High school can be a tough time for adolescents. As they walk the tenuous line between childhood and adulthood, they are trying to discover their own place in the world. One of the ways to achieve this is through the study of art and artists of another culture and relating it to their own experiences. In this unit, the students learn about the journey made by Mexican artists of this century as they discover their identity as Mexicans and as artists.



National Standards for Arts Education:
Visual Arts Standard 2a:  Students will demonstrate the ability to form and defend judgments about the characteristics and structures to accomplish personal purposes in art.


I. Show students the painting Self Portrait with Monkeys  by Frida Kahlo (1943).
Fig. 1  Self Portrait with Monkeys   by Frida Kahlo (1943)

Conduct a discussion by using Aesthetic Scanning by Harry S. Broudy:

Discuss the painting’s Sensory Properties (Art Elements) by identifying specific characteristics in line, shape, color, texture, etc. 
“Can you point out and describe some of the lines in the painting?”

Analyze the painting’s Formal Properties (Art Principles) to determine how the artist has organized and unified the composition to express an idea and/or feeling.  Include in the questioning, unity, variety, repetition, contrast, balance, dominance, and rhythm. 
“Are there colors or shapes that are repeated?” 
“What type of balance has she used-symmetrical or asymmetrical?”

In addressing the work’s Technical Properties, invite the students to speculate on the medium, tools, and equipment Kahlo used as well as her specific painting techniques. 
“Can you find areas in the painting where she used the dry brush technique?”

Finally, discuss the painting’s Expressive Properties.  Have the students respond to the emotional qualities expressed. 
“What feelings does this self portrait evoke because of her use of color?” 
“Why do you think she included monkeys in a self portrait?”

 III. Share some background on Frida Kahlo and the painting:

Frida painted this self portrait after her 1940 remarriage to Diego Rivera.  He was away much of the time working on the construction of Anahuacalli, his temple of pre-Hispanic art built on Frida’s land in the Pedregal district near Coyoacan.  In this painting, as in most of Kahlo’s self portraits, she expressed her feeling by using symbolism rather than her facial expression.  Kahlo’s two pet monkeys, Fulang Chang and Caimito de Guayabal are believed to symbolize her loneliness and the Bird of Paradise flower to the left of her head implies her sexuality.  Kahlo often depicted herself wearing Mexican clothing and jewelry and, in this painting, the embroidered design on her blouse is a pre Hispanic symbol that represented movement. 

IV.  Have the students read articles on Frida Kahlo in a variety of sources.  Direct their reading by having them record what they find out into their sketchbook-journals in both writing and visual images.

V. View the painting again. 
Ask “Now that you know more about the artist, what do you think was Kahlo’s inspiration for this self portrait?”

VI. Show slides or prints of Mexican dress, flora, and fauna.  Also show images of Kahlo in her home that contained an extensive collection of Mexican preHispanic artifacts and folk art and with her animals. 
Fig. 2 Festival Parade in Oaxaca, Mexico (1998); photograph by Sandi Hammonds
Fig. 3 Festival Parade in Oaxaca, Mexico (2001); photograph by Sandi Hammonds
Fig. 4 Market in Mexico City, Mexico (2004); photograph by Sandi Hammonds

Conclude by asking:
“What does she incorporate into this self portrait that tells you what is important to her?”

Lesson Resources:

  • Billeter, Erika; Images of Mexico;  Benteli Catalog Edition, 1988.
  • Burke, Marcus B.; Mexican Art Masterpieces; Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1998.
  • del Conde, Teresa; Voices of Mexico, No. 39,  June 1997, “Frida Kahlo Once Again”.
  • Herrera, Hayden; Frida Kahlo: The Paintings; Harper & Row, Publishers, 1999.
  • Letterman, Andrea;  Frida Kahlo 1907-1954; Benedikt Taschen Germany, 1992.
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries, New York, 1990.
  • Scholastic Magazine, March 1991, Vol. 21, no. 5, “Frida Kahlo”.
  • Zamora, Martha; Frida Kahlo: The Brush of Anguish; Chronicle Books; 1990.