Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter born in the small town of Coyoacan. She lived between 1907 and 1954 to a Mexican mother and a German-Jewish father. She is well-known for her Feminist-fuelled paintings and particularly for her self-portraits. Kahlo used these works to help her find her identity which also explains why they are all quite similar. So as to best express herself, Kahlo created her own language of symbols which had its own vocabulary and syntax; and when translated, they reveal a vast amount of insight into her work ethos and meaning. It is said that her work should be viewed as “metaphorical summaries of concrete experiences.” (Kettenmann 20).
Kahlo’s paintings can be perceived by the un-cultured eye as being irrelevant and fanciful but they reflect the day to day life of Mexican traditions, even today. The imagery she uses, often takes its inspiration from Mexican popular art and pre-Columbian culture and often feature Christian saints and martyrs, paintings known as ‘retablos.’ Her paintings characterize honesty, brutality, realism and suffering. It is apparent that she was heavily influenced by traditional Mexican artistry but was able to avoid the “the spaces designated female and artist as laid out by patriarchal and hegemonic systems.” (Robinson 261) Her paintings are characterized by using a lot of primary colours while having a subduing effect because of Kahlo’s muted emotions and lack of smile or any real expression: reflecting both the vibrancy of Mexican culture while maintaining her allegiance to feminism and the removal of any ‘need to appease’ expectations by smiling, for example.
Kahlo’s politics influenced her art greatly and she represented the Feminist view frequently. She painted outside of the canonical and veered away from other Feminist artists’ Eurocentric view. She was an artist who suffered a great deal of pain in her life and was professionally neglected; however, this detracts from Kahlo’s feminist message as it presents the woman as vulnerable. The relation between art and politics is one with a long and broad history and often represents a minority rather than the mainstream which is what Kahlo did frequently: using her artistic voice to express the feminist anguish and view.
To Kahlo, real life was an opportunity to express one’s artistic and political views: An eyewitness to a crash involving a bus and Kahlo said that even as she lay in the road with her pelvis crushed and a metal rod piercing her womb and vagina, her clothes had been somehow torn off and she was covered with gold pigment that another passenger had been carrying, her body was as if it were something to be observed and expressed. This presents Kahlo’s “desire to convert [her] lived existence into a sort of bizarre art object.” (Florence & Reynolds 39) The reflection of real life has always been a huge influence to artists; they often choose to present their own interpretation of reality to the audience. Kahlo was no exception and she frequently used her body in her work as a way of “transgressing and unfixing the possibility of a distinction between art and life.” (Florence & Reynolds 39) This means that Kahlo used her sense of realism to present real life in its truest form rather than beautifying it for the pleasure of her audience. Her un-plucked eyebrows are an example of this: woman as woman rather than woman for man.
1. Florence, P. & Reynolds, D. (1995). Feminist Subjects, multi-media: cultural methodologies. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
2. Kettenmann, A. (2003). Frida Kahlo, 1907-1954: pain and passion. Germany: Taschen.
3. Robinson, H. (2001). Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology, 1968-2000. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.