Kahlo As Artist, Woman, Rebel

— Mary Motian-Meadows

FRIDA KAHLO (1907-1954) is the most famous Mexican woman artist on the contemporary art scene. In our society, where the media focus is on sex and violence, certain autobiographical elements of Kahlo's life -- her physical handicaps (as a result of an accident when she was eighteen), her marriage with the world famous muralist Diego Rivera, her husband's infidelities, Kahlo's affairs (both with men and women), and her unhappiness at not being able to bear a child -- provoke psychological discussions of her work.

On the other hand, Kahlo's communist politics and their impact on her art are either ignored or trivialized. Janice Helland, a Canadian professor of art history, one of the more perceptive writers on the artist, observes that establishing Kahlo only as a tragic and exotic figure results in whitewashing the "bloody, brutal, and overtly political content" of her art production.(1)

When Kahlo died in 1954, her work was only familiar to a small group of people in Mexico and the United States. With the 1983 publication of Hayden Herrera's book, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo(2) the first and probably most widely read monograph on the artist in the United States, the response to Kahlo's life and art has been overwhelming.

In a review of Herrera's book, I suggested that it was a strange hybrid of meticulous historical research and a popular best-selling romance novel in which the heroine achieves financial success and happiness after a variety of sexual conquests. In American mythology the individual always wins, despite the most overwhelming odds, contrary to the reality that exists for most people. Herrera shows the artist triumphant over life's problems through the strength of her individual will and effort.(3)

Books, countless articles (both popular and scholarly), exhibitions, and catalogs have followed in the United States, England, Germany, Australia and Japan. The Marxist Kahlo has been transformed into a cultural icon for the nineties.

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."(4)

Kahlo 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.

One of the many examples of this in her art is "My Birth," (1932).(5) In 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.

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.(6)

Now that the interest in Kahlo has spread to the fashion and movie world, images of her face and paintings have been culturally appropriated to appear on postcards, calendars, T- shirts, jewelry, and films. Kahlo's life and art have become another commodity that can be sold in our consumer-oriented society.

As Helland has noted, "Her pain becomes perversion; her art becomes soap opera."(7) Helland further observes that the psychological reductionism that equates Kahlo's imagery "with a desire to 'paint away' her accident, suffering, and pain does little justice to her work. It reduces an important group of paintings done by a deeply intellectual and socially committed artist to simply a visual cry of personal angst."(8)

From an early age Kahlo was a critic of her society. During her years as an adolescent, when she attended the National Preparatory School, she was a member of a group of young people who "espoused a kind of romantic socialism mixed with cultural nationalism."(9) Later, like many other educated young people in post-revolutionary Mexico, Kahlo joined the Mexican Communist Party in the 1920s. When Rivera was expelled from the party in 1929, Kahlo left as well.

As early as 1933 Rivera began to develop an interest in international Trotskyism and in 1936 joined the Mexican section of the movement. Kahlo, who admired Leon Trotsky (and apparently had a brief affair with him) never became a Trotskyist. Some years later Frida -- and later Diego -- rejoined the Communist Party.(10) Kahlo remained a Stalinist until her death.

The Riveras' home was open to many political radicals from throughout the world -- the most famous, of course, was Trotsky. Kahlo taught a group of young artists mural painting, as well as encouraging her students to hold firm political and social views.(11) Eleven days before Frida died she participated in a public protest against U.S. intervention in Guatemala. Even her death was political. On July 14, l954, her body lay in state in the foyer of the Belles Artes in Mexico City. Her coffin was draped with a large flag bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle superimposed upon a star.

Are Kahlo's politics reflected in her paintings? She herself did not think of her work as being political. "I paint my own reality" she said, but it is precisely because she painted her subjective experiences with such honesty and clarity that we respond to her paintings. Kahlo did not necessarily create her art in response to a particular political ideology except for a few, probably her least interesting, paintings. Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick (1954) shows Kahlo with body brace and crutches, with the face of Karl Marx in the sky above and an uncompleted portrait of Joseph Stalin that still can be seen in her studio.

Kahlo painted her personal pain, but it was incorporated within a framework of elements that reflect the cultural nationalism of the period. Her work reveals "Mexicanidad" (love of things Mexican), an expression of a popular nationalism and political radicalism that occurred in post-revolutionary Mexico. Kahlo's life and art reflected her identification with Mexico in the native clothes she wore (seen in many of her paintings) and the furnishings of her home.

