The Revolutionary Techniques of Frida Kahlo

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Frida Kahlo, born in 1907, was a Mexican artist famous for her self portraits. She explored themes of post-colonialism, race, identity and class in the twentieth century Mexican society. Although often described as a surrealist, she rejected this title, declaring, ‘I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.’ Her paintings not only reflected the hardships she endured throughout her career, but also her strong political ideology.

Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera’s mural style frequently depicted revolutionary fighters and peasants, whereas Kahlo focused more on a re-evaluation of indigenous traditions and folk Mexico. Her Aztec idealisation was very anti-Spanish and anti-US, associating her with the title Indigenista, referring to her glorification of the indigenous people and culture. Frida Kahlo considered herself a daughter of the revolution, indeed even changing her date of birth to 1910, the year of the Mexican revolution.

The Mexican revolution of 1910 stemmed from increasing resentment and uprising against centuries of colonial rule from the Iberian peninsula. Dissatisfaction with inequality, the rising demand for material improvements and the strive for equal rights resulted in the Revolution. Although many of these objectives were never realised, the Revolution did prompt a new national consciousness and nationalism. Octavio Paz, a Mexican poet stated in ‘In Labyrinth of Solitude’ that the revolution was as if ‘the Mexican drunk with his own self is aware at last in a mortal embrace, of his fellow Mexican’.

The nationalistic ideas adopted after the Revolution encouraged a national spirit, promoting ethnic integration and a revival of historic and mythical traditions. Anti imperialist sentiment was amplified following US intervention in Mexico. In response, muralition the popular mural art form of the 1920s thrived, celebrating Mexico’s Indian past and the struggle of ordinary workers.

One way in which Frida Kahlo’s paintings show symbolism of Mexican nationalism is by employing Aztec imagery. Following the consolidation of the Revolution of 1910-1920, Indigenismo became a key element of the nationalist ideology, placing great emphasis on embracing indigenous roots in response to the anti-imperialist movement.

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Kahlo’s idealisation of Aztec Mexico can be seen in The Love Embrace of the Universe the Earth, Myself, Diego and Señor Xolotl (1949) see Fig 1. Both Frida and her husband Diego (who is depicted like a baby) are being held by the Aztec earth mother Cihuacoatl, who is then embraced by the twofold face of the Universe. Furthermore, Diego is portrayed with a third eye, an Aztec symbol of wisdom and intelligence. Such indigenous iconography shows Kahlo’s desire to embrace her roots - an ideology encouraged by the nationalists renewed fascination with traditional Mexican mythology. Kahlo’s particular focus on Aztec symbolism rather than other pre columbian societies such as the Mayans, is significant as it mirrors her own desire for a nationalistic and unified Mexico. Aztecs were ruled by one supreme ruler unlike Mayans who had many sovereign rulers for each city state.

The Mexicanidad movement adopted by the nationalists aimed to resist some of the sociocultural norms imposed on Mexico by their colonial masters, challenging the long imposed mentality of ‘cultural inferiority’. Instead of culturally imitating European civilisations as the Criollos and Peninsulares had desired, Kahlo incorporated the philosophy of Mexicanidad into her work by designating her paintings for the ordinary Mexican people, declaring her willingness 'to be worthy, with my paintings, of the people to whom I belong” and to her nationalist cause. Her strong ties to her motherland are very clearly represented in her painting Roots (1943), see Fig 2. The roots carrying her blood grow from her torso and spread out onto the bare earth, representative of Mexico, nourishing it, revealing the strength of her attachment. The depiction of herself as a sacrificial victim ultimately represents the extent of her dedication to her nationalist cause.

