Exploring Gender Defiance With Frida Kahlo

frida-kahlo

The infamous female Mexican painter of the twentieth century, Frida Kahlo, once said in an interview for Time Magazine, “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t.  I never painted dreams.  I painted my own reality.”[1]

The reality of Frida Kahlo has been extensively studied, for she is an iconic painter and revolutionary artist that not only shocked Mexico with her rawness and honesty, but the entire world. It is implicit in the study of Kahlo that she is not an exception to the notion that artists must suffer to experience the deep emotion that infuses their art. “The story of great artists is that they suffer during their lives and then their art is recognized as great after their death,” says Margaret Lindauer, professor at Arizona State University and author of Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo.[2]

In her deep analysis of Frida Kahlo’s art, Lindauer acknowledges Kahlo’s political and feminist activism as central to her fame and the development of her iconic image, and challenges fans of Kahlo’s art not to devour the mythology of Kahlo, for it separates the viewer from the real significance of the oeuvre.  Other scholarship on Kahlo has acknowledged her unique position as a female artist in the early twentieth century Mexico, and unashamedly used her image to represent a feminist triumph.  “I don’t necessarily think that the excessive popularity of an artist is a bad thing,” says MoLAA’s Gregorio Luke, who also runs a Utah limo service  in Orem, UT.. “You can agree or disagree with the sideshow, the marketing of it all. But we need a younger generation to get involved in the art world, and she draws them in. Young people dress like her. It’s a fad, but a welcome one.”[3] 

Kahlo’s appearance and art was shocking in a world where women were often conforming to the culturally constructed ideals of beauty.  Frida, on the other hand, chose keep her unibrow and facial hair, even though this did not fit the traditional feminine ideals of beauty.  She was also known to dress in men’s clothing and even cut off all of her hair in her depression.[4]

However, what is the link between Frida’s personal decisions in appearance and the political messages in both her appearance and art.  The saying “The Personal is Political” was coined by second-wave feminist Carol Hanisch in the late 1960s.  Hanisch wrote of the statement,

“In September of 1968-six months before “The Personal Is Political” was written, the Miss America Protest brought home to many why the Pro-Woman Line theory we were developing was so important when it came to taking action outside the group.  I wrote about how the anti-women faction of the protesters detracted from our message that ALL women are oppressed by beauty standards.”[5]

Decades before second-wave feminist activism in the United States, Kahlo made the political personal.  If indeed, her art is her reality, then as a devoted communist, her unibrow and other statements of gender defiance was just as much political as personal.  Her paintings, which place a strong emphasis on Indigenous Mexican imagery, represent a highly imaginative style and portray women’s experiences in a manner more explicit than any of her contemporaries. Kahlo’s iconic self-portraits include depictions of everything from her imagining of her own birth and nursing experiences, to her painful miscarriage and tumultuous relationship with painter Diego Rivera. With no lack of spilled blood or ripe guts on display, they are some of the most powerful images in contemporary art.

Frida’s Personal Life

In 1925, eighteen year-old Frida was struck by a trolley car while riding a bus in Mexico City.  A metal handrail pierced her abdomen and through the vagina, and her spinal column was broken in three places. Her collarbone, some ribs, and her pelvis were also broken, and her right leg had several fractures. Her foot was dislocated and crushed. No one thought she would live, much less walk again, but, after a month in the hospital, she went home. With a full body cast and stuck in bed, Kahlo began to paint lying in bed.  She used a mirror to paint herself, which became her trademark. She said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best.”[6]

What she referred to as the second accident in her life was Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist to whom she was married for 25 years. Rivera was a notorious womanizer, a habit he had throughout his marriage with his third wife, Frida Kahlo, who in turn, had her own affairs with both men and women.  Her paintings often reflect her relationship with Rivera, as well as the constant pain she felt due to her health, and the eventual amputation of her leg.  Her pain, inside and out, is evident in all of her paintings as they are full of suffering.

