“Kahlo’s work is inaccessible and reclusive. Her art does not reflect reality but is merely concerned with internal struggles of acceptance and obsessed with the self”. Discuss.
“I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality” said Frida Kahlo famously, effectively summing up her art. Kahlo’s work, highly focussed on self-portraits depicting her struggles, has been heavily criticised as being self-obsessed and a poor reflection of the world around her. Her, often shocking, paintings include images depicting pain, fertility, love and struggle for self-identification. Her paintings can be seen as an auto-biography of Kahlo’s turbulent personal life, filled with anguish. However, the opposing argument lies in the analysis on the state of Mexico in Kahlo’s time. The Mexican Revolution broke out three years after Kahlo’s birth, Communism was rife and the Chicano movement was in search for Mexican Identity. Once contextualised, Kahlo’s work seems to be symbolic of not only her internal struggles but those of her peers and above all, of her nation.
Many critics have deemed Kahlo’s art as unreflective of reality and self-obsessed. In fact, she herself stated “I paint whatever passes through my head without any other consideration”. Her self-obsession is apparent in both the subject choice and structure of her paintings. The majority of her paintings are self-portraits and she is positioned in the centre of most of her works. Self-Portait with cropped hair (1940) exemplifies her self-obsession well. The plain background of this Self-Portait forces the viewer to focus directly on Frida herself, with the only distraction being her hair, cut-off, on the floor around her.
This demonstrates her self-absorption as the spectator has no choice but to notice her drastic, attention-seeking actions of cropping her hair into a manly style- the painting revolves around herself and her affairs entirely. The context of this painting is also significant in demonstrating her fixation with the Self. It was the first self-portrait the artist painted following her divorce from Diego Riviera, who is said to have loved her long hair. This, therefore, was a demonstration of the termination of his love for her. Above her the quote reads,”See, if I loved you, it was for your hair. Now you’re bald, I don’t love you anymore.” She wears a man’s suit, touching on her internal struggle for her own identity and independence and focussing on her personal loss of Riviera. Critics consider Kahlo’s work as self-centred due to the consistency of these elements in her work.
Reality, however, is a subjective and indefinable concept. One only knows one’s own, personal reality which is inevitably affected by the outside world and the actions of those surrounding one. Frida’s paintings therefore, could be viewed as a great representation of the struggles taking place in Central America. Kahlo’s work can be described as “private allegories”i of “the embattled situation of the public third-world culture”ii. Despite many critics holding the opposing position, there are many of Kahlo’s works which subtly demonstrate her appreciation for the political climate of Mexico in the mid-twentieth century.
Despite being a self-portrait, La Columna rota (1944) is extremely symbolic of many elements of Mexican culture at the time. While, undisputedly, it displays the artist’s internal pain and sentiment of being broken, it also speaks for many Mexicans, especially those labelled ‘Chicanos’ due to their Mexican-American origin as many felt they had no real foundation. The character’s torso is split roughly in two, with the pillar between the halves, expressing the artist’s feeling of being torn by the dual-originality. The lack of foundation of the Chicanos is symbolised through the dry, cracked fragile ground on which the character of Frida stands. The Chicano Movement encompassed not only the search for collective history but also the restoration of land grants and increased rights of farm workers iii so the use of the barren earth in this painting is extremely effective. Another movement, prominent in the time, was Feminism.
Kahlo here has painted a soft, curvaceous almost sensual figure establishing herself, in this character, to be very feminine. This is then contradicted with the face, which has obvious facial hair and the recurrent one eyebrow is employed. This juxtaposition of feminine and masculine features forces the onlooker to question our prejudices and stereotypes of women, therefore, challenging the roles of women. Fuentes said that “The internal, oneiric, psychic revolution should be inseparable from the external, political, material, liberating revolution.”iv Therefore, though Kahlo’s work was in some ways a pictorial autobiography, her paintings were undoubtedly illustrative of the political world and happenings in it throughout her life.
One argument used to combat the claim of Kahlo’s self-obsession is that one must ask questions of, and analyse the self in order to reach greater, more peripheral questions and therefore, understand the outside world. In John Tagg’s Ground of Dispute, he says “my body is never in one place: it is always elsewhere, dispersed in meaning and differentiation, given over to the unequal exchanges of discipline and desire.”The artist does use her body creatively in order to portray political as well as internal struggles. Kahlo’s Little deer (1946) depicts her with the body of a deer, pierced all over with arrows, the penetrations surrounded by blood.
This painting is incredibly symbiotic as it incorporates feminism and struggle for identity and represents them through many different symbols. As the deer is quite obviously male, Kahlo is experimenting with, challenging and examining gender roles: the woman is the brain and the male is the brawn (referring to the well known phrase). The gashes left from the arrows could represent her persecution in relation to the Chicano movement or the discrimination she suffered because of her gender. In this painting there are also elements of Pre-Hispanic Mexico as her use of Aztec symbolism is apparent.