The artist used the formal elements of size, inscriptions, and simplicity from Mexican popular art forms especially "retablos" and "ex-votos." These tiny (their size measured in inches) 19th century tin paintings, created by itinerant traveling artists, were used as pleas to the various Catholic saints for recovery or expressions of thanks for illness or disaster. As Helland observes, the use of indigenous themes and symbols makes Kahlo's art "at once political and cultural. She painted herself, she painted Mexico, and she painted in such a way as to be understood by the people. Kahlo knew what she wanted her art to be."(12)

Kahlo was influenced by art forms indigenous to her country, with the use of pre-Columbian imagery and concepts in such works as "My Nurse and I" (1937), where Kahlo is held in the arms of a nurse with an Olmec mask; in "Tree of Hope" (1946), images of the sun and moon, function as metaphors for the duality of life, from pre-Columbian mythology; "The Love Embrace of the Universe" (1949), where, as the title suggests, Frida and Diego are in the arms of the universe personified as a pre-Columbian goddess; and in "Self-Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States" (1932), Kahlo stands besides the sculptures and a temple from the pre-Columbian world. Kahlo was a third-world cultural nationalist long before that term was coined.

While Kahlo's feminism and her homage to the culture of Mexico is acknowledged, much literature in the United States either ignores or minimizes Kahlo's political commitment and the impact it had on her art.(13) One of Kahlo's best known paintings, "What the Water Gave Me" (1938), generally provokes a discussion of whether or not this is a surrealist painting (based on the unconscious and Freudian symbolism). Herrera feels that Kahlo's output is based on her own reality and "her symbolism was almost always autobiographical and relatively simple."(14) This is good as far as it goes, but fails to address images that reveal Kahlo's leftist sympathies. Herrera's explication of this particular work reveals both the strengths and limitations of her analysis.

"What the Water Gave Me" records an intimate, reflective moment in time in which Kahlo reviews the major concerns of her life as she takes a bath. We can only see her legs, partially obscured by bath water. We know it is Frida, because the tips of her feet protruding from the water reveal her deformed right foot. It is cracked open -- an obvious reference to her accident and to later operations. We see a multitude of images that all have some relation to Kahlo's personal life: a portrait of her parents; her dual heritage, Indian and European, represented by two naked women (one white, the other Indian) floating on a sponge; and objects like a bleeding heart, a dead bird upon a tree, a skeleton seated upon a mound, and a naked, drowned Frida, her Tehuana Indian dress floating nearby suggest both psychological and physical suffering -- the pain of her broken body and the ever-present specter of death.

The two images Herrera fails to deal with are a Spanish galleon on the left of the canvas, and the Empire State Building emerging out of a mountain on the right. These suggest a historical continuity between the imperialism of sixteenth-century Spain and the twentieth-century imperialism of the United States. The relationship of these two countries has proved to be devastating on the people and culture of Mexico. To maintain the flow of silver and gold into Spain, a new economic oppression was imposed on the Indians of Mexico. Spanish rule was finally overthrown, but the plight of the peasants continued. The Mexican-American War of 1846-48 served as a pretext for United States capitalism to rob Mexico of almost half her territory which now forms the American Southwest. Subsequently, American business managed to impose its economic interests on the country -- a condition which will be exacerbated by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The form of exploitation may have changed, but the net result of colonialism and neo-colonialism has been the impoverishment of the lives of the majority of the people in Mexico. The dead body of Kahlo not only is an intimation of her own death, but also serves as a metaphor for Mexico drowning under the impact of foreign domination. A personal tragedy has been transformed into an overt political statement in its condemnation of foreign imperialism. One can further speculate that Kahlo suggests the tragic impact of economic and political forces on our personal lives.

A number of paintings are explicit criticisms of the United States. In Kahlo's 1932 "Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States," the artist stands in a landscape between the industrialized United States and a preindustrial Mexico.

On the U.S. side, the only thing that grows from the earth are three machines with electric cords as roots. One transforms itself into the roots of the Mexican plants while another is plugged into the pedestal on which Kahlo stands, a subtle condemnation of the relationship between the two countries. The machines (predictably) produce a landscape of factories, with robot-like air vents and smokestacks (with FORD imprinted on them) spewing forth clouds of smoke. The smoke and the buildings completely dominant the skyline.

This is in contrast to the Mexican side, which produces vegetation from the earth and was home to the great civilizations of the pre-Columbian world represented by a structure resembling the Main Temple at Tenochtitlan. In the sky are clouds, the moon, and the sun with dripping blood from its lips (suggesting the sacrifices that took place in the temple below). Kahlo is slyly suggesting that the ideology may have changed, but in both worlds gods de<->mand their human sacrifices.

While "Self-Portrait Between Mexico and the United States" is a more generalized critique of North American industrialism, "My Dress Hangs There" (1933) is a specifically Marxist condemnation of Manhattan, the foremost center of American capitalism. Against a bleak backdrop of skyscrapers, Kahlo's Tehuana dress is hanging from a blue ribbon attached to two pedestals -- one holding a toilet and the other a golf trophy.