While Rivera was painting murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1932, Kahlo had a miscarriage, which prompted her to paint some of the most gruesome of the self-portraits that later sealed her reputation as one of the most original painters of her time. During those months in Detroit, she broke taboos and painted her miscarriage as well as a work entitled “My Birth,” a startling look at a partially covered woman’s body with Kahlo’s bloodied head bursting out of the vagina. (Madonna, naturally, now owns that one.)

In his autobiography, Rivera said, “Frida began work on a series of masterpieces which had no precedent in the history of art–paintings which exalted the feminine qualities of endurance of truth, reality, cruelty, and suffering. Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas as Frida did at this time in Detroit.”[7]

Her political statements about womanhood are most prevalent in her paintings “My Birth, 1932” in which Kahlo portrays herself giving birth to herself.[8]

Another painting, “My Nurse and I” Kahlo portrays the adult version of herself suckling the breast of a figure with obvious elements of Kahlo such as the unibrow even though she is wearing a mask.[9]

In “My Birth,” this small tin painting the head of Kahlo, with closed eyes, is emerging from between a woman’s outstretched legs. An image above the bed shows the “Mater Dolorosa,” the Virgin of Sorrows, pierced by swords and weeping, thus also suggesting the child could be the one the artist had recently miscarried. This is a startling image for Western audiences since childbirth has not been addressed, if at all, so frankly in Christian iconography. Through a woman’s consciousness Kahlo brings to center stage the process of birth in which women, not men, play a dominant role.  The painting had deep personal meaning—the work coincides with her mother’s death and one of her miscarriages.  The artistic trope of the mother and the honesty of the pain associated with it tell of Frida’s personal struggle as a woman unable to have children and who had many miscarriages throughout her lifetime and how this put her outside of the expected role of mother for Mexican women.

“My Nurse and I” The indigenous mother is a portrayal of la chingada, or the shameful and victimized version of the Mexican mother.  The breasts of the mother are also a representation of the embodiment of the Mexican earth, from which Frida is drinking and shows her strong connection to her homeland.  By portraying herself as the mother, she is showing her nationalism of Mexico as the motherland.  She is not only a part of the land, but is the land itself.

Herrera, author of a biography on Frida writes, “Many of her paintings express this fascination with procreation, and some directly reflect her despair at not having children. One of the most moving of the latter is ‘Me and My Doll,’ painted in 1937.”

However, the painting is hardly the image of someone desperate for motherhood. It is a self-portrait of Kahlo sitting on a bed next to a lifeless looking child or doll. Smoking a cigarette in the distance with a bored expression, she uses the images for a lack of desire for maternalism.  The childbirth, pregnancy, miscarriages, and images of her with children all possess a violent and disturbing quality.

“If [Kahlo's] paintings were looked at closely, she would become a dangerous woman,” says Lindauer, explaining that Kahlo’s paintings actually challenge lots of feminine ideals. If they really took a good look at her art, she adds, “People would be less comfortable buying her fridge magnets.”[10]

Frida’s Politics                                                                                                                      

Another controversial and dangerous part of Frida was her politics, along with Rivera, members of the Communist Party of Mexico.  As early as 1933, Rivera began to develop an interest in international Trotskyism and in 1936 joined the Mexican section of the movement. He remained part of the Mexican Trotskyist organization but with political differences and with the formation of the Fourth International in 1938, Rivera was expelled for deviations from the political line. According Herrara, although Kahlo agreed to have Trotsky and his wife Natasha live in their home, she never really joined Rivera in his sympathies for the Trotskyist cause.  Kahlo and Rivera were active in the Communist Party and Mexican politics. When Kahlo first met Rivera, he was a leading proponent of a post-revolutionary movement known as Mexicanidad, which rejected Western European influences and the “easel art” of the aristocracy in favor of all things considered “authentically” Mexican, such as peasant handicrafts and pre-Columbian art. Kahlo also became a diehard adherent, adopting her now-famous traditional Mexican costumes–long skirts and dresses, which also had the practical effect of covering up her polio-withered leg. Rejecting, too, conventional standards of beauty, Kahlo not only didn’t pluck her unibrow or mustache, she groomed them with special tools and even penciled them darker.

