Kahlo’s The Wounded Deer (1946)

Frida Kahlo painted so many self-portraits and included so many references to events in her life that her pictures are often interpreted biographically. Within the paradigm proposed by EPPH, though, her well-known interest in esoteric matters is far more likely to be the source of her art's meaning. The two approaches can result in very different interpretations.

Unlike earlier artists who working on commission kept silent about their search for self-knowledge, Kahlo acknowledged her interest. It was, says one critic, her principal goal, "longing on personal, political and sexual levels for the Oneness of all life"1, a common theme in the Inner Tradition. Yet convention claims that this painting of a wounded stag alludes to her disappointment after a spinal operation. Who in the distant future would know or care?

Click next thumbnail to continue
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Kahlo, The Wounded Deer (1946) Oil on masonite. Collection of Carolyn Farb, Houston.

Click image to enlarge.

Any regular reader of EPPH may have already noticed that the arrows in the stag's body have all arrived from in front of the canvas like the artist's own paintbrush. Besides, to remain alive after nine direct hits is most unlikely. On the poetic level, then, the arrows must be "brushes". Note too how the pattern of intersecting shafts mimics in the foreground the rhythm of the lightning in the background, both golden yellow, the alchemical color of purity.

Click next thumbnail to continue
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Kahlo's The Wounded Deer (1946)

Click image to enlarge.

Her figure as a portrait head on a stag's body may have been inspired by a painting discovered a few decades earlier in a neolithic cave in Europe. It was particularly well-known through a drawing after it that had been widely published (top) and it was thought to represent a shaman figure dressed up as, or imagined as, a deer. Note especially how both heads turn to look out at the viewer. Although the drawing was subsequently revealed to be imaginatively embellished, it was then considered an accurate reproduction and Kahlo, with her interest in shamanic matters, would certainly have seen it. Its similarity to the present painting suggests she had.

Click next thumbnail to continue
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Henri Breuil, After the Sorcerer figure in Les Trois Frères cave, France (1920's) An imaginative depiction.
Bottom: Kahlo's The Wounded Deer (1946)

Click image to enlarge.

Why, though, is there a storm in the distance? Lightning is the central feature of Giorgione's Tempesta (c.1506-8), one of the world's most famous paintings, which I have already suggested represents the artist's poetic thought in the process of creation.2 Kahlo, married to the celebrated Mexican artist Diego Rivera whom she revered, is likely to have thought so too because here she has shaped the lightning bolts into the forms of her husband's sleepy eyes and distinctively full lips. If you compare the diagram (bottom) to Rivera's self-portrait from five years earlier, the two most defined features are the drooping eye on the right and the mouth floating sideways. As in a mental image (and a Cubist painting) Rivera's features are few and fractured but precise enough to be recognized.3

Click next thumbnail to continue
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Detail of lightning in Kahlo's The Wounded Deer (1946)
Top R: Detail of Diego Rivera's Self-portrait (1941)
Bottom: Diagram of Rivera's face in above detail

Click image to enlarge.

Thinking like a master Kahlo imagines Rivera as "the artist" in her mind, her alter ego. This "creative mind" is not unique to any artist but shared by all. It is commonly imagined as reincarnating, each artist subtly changing the mind's shape and content. That is how Rivera becomes the Creator in Kahlo's. It also explains why the arrows mimic the lightning; Kahlo/Rivera in the lightning has "painted" his/her androgynous self, a wise shaman as a stag with a female head. 

See the conclusion below


 

Captions for image(s) above:

Kahlo's The Wounded Deer (1946)

Click image to enlarge.

Although the deer seems to spring forward, none of its legs actually touch the ground. It floats there as a "painting" in the foreground. As David Lewis-Williams has noted, the legs of many animals in cave paintings do not touch the ground either because, in his words, mental images float free of any natural environment.4 Thus, just as Rivera's face is fractured like a mental image in the sky, Kahlo's "figure" floats as a mental image in the woods. Woods, besides, are an archetypal symbol of the mind which Dante used for that purpose in the opening lines of his Commedia, as did the painter Filippo Lippi in The Adoration in the Forest (c.1460) and many other artists too. [See other examples under the theme Artist's Mind.] The bottom line is that no matter what the scene appears to be at first, true art is always a depiction of the artist's mind.

Notes:

1. Ronald J. Friis, "The Fury and the Mire of Human Veins: Frida Kahlo and Rosario Castellanos", Hispania 87, Mar., 2004, p.56

2. See Abrahams, Giorgione's Tempesta (2010) at: http://www.everypainterpaintshimself.com/article/giorgiones_tempesta

3. See Abrahams, "Cubism Explained" (2011) at: http://www.everypainterpaintshimself.com/blog/cubism_explained

4. David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave (London: Thames & Hudson) 2002, p.194

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 11 May 2014. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.