portrait with Monkeys from 1943. The iconic black-haired, unibrowed Kahlo is surrounded by three black spider monkeys, their arms wrapped around her. In Mexican mythology, monkeys are symbols of lust, but Kahlo portrayed them as tender and protective symbols. Kahlo’s pet primates were a spider monkey named Fulang Chang (a gift from her husband) and another, Caimito de Guayabal. The species is recognised by disproportionately long limbs and long Prehensile tail and are normally found in the tropical forests of Central and South America. Whilst there are many examples of pet monkeys (Michael Jackson’s Bubbles just one), they are widely considered to be unsuitable for the home environment. Once they reach sexual maturity, monkeys can become aggressive and can harbour disease.
Guests visiting the home of Kahlo and Rivera would often be entertained by Fulang Chang, or Bonito, the Amazon parrot, who would perform tricks at the table for rewards of pats of butter. At Casa Azul, Rivera constructed a small pyramid in the garden where her pets roamed around freely. She also had a fawn called Granizo; an eloquently named eagle, Gertrudis Caca Blanca (Gertrude White Shit); parakeets, macaws, hens and sparrows. She also kept hairless Mexican ixquintle – including her favourite, Mr Xoloti – a breed of dog with an ancestry traceable back to the Aztecs, hence their appeal to Kahlo, who was enormously proud of her MesoAmerican heritage.