Her critique of North American industrialisation from a Mexican nationalist viewpoint can be observed in My Dress Hangs There (1933), see Fig 3. The painting was undertaken during a three year stay in New York whilst her husband was undertaking a commission. The chaotic imagery of a toilet, a sports trophy, a telephone on a pedestal and even a dollar sign on a church cross symbolise her disgust at the culture of excess, industrialisation, destruction, abuse, hypocrisy and greed she witnessed within a capitalist society. The painting also includes a traditional Zapotec dress, an oasis of calm and femininity amongst the otherwise chaotic, quite masculine symbolism. This dress is a representation of a traditional Zapotec dress. The Zapotoec were a matriarchal society, which is significant as Mexico experienced an increase in gender equality following the Revolution. This is in contrast with the US, which was still very much a patriarchal society. The fact that Kahlo is not shown wearing the dress is thought to emphasise the fact that although she may be living (albeit temporarily) within this society, her heart is elsewhere, in her beloved Mexico.

Nevertheless, not all of Kahlo’s paintings are as symbolic of Mexican nationalism. A large proportion of her self portraits are reminiscent of the traditional bust-length portraits popular in Europe in the era of colonial reign, such as Self Portrait with Braid (1941) and Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940). Kahlo however refuses to comply completely to imperialist traditions and contrary to classic Spanish art, she portrays herself as less attractive than in reality.

Kahlo was perhaps further removed from the reality of woking class mestizo nationalists than she wanted the public to know. She cultivated an image for herself as a self taught artist by hiding the artistic education she received from printmaker Ferdinand Fernandez and her father. Her paintings could be considered to be more representative of Mexican nationalism in the early twentieth century than she had actually personally experienced. Kahlo’s father was German, so whilst she could never claim full Mexican heritage she enhanced some of her indigenous features in her self portraits such as her unibrow to emphasise her affinity with the indigenous population. This was also perhaps to distance herself in a form of rebellion from the classic beauty represented in the portraiture of her former colonial rulers. Her own portrayal of herself as a strong Indian woman contrasts sharply with the image of a Chingada women who represented hybrid conquest culture.

Her double self portrait, The Two Fridas (1939), see Fig 4 represent Kahlo’s internal struggle with her dual heritage. An artery joins her two hearts together, thereby linking the two cultures, which is also represented by her different attire: a traditional Tehuana dress and a European lace dress. The iconography of the hearts, a widely used indigenous symbol, could also represent her endurance of mental and physical pain both as a European and an indigenous woman, therefore symbolising her unavoidable and inevitable suffering. It is her European counter part that cuts the blood vessel in the painting, perhaps a reminder of her numerous surgeries and experiences with abortion but also the death and eventual denial of her European roots. Her indigenous self appears heartbroken (it is painted shortly after her divorce) and is holding a small painting of her ex husband Rivera; the saddened Kahlo gasps the hand of her western self. This display of solidarity demonstrates her ultimate acceptance of her dual heritage, and is perhaps an acknowledgement of the undeniable stain imperial influences have left on her country despite her nationalistic cause.

To conclude, Kahlo’s art is very representative of the nationalist ideal of Mexico’s indigenous population and flora and fauna. In contrast to her husband’s art however, she does not represent the struggles of the indigenous population as a whole, but in a very personal manner focused on her own identity and personal struggles. Her dual heritage undoubtedly caused an internal conflict between her European and Mexican identity and perhaps this led her to overcompensate for this in her love of all things Mexican and desire to continually portray this in her art. Perhaps if her paintings were truly nationalistic and representative of Mexico as a country, she would have placed more of a direct focus on the lives of ordinary people rather than considering herself an artistic spokesperson for the Mexican people. Her lifelong suffering of pain and heartbreak can be felt in her paintings, and she expresses her fragile physical and emotional condition through art that appears shocking and unconventional to the norms of a western capitalist society. The rawness and honesty Kahlo conveyed on behalf of her own difficulties and her homeland’s, still resonates today with the contemporary audience, earning her the title of one of the most controversial and memorable artists in modern history. Frida Kahlo’s paintings will forever be a powerful relic for nationalism in one’s motherland, an ideal which as she has taught us, above all else, we must strongly defend.

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