Self-Portraits in NMWA’s Collection

Self-portraiture offers a fascinating glimpse into an artist’s mind. Whether traditional or abstracted, self-portraits can affirm an artist’s identity. There are fewer known self-portraits by early women artists, who faced societal challenges in pursuing their goals and publicizing their accomplishments. Modern and contemporary women artists with works on view at NMWA employ self-portraiture to address personal, social, and political issues.

Jane Hammond, Wonderful You, 1995; Oil, gold leaf, collage on canvas, 81 1/2 x 82 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist; © Jane Hammond

Known for her dizzying collages juxtaposing disparate characters and props to hint at alternate stories, Jane Hammond (b. 1950) draws source material from found clippings, images, and phrases. Hammond’s monumental work Wonderful You (1995), the first in a series, brings together recognizable figures including Superman, Mickey Mouse, and Buddha, replacing them all with her own face. Illustrating each character with jarring colors, the work highlights—rather than obliterates—their individuality. Rather than express herself in traditional terms, she chose to portray imaginary extensions of the self, celebrating a fantastical alternative to the isolation of the individual. She asserts the dignity of connections over distinction, eroding what may seem like deep-set cultural or historical differences to embrace the beauty of the other—or, in her words, “you.”

Kirsten Justesen, Lunch for a Landscape,1975/2009; Chromogenic print, 48 3/4 x 67 3/4 in; NMWA; Gift of Montana A/S, © Kirsten Justesen

Kirsten Justesen, Lunch for a Landscape, 1975/2009; Chromogenic print, 48 3/4 x 67 3/4 in; NMWA; Gift of Montana A/S, © Kirsten Justesen

Kirsten Justesen (b. 1943) champions the dignity of independence. Using her body as her medium, Justesen’s work examines how the female self relates to society. She portrays herself seated in a shopping cart, nude, and cruising down a tree-lined outdoor path in the photograph Lunch for a Landscape (1975; printed 2009). With her arms outstretched, Justesen rides in what she calls “the vehicle of [a housewife’s] life.” She embraces her roles as an artist and mother. Despite identifying as a housewife, she portrayed herself free from the house, her husband, or her children, asserting that her individuality as internal. Her pose is one of exhilaration and freedom. Justesen seems to reject the docility of historical female nudes, declaring independence from the male gaze in expressing her own desires.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; Oil on Masonite, 30 x 24 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; Oil on Masonite, 30 x 24 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Best known for her myriad self-portraits, Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) often used her own image in her artistic practice. In her Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937), she paints herself standing center stage, meeting the viewer’s gaze with confidence, and dressed in bright, elegant attire. In one hand she holds a bouquet, while in the other she displays a letter dedicated to Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Framing herself between curtains that call to mind religious Mexican folk paintings of the time, Kahlo takes control of her staged reality, casting herself as a protagonist in a dramatic declaration of political allegiance. Her address to Trotsky functions not only as a message of political support, but also an act of self-assertion to a lover. Although the setting in Kahlo’s painting is fictional, it serves as a symbolic space for self-staged expression.

These women demonstrate that self-portraits can be complex reflections of the artist’s private fascinations or public life. Visit NMWA to see these works in the museum’s collection galleries.

—Xiaoxiao Meng was the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Go Figure! Amy Sherald at NMWA

“These are my favorites,” said Amy Sherald, gesturing to two of her paintings on view in NMWA’s collection galleries. “It was a relief to walk in here and see these. There’s absolutely nothing that I would fix because I had all the time in the world.” After winning first prize in the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition for the National Portrait Gallery, the Baltimore-based artist keeps a busy schedule. During an Artists in Conversation program at NMWA on May 9, Sherald shared her sources of inspiration and what she hopes viewers will take away from her work.

Amy Sherald at NMWA

Amy Sherald at NMWA; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

They Call Me Redbone but I’d Rather Be Strawberry Shortcake (2009) relates to Sherald’s life in Columbus, Georgia. “Once I moved to Baltimore I realized no one called me a ‘redbone,’” explained Sherald. “If you don’t know what a ‘redbone’ is…it refers to someone who is supposed to be of Native American, African, and European descent. So, in the South it was very race conscious. . . . My basketball coach called me ‘redbone,’ which I really didn’t mind. And then there were other people who I didn’t know who called me ‘redbone’…and I didn’t like it so much.”