Kahlo’s art received attention from the great surrealist Andre Breton came to Mexico and fell in love with Kahlo’s work calling it “a ribbon around a bomb.”[11]

In 1954, suffering from pneumonia, Kahlo went to a Communist march to protest the U.S. subversion of the left-wing Guatemalan government. Four days later, she died from unknown causes. The attention she received, as well as the image of her death has proven to be controversial.

From a feminist point of view, some argued that she painted herself as the quietly suffering female, yet any other account of her shows how bold she is—her work itself speaks for her boldness.  Many critics have placed her as a victim of patriarchal culture with an unfaithful husband and the victim of a bus accident.  Mary Garrard, professor of art history at American University said, “People like to see women as victims.”[12] However, her boldness in her claims about her personal and political beliefs is what has made her so popular.  The fushion of her pain into her art is a political statement about making her voice known.  She was anything but quiet.  As Gregorio Luke explains, “Her work is very inclusive. She was able to incorporate elements of pop culture, Indian, Aztec mythology, surrealism, a whole variety of things in which many people can identify. She is the multicultural artist par excellence.”[13]

Conclusion

In a letter fom Nickolas Muray to Frida Kahlo, he says,“But listen Kid—although I am not a woman, I too can have hunches (intuition, witchcraft,–presentiment) that the girl I talked to last night is on her way to recovery—her spirit is stranger than the angels (good or bad) and she has enough guts to battle any handicaps that comes her way.”[14] His belief in her womanly spirit and how personal her art and the work she carried were, it made the relationship between these two forms into one.                                                                                                                                                                      

A growing body of feminist literature has dealt with the interrelationship between the personal and the political. It has redefined the personal as political. In the words of the English social feminist, Bea Campbell, “…feminism necessarily identifies both the subjective and objective conditions of existence as problems of politics. In other words, the person becomes a political problem.”[15]  Her political ideas shown through her personal artwork painted a feminine reality which makes visible so much that has remained hidden in women’s lives. Although these concepts were clearly not part of Kahlo’s consciousness, much of her work is a visualization of the theme that the personal is political.  Kahlo’s art and life often reveals the ongoing struggle for self-determination in the lives of women. Kahlo forged an identity in her paintings outside the strictures of her society. Her art deals with conception, pregnancy, abortion and gender roles in an unusually frank and open manner, thus making them political statements because women have not generally felt free to address such personal subjects so publicly. The artist’s life and art, then, appeals not only to feminist scholars but a wide general audience of women as well as men.

Sources:

[1]  Kahlo, Frida. Time Magazine, “Mexican Autobiography,” April 27, 1953.

[2] Lindauer, Margaret A. “Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo. Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

[3] Luke, Gregorio, director of the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in California. Oral interview by Stephanie Mencimer for the Washington Monthly, 2006.

[4] Meadows, Mary. “Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo,” New Socialist, Denver, Colorado, Fall 1983, pgs. 55-58.

[5] Hanisch, Carol. “The Personal Is Political”, Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation in 1970.

[6] Kettenmann, Andrea. Frida Kahlo, 1907-1954: Pain and Passion, pg. 27.

[7] Rivera, Diego. My Art, My Life: An Autobiography. Dover Publications, January 14, 1992.

[8] Kahlo, Frida. “My Birth”, 1932.

[9] Kahlo, Frida. “My Nurse and I”, 1937.

[10] Lindauer, Margaret A. “Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo. Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

[11] Broude, Norma. Mary D. Garrard. The Expanding discourse: feminism and art history. 1992, page 399

[12]Garrard, Mary D., Artemisia Gentileschi. Princeton University Press, January 1, 1991.

[13] Luke, Gregorio, director of the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in California. Oral interview by Stephanie Mencimer for the Washington Monthly, 2006.

[14] Grimberg, Salomon. letter from Nick to Frida, I Will Never Forget You Frida Kahlo & Nickolas Muray Unpublished Photographs and Letters, pg. 33

[15] Campbell, Bea. “Sweets from a Stranger,” Red Rag 13: 28, quoted in Sheila Rowbotham, “The Women’s Movement and Organizing for Socialism,” Radical America (September/October 1979), 11.

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