Welcome to the second episode of the Unforgettable Female Artists series by The Fran. Today I want to talk about Frida Kahlo . You might think: Frida Kahlo? Everybody knows her! How is she forgotten? And than I’d be like: well, a lot more than you think!
You can watch the episode here or read it below. Disclaimer: because of reasons the video is somewhat out of sync with the audio after editing. I find that highly annoying, but maybe if you’re less OCD than me it won’t bother you as much… Anyway, it won’t happen again!
FORGOTTEN FRIDA KAHLO?
Though you are right of course, Frida Kahlo is everywhere. You can find her face on any kind of product imaginable. Her image has become the patron of every kind of Western minority you can think of: women, feminists, queers, gays, mixed children.
So we have a Mexican female artist who has become the poster girl for all kind of Western minorities. She has become a modern day icon on which any group can project their identities. And because of that her own identity got lost. Forgotten.
THE TRADITIONAL FRIDA KAHLO STORY
Let me first tell you the traditional Frida Kahlo story. The one you’ll find everywhere on the internet. It’s a story about Frida Kahlo being obsessed by her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. It’s a story about Frida Kahlo having multiple bisexual relations. And it’s a story about Frida Kahlo flaunting her flaws – like her uni-brow and mustache – and her body like a modern feminist.
This story is a typical story told from the male perspective. It is not about Frida Kahlo as a person. This is patriarchy telling her story. And I am not going to go all ‘smash the patriarchy’ in this episode. But it is important to realise. For instance: the idea that she flaunted her flaws and therefor was proud to not succumb to beauty standards completely neglects her gender fluid identity which made her extremely proud of her uni-brow and mustache.
So the traditional Frida Kahlo story is a story about the men in her life. The men who analyzed her art and behaviour from their own perspective and thereby translating it into Western art history. Which of course is ridiculous because Kahlo isn’t part of Western art history. This way of history writing is classic neo imperialism. Taking something supposedly exotic and enthralling and claim it as your own for your own benefit.
What I’d like to do now is to tell her story from her perspective. And of course, being a white European woman I’m hardly the right person to do so. But taking that into account I would like to try.
A LESS WESTERN PERSPECTIVE
Frida Kahlo made her art during the Mexican revolution. Her art was about creating a new Mexican identity. Based on pre-Columbian traditions, regional cultural heritage and more recent imperialistic influences.
Analyzing her art an image comes to light of Frida Kahlo as a die hard political radical. A complex human being questioning the very core of what it is to have an identity in the first place. What do the tags ‘female’ ‘Mexican’ ‘religious’ even mean? Who is in charge of what they mean? And don’t they mean something different for every individual?
REOCCURRING ELEMENTS IN HER ART
In her art you can discover three reoccurring elements which she used to depict her thoughts and ideas:
She used pre-Columbian symbolism such as characteristics from the Tehuana matriarchy to question the status quo regarding gender normality imposed by Spanish colonial rule. If you look at image 1, this is one of those paintings in which she pictured herself dressed in a traditional Tehuana dress. And she did wear these dresses in real life. She had a house full of pre-Columbion artifacts and symbolic trinkets. It was like her own museum or research lab on Mexican identity.
Pagan and catholic symbolism
Secondly in her art she used pagan and catholic symbolism together. Thereby positioning herself within both pre-Columbian and Spanish spiritual heritage. If you look at this image, it’s a Mexican catholic ‘ex voto painting’. It was made by folk artists in the 19th century and used to portray people’s greatest fears. That’s why most of these ex voto paintings have horrible depictions. Like this one: you can see how the man is being attacked and eaten by his cattle. People would place these ex voto paintings on their altar and pray to god to keep them from harm. Often the particular catholic saint who dealt with that kind of injury was also depicted on the ex voto.
Now if you look at this painting by Frida Kahlo, it’s called Henry Ford Hospital, you can see her lying in a bed. It is depicting her time in an American hospital where she was being treated for her infertility and pregnancy issues. You can clearly see the similarities between her painting and the nature of the ex votos. These are all things she is afraid of: failing to give birth, the death of her ‘flower’, her broken pelvis due to a traffic accident, losing the baby. In stead of flaunting her naked body for a male audience.
Furthermore Kahlo used political statements in her art to comment on the Mexican American relations of her time. In this painting she depicted herself on the Mexican borderland just confiscated by the USA. Look at how she depicts Mexican heritage: temples, a sun and moon, puking and crying, and the force of Mexican nature fueling the machines and industries. As if she’s saying America is exploiting Mexico.
So in stead of embodying all those things now attributed to her: feminist, queer, minority, mixed race, female victim, her art was about what those identity tags ultimately meant and to whom. And in a sense that’s very appropriate if you look at what’s happening with her image today: the meaning of her life being constructed by Western art historians and Western commercial companies.
In that way nothing has changed: a Mexican women is still being exploited by Western powers.
List of literature:
- Irene Smets (ed.), Mexico. Een revolutie in de kunst, 1910-1940 (Antwerpen 2013)
- Tina Kinsella, ‘Colonising Kahlo / Frida Kahlo and the Transcultural Encounter’, in: Pat Byrne, Gabrielle Carty and Niamh Thornton (ed.), Transcultural Encounters Amongst Women: Redrawing Boundaries in Hispanic and Lusophone Art, Literture and Film (Cambridge 2010)
- Megan Wallace, ‘Frida-mania: how we got here and what we have to learn’. (Website offline since the end of 2019)
- The Guardian, ‘Frida Kahlo: feminist, selfie queen, queer icon and style muse of 2017’.
- Tess Thackara, ‘How Frida Kahlo Became a Global Brand’.
- Amy Fine Collins, ‘Diary Of A Mad Artist’.