Sherald explained her personal connection to the subject of It Made Sense…Mostly in Her Mind (2011), portraying a horseback rider holding a children’s toy unicorn. “I went to an equestrian riding camp when I was an adolescent,” said Sherald, who later developed the idea for the painting after seeing her friend’s mother do dressage. Sherald asked her friend, Christina, to model for the painting because she embodied the sophistication Sherald wanted to capture.

Both paintings are displayed on the same gallery wall as Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937). “Frida Kahlo was one of my inspirations,” said Sherald. “When I changed my major from pre-med to painting, I had these ideas of painting a lot of the same things she did. I was talking to my art teacher Arturo Lindsay and he said, ‘look up Frida Kahlo.’” Sherald added, “I’m honored, to say the least.”

When discussing the impact of her paintings, Sherald told attendees, “I received emails from all kinds of people that see themselves in this work, and that’s really important too.” Sherald noted, “When you walk through a space like [the museum] you don’t always see this [gesturing to the figures in her paintings]. For me, this became really important, interjecting images of the underrepresented in the dominant circle narrative and making work that I felt would resonate in a way that art history can’t be told without it. . . . I consider myself an American Realist, maybe with a post-modern flare.”

Visit the museum to see Sherald’s paintings in person. Stay tuned about future programs through the online calendar and by signing up for e-news.

—Ashley Harris is assistant educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Friendships: Lola Álvarez Bravo and Frida Kahlo

Inspired by the special exhibition New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin, we are celebrating famous artist friendships. Did you know that Lola Álvarez Bravo (1903–1993) and Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) became friends through the same social circles in Mexico?

Nationalist Pride

One of Mexico’s first women photographers, Lola Álvarez Bravo’s works are celebrated for documenting daily life in post-revolutionary Mexico. Álvarez Bravo said, “If my photographs have any value, it’s because they show a Mexico that no longer exists.” Her work in NMWA’s collection, De generación en generación (1950), expresses a strong sense of Mexican nationalist pride combined with universal human emotions.

Frida Kahlo is renowned for her poignant, often shocking, self-portraits. Although she is referred to as a Surrealist, Kahlo maintained, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” Remembered for her tragic life story and her turbulent marriage to famed muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo was foremost a fierce painter and political activist. Her work in NMWA’s collection, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky (1937), is one of Kahlo’s softer self-portraits, meant to commemorate her brief affair with the Russian revolutionary Trotsky.

Amigas for Life

Álvarez Bravo started taking her own photographs after serving as an assistant to her husband, photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. After their divorce, she began her own successful, independent career. It was also through her husband that she met Kahlo. Both artists were involved in the same social circles in Mexico and shared similar nationalistic outlooks that influenced their respective artistic practices.

Álvarez Bravo’s most well-known photos featuring Kahlo are often praised for their honesty and intimacy. Kahlo even fastened one of these portraits to the front of her diary, indicating the respect that she had for the photographer. In addition to capturing numerous portraits of Kahlo, Álvarez Bravo also directed a film starring the painter, but it was never completed because of Kahlo’s declining health. Álvarez Bravo hosted Kahlo’s first solo exhibition in Mexico at her own gallery, shortly before Kahlo’s untimely death.

Learn about the friendship between potter Maria Martinez (ca. 1887–1980) and photographer Laura Gilpin (1891–1979), whose works are on view in New Ground through May 14, 2017.

—Madeline Barnes is the spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: July 8, 2016

The Huffington Post features NMWA artist Amy Sherald’s paintings. Sherald portrays her subjects with charcoal-gray hues against vibrantly colored backgrounds.

Sherald says, “These paintings originated as a creation of a fairytale, illustrating an alternate existence in response to a dominant narrative of black history.”

Front-Page Femmes

The Huffington Post celebrated the anniversary of Frida Kahlo’s birth with the artist’s own words of wisdom.

Rebecca Louise Law hangs over 8,000 flowers in The Beauty of Decay and plans to re-purpose the deteriorated flowers.

Shirley Tse describes her sculptures, gems for eyes, carving Styrofoam, and Oscar Wilde.

Martha Rosler explores gentrification and homelessness in the exhibition If you can’t afford to live here, mo-o-ove!!

Through knitting and crochet, street artist Julia Riordan creates rainbow-colored installations around Stockholm.

