Frida Kahlo

My Dress Hangs There ,1933

Frida Kahlo, who painted mostly small, intensely personal works for herself, family and friends, would likely have been amazed and amused to see what a vast audience her paintings now reach. Today, 65 years after her death, the Mexican artist’s iconic images adorn calendars, greeting cards, posters, pins, even paper dolls. My Dress Hangs There is among the few paintings that do not feature Kahlo.  It is also a highly political picture that resonates as much today as it did when she painted it in 1933.

My Dress Hangs There

My Dress Hangs There is a critical portrait of the USA during the Depression years. It is set amidst the skyscrapers of New York and crammed with motifs, jostling against each other, filling the picture as if it was a mural Manhattan. The USA, in Kahlo’s view, is full of empty consumerism and shrouded in an escapist culture.

At the centre of the composition is a traditional Mexican dress, of the type Kahlo wore. By adopting regional costume, and through paintings such as these, Kahlo developed her own distinctive brand of Mexicanidad at a time when, post-Mexico's popular revolution in 1910, the country was rediscovering its pre-Columbian and indigenous heritage.

Frida’s images mock the American obsession with efficient plumbing and the preoccupation with sports by setting upon pedestals a monumental toilet and a golden golf trophy.

Business, religion, and the eclecticism of American taste are targets of her art. Snaking around the cross in the stained glass window is a $ large red $ that turns the crucifix into a dollar sign. A red ribbon links the church’s gothic tower with a Wall Street Doric temple.

 

The Federal Hall’s steps are replaced by a graph showing “Weekly Sales in Millions”.

While big business appeared to be doing well in the 1930s, few people shared in their wealth. The swarming tiny figures at the bottom of the painting underline her message about the corrosive state of American capitalism in the 1930s. 

One curious thing about the cast of characters is that none of the characters is alive. On the steps of Federal Hall is the statue of George Washington, a reminder of the idealism of the past. 

 

The advert with Mae West is placed next to the church with its dollar sign. Hinting that the film star represents false values – vanity, luxury and the worship of manufactured beauty. The advert is peeling from the edges and the building below it is burning.  Nothing is permanent in capitalism, suggests Kahlo.

The Statute of Liberty raises her torch, a satirical reminder of what the US was meant to stands for in better days. The only thing that does not belong is Kahlo’s dress. A steamship is puffing painted smoke in the harbour, suggesting that Kahlo would have liked to be on its deck, taking her away from the US.

My Dress Hangs There 1933, together with, Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States 1932, serve as manifestos for Kahlo’s ‘sense of pride' in being Mexican. 

About Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) was a lifelong communist, and her political beliefs often inspired her artistic endeavours. She even lied about her year of birth so that people associated her with the Mexican revolution (1910). She also had the hammer and sickle flag draped over her coffin when she died and was often seen sporting the symbol on her clothing or plaster cast that encased her body after a road accident.

In 1929, her husband Diego Rivera was expelled from the Partido Comunista Mexicano [the Mexican Communist Party] over ideological differences regarding artistic freedom. In solidarity with Rivera, Frida left the party as well, yet both of them stayed committed to the cause for the rest of their lives. 

In 1930 through 1934, Kahlo and Rivera travelled through the U.S., stopping by in San Francisco, Detroit and New York City. During their time in New York, Kahlo started painting My Dress Hangs There. Kahlo didn’t like the USA very much and desperately wanted to go back to Mexico.

My Dress Hangs There is the result of the conflict between these two worlds and depicts the superficial side of U.S. capitalism that she so despised; with its tall buildings, factories and billboards and with the implication that society is decaying and the fundamental human values destroyed. In other paintings, Kahlo herself is almost always there, but here she is absent – only her dress is there as if she is saying: “I might be in the United States, but my soul is in Mexico.” 

A major exhibition of Kahlo's work was held at Tate Modern in 2005. The Victoria and Albert Museum hosted an exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 2018 containing her dresses and artefacts.