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On Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portraits

Cynthia Freeland is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston, Texas.  Her new book, Portraits and Persons, shows that portraits have served two fundamental functions throughout the ages.  Firstly, they preserve identity, bringing us closer to loved ones who are either absent or dear.  And secondly, they tell us something about the subject being portrayed: not just external things, but also the subject’s emotions and inner state.  In the excerpt below Freeland analyzes self-portraits, specifically the work of Frida Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo (1907-54) is another artist particularly known for creating an extended series of studies of herself in her art. There are 55 self-portraits among the total of 143 of her known paintings. We can notice many of the same concerns in her work as those addressed by the previous artists: social status, artistic success, identification of a core self with key psychological traits, and concerns about mortality. There are, however, a few additional factors that arise in Kahlo’s work. For one thing, she is notably concerned with issues of national and ethnic identity. Kahlo is also concerned with her status as a women and with her troubled partnership and marriage with her teacher and fellow artist Diego Rivera. Kahlo’s concerns about mortality were intensified by her childhood polio and by the bus accident that left her damaged and in need of multiple operations. Her wounded and suffering body became a persistent theme in Kahlo’s work. Ironically, perhaps, the concern with mortality does not seem to be much reflected here by paintings that show self ageing. Frida’s face looks remarkably the same across her works (unlike the faces of Rembrandt of Cézanne.)  She is always recognizable with her coal black hair, uni-brow, and intense dark gaze, even when she pictures herself as an infant suckling at her nurse’s breast!

Kahlo’s paintings, like those of the previous artists, show an awareness of art history and reflect linkages with predecessors she admired, often those from the Spanish tradition or from distinguished Italian portrait artists.  For example, in her Self-Portrait with a Velvet Dress (1926), she alludes through both the red dress and the slender elegant fingers both to Botticelli and Bronzino.

Many of Kahlo’s works feature the wounded self/damaged body, which is specifically a female body.  She is shown dealing with the pain and loss of miscarriage and infertility in Henry Ford Hospital, and with pain stemming from both physical and emotional wounds in paintings such as Broken Column, and Wounded Deer.  Despite the female identification Kahlo can also play upon and invoke identification with male saints: with St Sebastian (in Wounded Deer), and with Christ (in Broken Column).

Kahlo’s repeated experiments in the self-portraits with clothing and accessories such as jewelry, native plants, and animals, shows a preoccupation with defining and embracing her ethnic heritage (European German-Jewish, Mexican, Indian).  Writing about Kahlo’s works, Sharyn R. Udall remarks, ‘She is trying on identities, both personal and artistic: from the melancholy aristocrat of her first self-portrait, she seems to be testing an image that speaks of her mixed Euro-American and Indian heritage.  She is also concerned with political and national issues about the distinctive identity of Mexico as it emerges from colonialism into independence, and in particular with its identity vis-à-vis its northern neighbor, the United States.  She resists comparisons that rank the two countries by showing th progressive, industrial, wealthy northern country as superior to its poor and ‘primitive’ southern neighbor.  Her own allegiance is clear.

Frida’s mestiza-self, as embodied Mexican nation, is an active, fertile, female agent with a self-generated subjectivity and self-defined sexuality, which challenges the post-revolutionary constructions of the conquered and raped fatherland.

To sum up, then, for Kahlo as for the previous artists, self-portraiture involves reflection on personal and artistic issues.  Her work manifests a greater concern as well with gender, ethnic, political, and social issues.  Kahlo, working at the time of the Surrealists, can also employ more vivid visual symbolism, frequently using flags, indigenous symbols like the sun, moon, or hummingbird, animal metaphors, etc.

Claims have been made for Kahlo, as for Rembrandt and Cézanne, about the self-constituting nature of serial self-portraiture.  One of the novelties of these claims is that instead of making up a kind of autobiography or life narrative, Kahlos work amounts to, as it were, a film in which she is the star:

By starring in her self-portraits (as opposed to a film), Frida very methodically (frame by frame) builds a repertoire of imaged-I’s (or Imaged bodies) within which she offers us a small window onto her world, a kind of case-study methodology.

Interestingly, in Kahlo’s case her self-portraits are not the sole source from the artist about her life, since she also kept a diary which as been published (both in the original Spanish and in English translation).  This returns us to the questions that arose before for Rembrandt and Cézanne.  One question is how an artist’s diary relates to an autobiography, and how each genre relates in turn to the self-narrative (if such it is indeed) in their work over a lifetime.  I believe a diary is a distinct kind of self-narrative from either an autobiography or a series of self-portraits, and it is doubtful that proponents of the narrative self-constitution view really have in mind that the narrating self is writing something like a diary.  Complicating things even more is Kahlo’s case is the extensively illustrated nature of the diary, which at times contains sketches for paintings in their own right.  If there are three competing ‘external’ narratives of Kahlo’s life, then which would be the correct one to refer to in trying to access her own self-narrative?  Or is that something altogether different?  As stated before, here too I find it implausible to identify the self-constituting narrative (if it exists) with any of these three public ones.  I feel the same reluctance in these cases as I would in identifying the artist’s own narrative with even the best, most complete and authoritative biography.

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