At Fort Tilden in Queens, Katharina Grosse painted a cinderblock building damaged during Hurricane Sandy.

Valeria Napoleone displays works from her private collection of contemporary art by women for the first time.

MK Guth curates an experience for two friends to sit, drink whiskey, and read a poem by Charles Baudelaire aloud.

The Art of Romaine Brooks highlights the work and life of a long-marginalized early 20th-century artist.

ARTnews goes behind-the-scenes of Lili Bernard’s Los Angeles studio.

Hyperallergic highlights Melanie Manchot’s two-part video installation shot in the Swiss Alpine valley of Engleberg.

A new solo exhibition for Vanessa Bell—Virginia Woolf’s sister—explores the talent of the pioneering British artist.

After 50 years of choreographing, Twyla Tharp reflects on her career.

Actress Noel Neill, known for her role as Lois Lane in The Adventures of Superman, died at the age of 95.

Mexican artist Mare Avertencia Lirika tries to redefine rap with feminist messages.

Bustle highlights 19 women-led bands to listen to.

Slate calls Dorthe Nors’s twinned novellas, So Much for that Winter, “a stunning meditation on female art-making.”

Though trained as a visual artist, Cammisa Buerhaus and her musical work involving a “sculptural pipe organ” defy easy categorization.

Shows We Want to See

NMWA artist Patricia Piccinini presents surreal sculptures, drawings and a video work in San Francisco. The artist explores themes including of genetic variation and modification, the natural versus the unnatural, and love and parenthood.

Carmen Herrera’s paintings of brightly colored geometric paintings will be on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in September. Herrera, now 101-years-old, sold her first work late in life—at age 89.

Katherine Joseph—Every Minute Counts on view at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education presents a vision of Roosevelt-Era social and political culture through the lens of photojournalist Katherine Joseph.

Janelle Iglesias’s installation at the University of Colorado Art Museum “draws corollaries between selections from the CU Museum of Natural History, the university’s greenhouse, and the art museum’s permanent collection.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: June 24, 2016

The Atlantic writes that women are writing the best crime novels and that their “awareness of that inside-out sort of violence” and their “more psychologically acute” stories sets them apart.

Front-Page Femmes

Iranian-born artist Bahar Behbahani finds inspiration in Persian gardens.

Los Angeles–based artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby was awarded the Prix Canson award, which includes a solo exhibition, an artist residency, and about $11,300 worth of Canson paper.

Anna Gibb’s detailed architectural drawings of cities span Hong Kong to Glasgow.

In Al-Ugh-Ories, Nicole Eisenman’s paintings “signal something different: an inkling to stop, to ‘hang out,’ to find love in one’s community.”

Mirror, Mirror … Portraits of Frida Kahlo features 57 photographs of the painter at different stages of her life.

Agnes Martin’s works create an “intimate vibration,” convey feelings of “weightlessness,” and represent the artist’s “inner visions.”

One Hyperallergic essayist follows French photographer Sophie Calle and logs her experience.

Tate Modern’s Switch House extension adds 60% more gallery space to the museum, increasing the number of works on view by women artists from 17% to 36%.

For 30 years, photographer Elaine Ling has captured mystical forms carved from stones.

Hyperallergic raves about Joanne Greenbaum’s abstract paintings and ceramic sculptures.

Jenny Holzer creates a site-specific work in Ibiza.

Artistic Noise, a program created by artist Lauren Adelman and juvenile defender Francine Sherman, offers workshops to incarcerated young people.

The Kilroys, a group of female and trans playwrights, draw attention to otherwise overlooked plays.

Rachel Whiteread’s site-specific, concrete cabin on New York’s Governors Island alludes to Henry Thoreau and “the grimmer, darker underbelly of America.”

Georgian musician Salio discusses the music industry and women artists.

Billboard interviews singer-songwriter Victoria “La Mala” Ortiz.

Actress Ellie Kemper discusses how the television show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was written for her.

The New Yorker and ARTnews discuss a new biography of famed photographer Diane Arbus.

NPR explores Terry McMillan’s latest novel, I Almost Forgot About You.

Five of the six artists on the shortlist for the Jarman film-art prize award are women.

