Art Criticism

Frida Kahlo
A Ribbon around a Bomb

The personal is political. Thus went the credo of the 60s and 70s feminist movement. Feminists argued that sexual difference was produced through the interconnection of social practice and institution. The destabilising of traditional gender roles which saw women primarily as carers and mothers – financially disempowered, dependent domestic angels – was also part of the matrix that identified white male patriarchy as the root of both colonialism and world poverty. To explore the history of women in culture and art was to reveal how history itself was written; to expose it prejudices, its assumptions, its stubborn silences. Such investigations did not simply make visible the role of women in society but held up a mirror to the way society itself was constructed. Women, along with the poor, were its silent, disenfranchised victims. Neither group had a voice, neither had the power to determine the way their destinies unfolded. Women, before the age of contraception, were enslaved by their bodies to years of childbearing, miscarriages and abortions; the poor were enslaved to their landlords and bosses.

Frida Kahlo My Grandparents, My Parents and I 1936
My Grandparents, My Parents and I, 1936

Twenty years ago feminist art critics such as Griselda Pollock argued that a Marxist understanding of history was “extremely pertinent and necessary for producing a feminist paradigm for the study of what it is proper to rename as cultural production… a feminist historical materialism does not merely substitute gender for class but deciphers the intricate interdependence of class and gender, as well as race, in all forms of historical practice.” Many feminists suggested, as did the French critic Foucault, that ‘sexuality’ was fundamentally bourgeois in origin. “It was in the great middle classes that sexuality, albeit in a morally restricted and sharply defined form, first became of major ideological significance.”

The life and work of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has achieved near cult status and resulted in numerous books, a feature film and now a major new exhibition at the Tate. Her total output was small, no more than 150 paintings. Yet her exotic, provocative and colourful life has become the stuff of modern myth. Kahlo lived in remarkable times. Born in 1907 she witnessed profound political changes that occurred during the uprising that was to become the Mexican Revolution. So closely did she identify with the poor, the peasantry and the underdog, rather than with the bourgeois class into which she was born, that she changed the date of her birth to 1910 to coincide with the start of the Revolution. The mood of political freedom engendered a new pride in Mexican nationalism, fostering a renaissance in indigenous art, craft and native traditions known as ‘indiginism’. A bright young woman of mixed European and Mexican origin – her father was a German Jew and her mother half Mexican, half Indian – she was one of only thirty-five girls out of a total of two thousand students to enter the highly competitive Preparatory school. Her aim was to study medicine. She had a particular interest in social science, biology and botany. Culturally aware, her friends formed part of a radical intellectual and political elite that looked to Pre-Columbian Mexico rather than to the United States or Europe for their cultural roots.

Frida’s life was characterised by a series of dichotomies – the pull between Europe and Mexico, between the masculine and feminine, dark and light, ancient and modern, illness and health, the personal and the political. These conflicts led to her life-long investigations of female sexuality, sexual difference, marginality, cultural identity, power, passivity and pain. Her painting My Grandparents, My Parents and I of 1936 traces her ancestry and maps this sense of dualism. A small naked girl stands in the courtyard of the Blue House in Coyoacán (today the Frida Kahlo museum) holding a red ribbon. It reaches back to both sets of grandparents, encircling her parents and echoing the red umbilicus that connects her own growing foetus to her mother’s stomach.

Frida Kahlo Nurse and I 1937
Nurse and I, 1937

Frida Kahlo had a complicated childhood. Her mother was her father’s second wife and she grew up amid rivalry with her half-sisters. Although her father, a photographer, was cultivated and sensitive to his daughter’s needs, her mother (known by Frida as el Jefe – the Chief) was more inclined to effusive religious avowals than to displays of maternal affection. When her eldest daughter, Matilde, fled the household she refused to speak to her for twelve years. On the birth of Frida’s sister Cristina, born only eleven months after her own birth, she was placed with a wet nurse. Her sense of angry deprivation is graphically illustrated in My Nurse and I painted in 1937 where she depicts herself “with the face of a grown woman and the body of a little girl, in the arms of my nurse, milk dripping from her breasts as from the heavens.” The face of the nurse, who is naked from the waist up, has been replaced by a pre-Columbian Teotihuacan stone mask, conflating European Christian images of the Madonna and Child with those of an indigenous earth mother goddesses. Female sexuality, maternity, death and Mexico thus become intrinsically entwined.

