Frida’s Friday Fright: The Spooky Secrets of ‘Girl with Death Mask’

Illustration by Nuestro Stories

In the spirit of October, a month known for celebrating art and creativity, and all things spooky, we once again turn our attention to one of the most renowned figures in the art world, Mexican Artist Frida Kahlo. 

Sure, Kahlo, by now, is a name that needs no introduction, with her prominent figure gracing posters, apparel, and merchandise worldwide. And her self-portraits are known to confront themes of pain, identity, and mortality.

Yet, it should be noted that some pieces are, well, just darn right spooky … which brings us here, to Girl with Death Mask (She Plays Alone), on this Frida Friday.

With Halloween looming right around the corner, we take an analytical (and artistic) dive into Kahlo’s painting Girl with Death Mask – which, art historians and critics agree – exudes an eerie and unsettling atmosphere. 

“Not oddly terrifying. … flat out ABSOLUTELY terrifying,” Reddit user, ellaxxny, says on a post about the painting.  “The more you look, the more unsettling it becomes. The vacant landscape, details on the sundress, the empty black sockets versus the pearly white mask eyes. … Brilliant work.”

Behind the Masks

Created in 1938, Girl with Death Mask (She Plays Alone) is yet another fine example of Kahlo’s unique style and her ability to convey her complex emotions through her art.

Kahlo’s art is known for its autobiographical nature, and the spooky “Girl with Death Mask” is no exception. 

“Her constant health issues and chronic pain meant that death was often on her mind; as one of Kahlo’s friends famously remarked, ‘Frida lived dying,'” Medium explains in a recent article. 

Plus, as Google Arts and Culture project points out, the painting was created at a dark time in Kahlo’s life. “It was painted while Frida Kahlo was mourning the death of her own baby by miscarriage,” Google explains.

The painting’s central theme revolves around the dualities of life and death. The titular Death Mask implies a confrontation with mortality, which was a recurring motif in Kahlo’s work due to her own struggles. 

As masks are often associated with concealing one’s true identity or emotions, Kahlo’s use of the death mask can also be interpreted as a commentary on how she, like many artists, may have concealed her inner pain and vulnerability behind a facade. The title “She Plays Alone” may be tied to her solitary struggle with identity and mortality.

“Both masks seem inappropriate for the innocent tiny little girl and are symbols or hints for the cruelty of her destiny,” FridaKahlo.org says in the tribute site’s analysis of the painting.

The ‘Strange Little Girl’

The girl in the painting may be Kahlo herself, when she was 4 years old. And the presence of the mask could be seen as a representation of the physical and emotional pain she experienced throughout her life, particularly due to her near-fatal bus accident as a teenager that led to a life of numerous surgeries.

The hummingbird-like creature on the girl’s shoulder is a common motif in Kahlo’s work, often symbolizing the fleeting and delicate nature of life.

The painting also pays homage to the traditional Mexican festivals surrounding the annual Day of the Dead holiday, where many celebrate the dead by wearing masks and offering flowers to their loved ones who have passed away.

“Another symbol of festival is the yellow flower she is holding, most likely the tagete flower, which is the same one people place on graves to mark this celebration;” the nonprofit site Kahlo.org explains, adding:  “The mask on the ground is a tiger face, which apparently resembles one Frida had in her house.”

Despite the dark themes of mortality and introspection, the painting conveys a sense of strength and resilience for some. 

The girl stands tall, with the presence of vibrant colors in the background, perhaps suggesting an acceptance of life’s challenges and the ability to find beauty and vitality even in the face of suffering.

The use of bold colors and intricate patterns in the background, along with the fine details in the death mask and the girl’s clothing, showcases Kahlo’s technical skills and her ability to infuse every element of her work with symbolism and meaning.

“Overall, it is an eerie scene, mysterious and difficult to fathom. The contrast of the child’s youth and innocence with the symbols of death is jarring, and the desolate background behind the child is particularly unnerving,” Medium writes in an article about the piece. “It’s clear that this strange little girl definitely plays alone.”

And, even though Kahlo originally gave the painting as  a gift to her friend, Actress Delores del Rio, also from Mexico, the painting is on display far from their homes, in the Nagoya City Art Museum in Nagoya, Japan. 

But prints and original replicas of the painting can be found and bought everywhere, from Walmart to Amazon – just in time for Halloween and Day of the Dead.

Cathy-Nuestro-Stories-Writer-Image-200x275

By Catherine A. Jones

Cathy’s writing has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, USA Weekend, People, Romper.com, The Miami New Times, and dozens of other media publications and online sites. Her opinion pieces have appeared on Today.com, El Tiempo Latino, and more.

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