Shows We Want to See

Mai-Thu Perret’s “small yet powerful exhibition” at Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas features life-size female fighters, a ceramic dog, two large eye sculptures, and a glass wall smeared with petroleum jelly. Perret’s works question “the divide between human and artwork, reality and fantasy.”

The Whitney Museum of American Art holds a retrospective of 86-year-old artist June Leaf.

Arlene Shechet’s installation at the Frick Collection pairs early-18th-century Meissen porcelains with sculptures that Shechet recently made at the same German factory.

Silt, Soot and Smut showcases Alison Saar’s works inspired by the 1927 Great Mississippi Flood.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Women’s History Month: Can You Name #5womenartists?

Did you know that even though women make up 51% of visual artists today, in the U.S. only 5% of work on museum walls is by women? It is no surprise that if you ask someone to name five artists, they will likely list prominent male artists.


Share social media posts with #5womenartists; Photo: Laura Hoffman, NMWA

This March, for Women’s History Month, NMWA leads a social media campaign to help everyone answer the question, Can you name five women artists? Join the museum and other institutions, including the National Gallery of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Guggenheim Bilbao, to share stories of women artists using the hashtag #5womenartists on Twitter and Instagram. Find out more about the initiative in this artnet article.

Are you interested in participating? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Challenge your friends and family to name five women artists.
  2. Tell us who your favorite women artists are and why.
  3. Share a work by a woman artist at a museum or gallery near you.
  4. Explore NMWA’s artist profiles to discover artists you may not know.

Left to right: Artwork by Alma Thomas, Rosalba Carriera, Maria Sibylla Merian, Hester Bateman, and Frida Kahlo; Photos: NMWA

To kick off the month, learn more about five women artists from the museum’s collection who broke barriers and influenced future generations:

In 1921, Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891–1978) was the first fine arts student to graduate from Howard University in Washington, D.C. During her 35-year career as a teacher at a D.C. junior high school, she was devoted to her students and organized art clubs, lectures, and student exhibitions.

Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757), a member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, was responsible for elevating the status of pastel from its use for sketches to a respected medium in its own right. Over the span of its existence, the Academy, which had approximately 450 members in total, only admitted 15 women.


Visitors examine Petah Coyne’s work; Photo: Laura Hoffman, NMWA

At the age of 52, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) and her young daughter embarked on a risky trip to the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America. She recorded indigenous flora and fauna and helped 18th-century scientists understand metamorphosis.

Hester Bateman (1709–1794) inherited her husband’s silver workshop after he died. She made the business profitable and her descendants helped the workshop thrive until the mid-19th century. The key to her success was the integration of modern technology with classical design—a cost-effective way to attract middle-class buyers.

Referenced in her New York Times obituary as the “wife of Diego Rivera, the noted painter,” Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) soared in fame posthumously. She became the first 20th-century Mexican artist to have work acquired by the Louvre. In the 1980s, numerous books were published about her work by feminist art historians and others.

Stacy Meteer is the communications and marketing associate at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: July 10, 2015

Films featuring female protagonists have made strides at the box office. The New York Times film critics ask, “Has feminism conquered Hollywood? Has Hollywood co-opted feminism?”

Movies featuring women are becoming popular and sexist films are called out. Critic A.O. Scott wonders if this represents a “shift in consciousness, or at least a moment of awareness.” Critic Manohla Dargis agrees there is a “rising activism or maybe newfound gutsiness in the industry.” Vulture discusses four forms of discrimination women filmmakers often face.

Front-Page Femmes

The women-only Murray Edwards College has a new 450-work collection of art by women—making it the second largest collection of art by women in the world.

The Independent explores how a new generation of women artists tackle painting. “It has never been that brilliant female painters didn’t exist, it’s just that they were blocked or hidden from public view.”

In celebration of Frida Kahlo’s (1907–1954) birthday on Monday, The Detroit Institute of Art offered discounted tickets to the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibition. The Huffington Post gives advice on how to become like the Mexican painter. Latin Times shares the artist’s most memorable quotes, and CNN explores pictures of Kahlo’s private life.

“Stop Telling Women to Smile” artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh teamed up with King Texas to design t-shirts in remembrance of women lost to violence.

The Huffington Post has a list of ten more 19th-century American woman artists people should know. The list includes NMWA artists Lilly Martin Spencer, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, and Elizabeth Jane Gardner.

The first chapter of Harper Lee’s long-awaited but controversial Go Set A Watchman is available online.