The themes of death, magic and reincarnation were resonant in Aztec mythology and are particularly obviously mirrored in this specific painting. The blood and numerous wounds suggest death is imminent and the idea of the centaur, employed. By referring to such stories in her work, Kahlo is further examining identity and delving deeper into history. Kahlo makes reference to “a specifically Mexican thinking of the interface between life and death”v. Little deer is a multi-faceted piece of work and is much more than an expression of her internal pain. It is just one example of her numerous pieces which convey the feelings of her contemporaries symbolising the political climate.
Not only has Kahlo been condemned as self-obsessed but also inaccessible and reclusive. The extremity of her emotions in paint can be shocking and it is almost impossible to empathise with either her portrayal of herself or Kahlo as an artist because of this. Her work is said to raise “existential questions and imperatives”vi like “Who am I? How did I become what I am? How can it be that you all do not understand me? Do not touch me! My self is untouchable”vii. These questions and orders are proposed especially in My Dress Hangs there (1933) where many symbols of pre-Hispanic Latin America, contemporary Mexico and the industrialised United States are employed.
This painting is reclusive as without background knowledge of American culture and the particular movements of the time, the painting is meaningless. For example, Kahlo uses red to symbolise Communism here, but without that information, there is no way that the onlooker can relate nor comprehend Kahlo’s message. The business of the piece is also uninviting and results in a very distant and apathetic viewer. There are so many images, fragmented in their position that it creates confusion and disorientation. Kahlo does not welcome her audience into her art so much as confuse and isolate them.
Kahlo and her work both seem to have “an interest in the unconscious: disquieting, often inchoate imagery; and unorthodox subject matter”viii which often results in critics feeling completely distant from her art and helpless is their plight to access it. The painting of My birth (1932) is an extremely challenging piece of art and could be too distressing for many viewers and, therefore, create alienation between the artist and audience. Between the stark background, bloody colours and the stern stare of the Mother Deity, a feeling of expulsion of the viewer is created. The atmosphere of the painting is cold and austere due to the plain and characterless room in which the bed is situated. It is uncomfortable and uninviting. Kahlo uses reds and oranges to symbolise mortality and in turn leaves the viewer feeling uneasy.
Above the bed features a painting of Mother Deity which seems to torment the anonymous mother as she cannot bear to look at it. It creates a sentiment of guilt and wrong-doing for both the character and the viewer: the mother exudes self-reproach in her position; the onlooker knows this is a private suffering and so feels extreme culpability for the intrusion. This adds greatly to the unsettling atmosphere of the piece. The lack of identity of the mother is disconcerting and the look of anguish and evil on the child’s face creates intense discomfort in the onlooker. Although a subject matter that affects many women, Kahlo repels empathy by filling the piece with such torment. The colours, characters and subject matter all work to isolate the artist.
Later in her life, Kahlo exposed her painted self as a facade and therefore gave her critics a fuller, more real view of the real Frida Kahlo. However ironically, Kahlo revealed through The Mask (1945) that she has been hiding her true identity from the world throughout her painting career. The Mask is a self portrait however her face as previously depicted is concealed by a mask, traditional worn by folkloric dancers named Malinche. This character was the first mistress of one of the Spanish conquerors and now which represents female promiscuity and immoral behaviour.
ix Kahlo uses this painting as an admission of deception she committed about her character in her previous paintings so though her face is covered, this is a very revealing and open painting which evokes empathy. Though her face is unseen, her emotion is portrayed as raw and true as tears escape from the mask and trickle down the cheeks. Her large and soft, pain-laden eyes draw in the viewer and gives them an insight of how pained she is due to her deception and how pitiful she is for her hidden, honest character. This painting is bizarrely one of the most telling paintings Kahlo ever produced and is far from reclusive. Its accessibility is, in fact, key in the significance of this painting and is very striking.
Kahlo, laden with criticism, both constructive and damaging, certainly uses, rather than focuses on her internal struggles to represent plights of her contemporaries. Her works are demonstrative of Feminism, Communism, Mexicanism as well as the infamous themes of pain, fertility and love. Her paintings, which with some have difficulty to empathise, are powerful, tormenting and often shocking, will long leave their mark on the world of art and the hearts of many.
iFrederic Jameson in ‘FRIDA: The Painter and her Work’ by Helga Prignitz-Poda
ii As above
iii LULAC-League of United Latin American Citizens
iv ‘Essay from ‘Sick Culture’ by Carlos Fuentes
v Frida Kahlo, 1907-1954 : Pain and Passion by Andrea Kettenmann
viQuote by Andre Breton in ‘FRIDA: The Painter and her Work’ by Helga Prignitz-Poda
vii As above
viii Quote by Emma Dexter in ‘FRIDA: The Painter and her Work’ by Helga Prignitz-Poda
ix ‘FRIDA: The Painter and her Work’ by Helga Prignitz-Poda