Tender and Protective Symbol

“I paint myself because I’m so often alone and because I am the subject I know best”

Frida Kahlo


Self-portrait with Monkey, Frida Kahlo, 1940. Private collection of Madonna


Frida 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.


Portrait of Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo, by Annie Leibovitz

The Elephant and the Dove

Alfred Molina (as Diego Rivera) and Salma Hayek (as Frida Kahlo) in a promotional picture for Frida (Julie Taymor, 2002), taken by Annie Leibovitz


The Wedding Portrait, Frida Kahlo, 1931


As a young artist, Frida Kahlo approached the famous Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, whose work she admired, asking him for advice about pursuing art as a career. He immediately recognized her talent and her unique expression as truly special and uniquely Mexican. He encouraged her development as an artist and soon began an intimate relationship with Frida. They were married in 1929, despite the disapproval of Frida’s mother. They often were referred to as The Elephant and the Dove, a nickname that originated when Kahlo’s father used it to express their extreme difference in size.

Their marriage was often troubled. Kahlo and Rivera both had irritable temperaments and numerous extramarital affairs. The bisexual Kahlo had affairs with both men and women, including Isamu Noguchi and Josephine Baker; Rivera knew of and tolerated her relationships with women, but her relationships with men made him jealous. For her part, Kahlo was furious when she learned that Rivera had an affair with her younger sister, Cristina. The couple divorced in November 1939, but remarried in December 1940. Their second marriage was as troubled as the first. Their living quarters were often separate, although sometimes adjacent.