Two new books about Agnes Martin explore the enigmatic artist’s life and work.

Beyoncé-inspired skyscraper will be built in Melbourne.

critique of the Amy Winehouse biopic says the film supports “clichés that plague women in art: that women can’t write their own music, or that they’re only famous because powerful male figures lifted them into the spotlight.”

NPR Music critic Ann Powers discusses the rise of the female pop stars.

The Guardian calls out a former Disney CEO for saying, “The hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman.” The Washington Post goes on to ask “How widespread is this prejudice against the pretty?”

Feminist performers in “Tall Women in Clogs” comment on how height can shape a woman’s identity.

Following Misty Copeland’s history-making appointment as the American Ballet Theater’s first African American principal dancer, The Huffington Post compiled a list of 26 talented African American choreographers and dancers.

Shows We Want to See

The National Portrait Gallery highlights rarely-seen portraits by Elaine de Kooning.

Tate Modern holds a retrospective of painter Sonia Delaunay.

Jenny Holzer: Softer Targets opens this Sunday at Hauser & Wirth Somerset.

The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston features over 150 polymorphic sculptures by Arlene Shechet.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: June 12, 2015

Women in the performing arts make waves in this week’s Art Fix Friday. NPR reports that six out of the top ten box-office movies this year featured female protagonists—more than in the last three decades. However, only two films were directed by women. A new study also found that while women direct only 7% of the top-grossing films in Hollywood, they direct 29% of documentaries and 18% of domestic features screened at film festivals.

Although women were outnumbered in headliner spots at this year’s Governors Ball, The New York Times raves that women artists had the strongest and most ambitious performances. Women DJs are still few and far between at music festivals and representation isn’t increasing fast enough.

At this year’s Tony Awards, women brought home trophies in every major category—including big wins for the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic-novel memoir, Fun Home.

Front-Page Femmes

Artist and activist Atena Farghadani was sentenced to over 12 years in an Iranian prison for drawing leaders of parliament as animals.

Famous for her polka-dot artworks and for her psychiatric clinic residence, Yayoi Kusama continues to be a favorite among wealthy art buyers, as well as the public. Last year, she was the most popular artist in terms of exhibition attendance, according to The Art Newspaper.

The Huffington Post covers the feminist music video experiment, “The Weird Girls Project.”

J.K. Rowling’s new novel is already the biggest gainer in sales rank on, shooting up its pre-sales charts only hours after the announcement.

Shows We Want to See

Painter Susan Swartz, whose work NMWA featured in an exhibition in 2011, is featured in a solo exhibition at the Ludwig Museum in Germany.

Exhibitions in New York, London, and Mexico City focus on the life and art of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

The Tate Britain has a retrospective of modern sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The Guardian examines key pieces from her 40-year oeuvre.

After years of obscurity, the centenarian artist Carmen Herrera’s paintings are on view at the new Whitney Museum of American Art. Herrera was also included in last month’s New York Times feature on women artists who are finally getting their due.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

“Knowledge of [Latin American] art makes it possible to develop an acquaintance with and, if you will, an understanding of, our society.”—Marta Traba, Latin American art critic and writer, in Arte de América Latina

Hispanic Heritage Month was established in 1988 to recognize the histories, cultures, and contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans. Commencing on September 15, the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and lasting until October 15, this month-long celebration also coincides with Mexican Independence Day on September 16 and Chilean Independence Day on September 18. Now is a great time to visit the National Museum of Women in the Arts to explore the work of some foremost Latin-American women artists!

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Begin your visit with a stop by Frida Kahlo’s 1937 painting Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky and pay your respects to one of the most iconic and widely recognized Latin-American artists of the 20th century.

This bold painting commemorates Kahlo’s brief affair with the exiled Russian revolutionary leader before his assassination in 1940 and proclaims her political allegiance to Trotskyism, though she subsequently broke with the movement and became a supporter of Stalin in 1939. Kahlo depicts herself in a stage-like setting reminiscent of Mexican retables—popular devotional images of saints or the Virgin Mary painted on tin, which she collected—clasping a letter to Trotsky, signed, “with all my love.” While the subject of the painting reveals her engagement with international politics, the Mexican folk art-inspired style shows Kahlo’s engagement with Mexicanidad, a post-Revolutionary movement that emphasized Mexican nationalism and eschewed European influences.