At the age of six Frida caught polio. One leg became very thin and her foot deformed, cruelly resulting in the nickname “peg-leg Frida” at the German College in Mexico City to which she had been sent. It was her father’s idea for her to have a German education. A loving but fragile man, subject to epileptic fits, she helped him touch up his photographs in the studio and he encouraged her interest in art and reading. He had an extensive library of German classics: Goethe, Schiller and other philosophers and kept a photograph of Schopenhauer above his desk. As an adolescent she attempted to hide her deformity behind trousers – which appealed to her innate sense of androgyny – and later beneath exotic Mexican skirts. On 17th September 1925, on the way home from school with her then boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias, the bus she was on collided with a tram. She suffered multiple injuries, particularly to her back and pelvis, lost her virginity and spent three months confined to bed in a plaster caste. During that time she read a good deal, everything from the Chinese poetry of Li Tai Po, to Proust and articles on the Russian Revolution. It was whilst she was immobilised that she started to paint self- portraits from a mirror fixed to a canopy over her bed. “I paint myself,” she wrote, “because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

With her recovered health she resumed acquaintance with her political and radical friends. In 1928 she joined the Communist party, marching into the Ministry of Public Education where the already famous muralist and fellow Communist, Diego Rivera, was working, to demand an opinion on her work. In response Rivera included her in his fresco at the Secretariat of Public Education with a red star pinned to her breast. They soon, despite the twenty year age gap and their physical discrepancies – he was tall and fat, she tiny – were romantically involved. Their friends dubbed them the dove and the fat frog. Later she was to claim that she had had two accidents in her life; the tram crash and her meeting with Rivera. Despite numerous mutual infidelities – he with her sister Cristina, she with Trotsky to whom she and Rivera gave political asylum – they remained soul mates – with a brief divorce – for over 20 years.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair 1940
Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940

From 1930 to 1934 she and Rivera went to live in America where he had been commissioned to paint murals in New York and Detroit. He was to have his contract terminated when he gaave one of workers in his mural with the face of Lenin. Rivera thrived in America, but she Frida was lonely, missed Mexico and suffered a dramatic miscarriage. She had already had her first pregnancy terminated in 1930 owing to the incorrect position of the foetus. The couple’s relationship was beginning to break down.

The very personal images of her broken and battered body have become iconic, rather as the late poems of Sylvia Plath have done, attracting a body of women who identify Kahlo and Plath as victims – the used and abused casualties of their domineering male partners – Diego Rivera, in the case of Kahlo and the poet Ted Hughes in that of Plath. But whilst Frida Kahlo certainly developed a strongly autobiographical pictorial language to map the emotional events of her life, her message is neither so singular nor hermetic.

Certainly she suffered physical pain from her injuries, depression due to her miscarriage and her inability to carry a child to term, as well as despair at Diego’s constant affairs and these events contributed to the rich idiosyncratic language of her paintings. Her naked, bloodied body lies on an iron bedstead in Henry Ford Hospital recovering from her miscarriage linked by blood vessels to a snail, a pelvic bone, a female abdomen, a lock and an orchid. While in hospital she asked to see her lost foetus and also referred to illustrations in medical text books. The Two Fridas, painted shortly after her divorce portrays a duel self – part European, part Mexican, both the dutiful wife with a bleeding heart and a more autonomous woman in national costume. In Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, painted in 1940 during her estrangement from Diego, she sits alone cutting off her long locks, the symbol of female beauty and sexuality, dressed asexually in a man’s suit. As I wrote of her sense of loss in my poem Frida:

You opened me like a door
onto a room of rose light,
now my shattered heart lies trussed in its
orthopaedic brace,
scar tissue puckered like the red zip of closed lips.
In the dark of my room
I sit in a man’s suit cutting my long hair,
watching each lock
as it falls, then lifts in the dawn wind like
a black-headed gull.

