How Artists Explore Identity – MoMA

How artists explore Identity | Modern Art & Ideas

Short film from The Museum of Modern Art’s YouTube channel

The narration emphasises that modern art helps us understand ourselves as well as the artist. I see this in how artists translate our human experiences into a wholly new format that challenges us into thinking about our identity.


Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940)

Frida Kahlo

  • Kahlo and Diego Rivera, her husband since 1929, were both painters and the most famous couple in Mexico. Kahlo was merely seen as the artist’s wife until 1938 when she began to get attention for her work.
  • Kahlo’s work was unique. It branched between the two genres of Surrealism and Mexican Folk Art.
  • Kahlo divorced Rivera in 1940 and created Self Portrait with Cropped Hair.
  • Her work always reflected her life and this painting reflected her feeling towards her divorce. Rivera loved Kahlo’s long hair and her colourful dresses and this painting depicts her rejection of that with her short hair with the cut hair in her hand and the plain suit she’s wearing. This is how she saw herself at this time in her life.


Runaways (1993)

Glenn Ligon

  • Ligon asked his friends to describe him in a way they would if he had gone missing. Descriptions such as black, 5’8”, stocky build, glasses was what he received.
  • He then took the descriptions and printed them beneath 19th century images of slaves. The prints looked very similar to how posters from the 19th century would describe runaway slaves. This comparison highlights how though slavery is over, the effects of the slave trade still affect society today.
  • These prints are a reminder that his identity of a black man in today’s society is still shaped by the history of his race.


Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962)

Andy Warhol

  • Marilyn Monroe’s identity was shaped by the public.
  • Photograph used for the promotion of the film Niagra was how the public saw Monroe in 1953.
  • Monroe died in 1962 and a few months later Warhol created Gold Marilyn Monroe from the photograph.
  • Tabloid culture was born in the 50s.
  • The public no longer wanted illustration of celebrities, but photographs.
  • After her death, the media tried to tell the story of her life and her identity.
  • It didn’t matter who Monroe was to the public, they were interested in the media’s version of her.
  • Warhol’s piece is a reproduction of a silkscreen reproduction of the publicity photo placed on a gold background. This was Warhol’s perception of how Monroe was presented to the world.


These pieces represent different forms of identity art.

  • Kahlo’s piece is how she saw herself in 1938.
  • Ligon’s piece shows how his friends saw him in 1993.
  • Warhol’s piece shows how America saw Monroe in 1962.

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