A visit to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait provides an excellent opportunity to get to know the work of another fascinating Hispanic artist, Remedios Varo.

The entrance to NMWA’s 2000 exhibition “The Magic of Remedios Varo”

The entrance to NMWA’s 2000 exhibition “The Magic of Remedios Varo”

In the same room as Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, you will find three paintings by this Spanish-born Surrealist artist, who produced many of her captivating artworks while living in Mexico: Weaving of Space and Time (1954), The Call (1961), and Phenomenon of Weightlessness (1963). As Lupina Lara Elizondo describes in Visión de México y sus Artistas Siglo XX 1901–1950, Varo viewed Surrealism as “a way of communicating the incommunicable.” Look closely at Varo’s dreamy paintings to appreciate their otherworldly subjects and beautiful, minute details.

Varo, who spent 16 years in Mexico and six years in Venezuela following her exile from Paris during the German occupation, cultivated numerous interests that influenced her art, including alchemy, magic, and the supernatural, as well as architecture, engineering, philosophy, and science. A number of her works portray women in claustrophobic spaces. They are sometimes interpreted as responses to the marginalization of women in society or within the Surrealist art movement, though she also painted many androgynous and species-bending figures in scenes that defy categorization.

Find out more about the works on view at NMWA and plan your visit soon!

—Olivia Mendelson is an education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Happy 105th Birthday, Frida Kahlo!

A 1932 letter from Frida Kahlo to her mother

A 1932 letter from Frida Kahlo to her mother

Today, on her 105th birthday, we celebrate Frida Kahlo, whose 143 finished paintings focused on Mexican culture, gender identity, social justice, and often pain. Born on July 6, 1907, to Guillermo Kahlo and Matilde Calderón de Kahlo, the artist—a vibrant personality and talent—lived and died in her famed “Blue House” in Coyoacán, Mexico. For much of her life, she was restricted physically, following a bus accident that occurred when she was a teenager. At NMWA, through July 31, the exhibition Mamacita Linda: Letters between Frida Kahlo and her Mother showcases the artist’s family correspondence. In comparison to the intensity of many of her paintings, the letters in Mamacita Linda show a humorous, loving side of the young Kahlo.

Critics have claimed that Kahlo and her mother had a strained relationship, perhaps as a result of Calderón’s disapproval of Kahlo’s marriage to muralist Diego Rivera or Frida Kahlo’s feelings about her parents’ own marriage. However, if animosity existed, it is not reflected in Kahlo’s warm and open letters, which are part of The Nalleke Nix and Marianna Huber Collection: The Frida Kahlo Papers. During the beginning years of the 1930s, the mother-daughter pair shared a close bond (Calderón de Kahlo died of breast cancer in 1932). Many of Frida Kahlo’s letters to her mother are addressed to “Mamacita Linda,” which translates to “pretty mama.” Her letters close affectionately, too: “Whatever I can send you, I’ll send you,” “And for you, all my love,” and “Don’t forget about your Frieducha who loves you.”¹

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937; The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; © 2012 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Their expressions of adoration may have been heightened by Kahlo’s youth and inexperience. She was in her twenties, but this period includes a time when Kahlo had just moved to America with Rivera, who was having significant professional success. She was experiencing culture shock and relapses of pain, and she knew that her mother was also in poor health.

Frida Kahlo’s complexity was later reflected in the bold colors and symbolic imagery on her canvases. As Kahlo described her work, “Really I do not know whether my paintings are surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself. Since my subjects have always been my sensations, my states of mind, and the profound reactions that life has been producing in me, I have frequently objectified all this in figures of myself, which were the most sincere and real thing that I could do in order to express what I felt inside and outside of myself.”² The contradictions in her life and work—the dichotomy between the woman who painted her dark and unjust view of nature as well as “Frieducha,” the girl who sent jokes to her mother in the mail—continue to command viewers’ attention. Now, at 105 years old, she still represents defying limitations.

—Kristie Landing is the publications and communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.


1. The quotes included here were taken from NMWA’s Mamacita Linda: Letters between Frida Kahlo and her Mother, from the Nelleke Nix and Marianne Huber Collection: The Frida Kahlo Papers .

2. The quote included here was taken from “The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo,” a film by Amy Stechler on PBS (2007).