She seems to be mocking, amongst other things, the North American obsession with cleanliness and sports. Other barbs of the artist's wit are religion, film and Wall Street. Above Kahlo's dress is Trinity Church, where a large painted S transforms the emblem of the cross into a dollar sign. Near the church a tattered image of Mae West appears on a billboard, ridiculing the worship of what is perceived as glamor. Instead of steps on the Doric temple of finance, Federal Hall, Kahlo pasted on a graph showing "Weekly Sales in Millions." Not surprisingly, at the bottom of the canvas (pun unintentional but appropriate) is collaged images of people on bread lines and demonstrators, all those obviously not benefiting from the millions in weekly sales.

An appropriate discussion of Kahlo's art must bridge the gap between her private and public lives. Kahlo's work and life have to be analyzed in such a way as to tie together her political convictions and the painful and personal experiences recorded in her paintings. In painting her personal reality, Kahlo created arresting visual documents about the experiences of being a woman at a particular place and time. The strength that allowed her to paint as she did was derived from her philosophical beliefs, along with her conscious femininity, allowing her to look at the world with a new and critical light.

Notes

  1. Janise Helland, "Aztec Imagery in Frida Kahlo's Paintings," in Woman's Art Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 1990/1991),
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  2. Hayden Herrera, Frieda A Biography of Frieda Kahlo (New York: Harper & Row, 1983).
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  3. Mary Meadows, "Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo," New Socialist, (Denver) Fall 1983, 55-58.
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  4. Bea Campbell, "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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  5. The paintings discussed in this article can be found in Hayden Herrera, Frida A Biography of Frida Kahlo (New York: Harper & Row, 1983).
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  6. Ramon Favela suggests in "The Image of Frida Kahlo in Chicano Art," in the catalog Pasion por Frida (Mexico: 1992): 185-189, that Kahlo was not discovered by white Europcan feminists. It was through the efforts of Chicana/o and Latina/o artists in California that an interest in the work of Kahlo was actively promoted both for Latino audiences as well as non-Mexican audiences.
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  7. Janice Helland, "Frida Kahlo: The Politics of Confession," in Latin American Art (December 1991), 36.
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  8. Helland, "Aztec Imagery," 12.
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  9. Herrera, Frida, 28.
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  10. Information about the politics of Kahlo and Rivera as members of the Communist Partv of Mexico is from Herrera, Frida, and Bertram D. Wolfe, The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera (New York: Stein and Day, 1984). Rivera was in and out of the party at various times throughout his life. 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.
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  11. Herrera denigrates the politics of Kahlo and Rivera when she discusses their impact on the young artists, they "were so well indoctrinated after two years with Frida and Diego," they were delighted to paint murals in several public laundries. Frida, 339.
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  12. Helland, "Aztec Imagery," 12.
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  13. An insightful discussion of the artist's subjectivc experiences as a conjuncture with the historical moment in which she lived is provided bv the American scholar Sarah M. Lowe in Frida Kahlo (Universe Publishing, 1991). She does not see Kahlo's paintings as mere transcriptions of her life, but are reflections of the historical currents of her day -- European Surrealism, "primitivism " in the use of elements from the Pre-Colombian past and the popular arts of Mexico, and the still-life and portrait traditions of 19th Century Colonial art. Lowe observes that "Kahlo drew her complex imagery from indigenous sources as effectively as she did from European-derivcd colonial precedents, and she deftly combined Christian with Aztec Symbolism, all by means of revaluing metaphors and generating new interpretations. (10) Lowe shows how Kahlo created her aesthetics by using and recombining the existing visual language and thus "was able to transform her personal misfortune into accessible and meaningful icons." (114) However, Lowe does not address the impact of Kahlo's politics on her work. On an international level there is growing body of literature that explores Kahlo's work within a historical, social, and political framework. In addition to the excellent Helland articles mentioned above, see Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, Frida Kahlo and Tina Morlotti (London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1982); Terry Smith, "From the Margins: Modernity and the Case of Frida Kahlo;" in Block (No. 8, 1983): 11-23; Smith, "Further Thoughts on Frida Kahlo," Block (No. 9, 1983): 34-37; and Terry Smith, Making the Modern (University of Chicago, 1993); Joan Borsa, "Frida Kahlo, Marginalizalion and The Critical Female Subject," in Third Text (London) 12 (Autumn 1990): 21-40; Jean Franco, Plotting Women: Gender & Representation in Mexico (Columbia University Press, 1989); and Charles Merewether, "Embodimcnt and Transformalion: The Art of Frida Kahlo," in exhibition catalog The Art of Frida Kahlo (Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 1990), 11-20.
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  14. Herrera, Frida, 258.
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ATC 56, May/June 1995

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