Thursday, June 14, 2018

Frida Kahlo: painter & feminist

Frida Kahlo: painter & feminist

An exhibition of paintings by Frida Kahlo.

Reviewed at the Chicago Museum of Contem-
porary Art. On display at the Phoenix Art
Museum (June 9-July 23 ); University Art Mu-
seum, University of Texas, Austin (August 13-
0ctober 1 ); the Sarah Campbell 8/after Gallery,
University of Houston (October 14-November
19); and the Neuberger Museum, State Univer-
sity of New York at Purchase (December 8-
January 14, 1979).

For thousands of years women have been the
subject of artifacts created by men. It was the
prescribed role of women to paint not other people's
faces, but their own. Given the strictures against
women's participation in mainstream culture, what
is notable is not that there have been "no great
women artists," but that a few were able to super-
sede their conditioning and assume the social role
of artist.

Even then their subject matter was circumscribed.
In an age when the subject of most (male) art was
the human body, women were forbidden by custom
and by law from ·using nude models.

It is only in the past century that the great art'
academies of Europe and America have allowed
women into their "life" classes. That says as much
about the state of the art as about the state of

One woman whose work is only now becoming
known in America is Frida Kahlo, a Mexican
painter. Kahlo's stark depictions of physical and
psychological pain read like a litany of women's

At the age of fifteen, a debilitating accident ended
Kahlo's hopes of a career as a physician and
necessitated some thirty operations throughout her
life. Encased in plaster casts, Kahlo had a mirror
and an easel attached to her bed. There she learned
to paint. The images she has left form a collective
portrait of her changing consciousness and growing
sense of selfhood.

Three paintings done within a nine-year period
illustrate Kahlo's evolution.

In the first painting (Fig. 1) we see her as she
must have seen herself at the age of twenty-one.
Dominating the picture is the painter Diego Rivera.
Feet planted solidly on the ground, he is holding a
palette to show that he is an Artist.

Floating at his side with her head cocked deferen-
tially towards her husband is Frida Kahlo. She has
portrayed herself not in terms of what she does-
she also was an artist-but in terms of what she
is-the wife of the Artist.

The banner at the top says, "Here you see me
Frida Kahlo and my lovable husband Diego Riv-
era .... "

Because all existing culture is permeated with
male bias, women have been conditioned so see the
world, and even themselves, from the point of view
of men. This disjointed apprehension, this estrange-
ment from their own experience, often leads women
to see themselves in the third person as she rather
than me.

"The Two Fridas" (Fig. 2), painted in the year
Kahlo and Rivera separated, expresses this duality.
In the painting the unloved Frida cuts off the flow
of blood from her own heart, as if to repudiate the
part of herself that Rivera no longer loved.
One year later, after Kahlo and Rivera were
divorced, she painted "Self-Portrait With Cropped
Hair" (Fig. 3).

In it Kahlo sits alone, shorn of the trappings that
make women into decorative objects in the eyes of
men, her face a mask of rapt defiance. At the top of
this painting, done just nine years after the double
portrait of herself and her "lovable husband," are
the words, "Look, if I loved you, it was for your hair.

Now that you are bald, I don't love you anymore."
Most critics in assessing the work of Frida Kahlo
cite her "bizarre morbidity," her "fantasies" and
"hallucinations" as resulting from and reflecting
her inability to bear children. They, like the society
that engendered her, presume that procreation, not
creation, is the proper realm of women.

They miss the point. Kahlo's physical afflictions
may have started her painting, but it was the social
affliction of being oppressed as a woman that
animated her art. The schizoid double portraits, the
disembodied bodies, the severed arms and bleeding
hearts are the result of psychological repression.
Kahlo worked-as we do today-during the end of
the historical epoch of capitalism. Establishment
culture seeks to stifle and block new ideas that
threaten the old order, but sanctions some forms of
self-expression as a substitute for self-realization.

As a result, the creative energy that people might
use to scientifically satisfy their needs sometimes
takes the form of fantasy instead-and is called
"art" by the establishment culture.

This pattern is true for most people who live
under capitalism. But it is especially true for women, whose development is permanently impaired by their early conditioning.

For many years Kahlo and Rivera were at the
center of the artistic and political life of Mexico as
participants in both the Trotskyist and surrealist
movements. But while Kahlo's art is just as reflec-
tive of female experience as Rivera's is of male
experience, Rivera is everywhere accorded the sta-
tus of 'great artist' while Kahlo merits barely a footnote. Nevertheless, Kahlo's paintings today stand as a bitter testament to the social oppression of women and its corresponding effect on personality.

In a culture where women's art has been not so much devalued as ignored, exhibits such as the Frida Kahlo retrospective, which is now touring this country for the first time twenty-four years after her death, are a necessary corrective to the overwhelming male bias in art.

Before an oppressed group can overcome its oppression it has to become visible to itself, and that is the job of both revolutionists and artists.

Frida Kahlo's paintings show not only what we were, but what we can be.

-Joyce Stoller


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