Frida Kahlo Henry Ford Hospital 1932
Henry Ford Hospital, 1932

Whilst her powerful imagery is strongly autobiographical and likely to touch any woman who has ever been betrayed in love, it also has its roots in retablos, the Mexican vernacular votive paintings of Christian saints and martyrs as well as in pre-Columbian myth. In Mexican folklore La Llorona is the archetypal ‘evil woman’; a sexually voracious predator who stands in contrast to the blessed wife and mother. Unwed and abandoned by her lover she commits, in a bout of deviant erotic energy, an act of Medea-like infanticide. The painting Henry Ford Hospital is, therefore, not simply a cry of personal despair. It is also breaks a number of taboos by portraying a woman for whom conception was obviously not immaculate, a woman who gives birth not to a holy child but to a pool of unclean uterine blood, a woman stigmatised and marginalised by both her sexual appetites and her infertility. Implicit also is the suggestion that a woman who cannot bring forth a child can make art. The very act of painting becomes a substitute for physical birth. With this rejection of the archetypal feminine role Kahlo engages with a broader political discourse about the place of women within Mexican society.

She has often been labelled a Surrealist. Whilst she certainly met André Breton on his visit to Mexico in 1938, and travelled to Paris in 1939 to exhibit in an exhibition he organised, this link has tended to blur her political ambition and led to her work being seen as exclusively about women’s experience. This is largely due to the (male) Surrealists belief that women were closer to the unconscious (like criminals and the insane) than men. For Breton there was “no art more exclusively feminine… by turns absolutely pure and absolutely pernicious.” But this male centred, essentialist view and obsession with Kahlo’s ‘otherness’ and ‘exoticism’, obscured the scope of her political engagement. For Breton could see only “what was alien to the rational world of the white European male – madness, women, the exotic.” The closest he got to understanding her real political vision was when he described her as “a ribbon around a bomb”. For it is easy to forget, amid the facts of her colourful love life, that Frida Kahlo was already a committed ‘Third World cultural nationalist’ with strong revolutionary leanings before she even met Diego Rivera. It was presumably these that led her to have an affair with Trotsky, who was not, after all, known for playboy good looks.

Frida Kahlo The Two Fridas 1939
The Two Fridas, 1939

Her ill health – she had further operations on her spine, spent time in an iron corset and eventually lost a foot to gangrene – her affairs with both men and woman, her passion for exotic Tehuana dress, all became absorbed into the vocabulary of her art. The dualistic principle, which characterises many of her paintings, can be traced back to pre-Columbian myth. It is evident in those self-portraits where she divides the ground into mirror opposites of dark and light, night and day. This bipartite view of the universe is also extended to herself as the wife and artist, the native Mexican and European, the lover of women and men. What makes her art so strongly ‘feminine’ is this use of autobiographical material. She increasingly employed it as a means of psychological exploration, as a way of making sense of her own psyche. But it was not totally solipsistic, for what is often overlooked is that in so doing she also formulated a language of art which questioned the values of neo-colonialism. As the writer Claudia Schaefer has claimed her paintings can be seen as “private allegories” of “the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.” Her political sensibility is clearly visible in her less flamboyant still lives of fruit and vegetables, which express a pride in Mexican identity, in the paintings that examine the imbalance of power between Mexico and the US, as well as in the images of her broken body which reflect the shattered dreams of the Mexican revolution. The personal is, in the case of Frida Kahlo, very definitely political.

So what is her legacy? How important is she as an artist? Her rather flatly painted canvases have little to do with ideas of gesture and surface being explored by mostly male artists within the modern art movements of Europe and America in the first half of the 20th century; borrowing, as they do, from popular and native Mexican art. But as in Sylvia Plath’s poetry there is something atavistic about her imagery that continues to speak directly to the most vulnerable and wounded parts of many women. By becoming her own subject she mirrored the current interest in Freud, psychoanalysis and the unconscious, as well as reflecting the changing role of women within contemporary society. Whilst her friend Georgia O’Keeffe painted flowers that made covert reference to female eroticism no woman had previously painted such personal and blatant images of their own sexuality as had Frida Kahlo. In so doing she opened the door for artists such Louise Bourgois, Paula Rego and Tracy Emin to mine their own psycho-sexual histories.

Describing her life and work in 1943, Diego said “Frida’s art is collective-individual. Her realism is so monumental that everything possesses universal dimensions, and, as a consequence, she paints the outside, the inside, and the very bottom of herself and the world.”

Sue Hubbard’s poem ‘Frida’ is available in her collection ‘Ghost Station’ published by Salt.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2005

Image 1&3: Collection MOMA
Image 2: Frida Kahlo Foundation
Image 4: Collection of Dolores Olmedo Mexico City, Mexico
Image 5: Collection Museum of Modern Art Mexico City, Mexico

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