A contemporary icon of those on the periphery and for those who are dispossessed, Frida Kahlo’s paintings draw on her mestizaje inheritance and personal experience of marginality ― political, cultural, sexual, gendered ― to produce an iconoclastic iconography that contests the supposedly centred subject of modernity.
As with many female artists, Kahlo is often primarily considered to be a “confessional artist” due to the many self-portraits she produced depicting herself in various performances of aggrieved spouse, bisexual lover and childless woman. However, closer attention to Kahlo’s use of herself as subject matter suggests that her paintings offer a sustained interrogation into the inability to fully manifest her subjectivity or reveal her identity in any coherent sense. Kahlo’s unrelenting visual reproductions of herself acknowledge the self as de-centered, unfixed, dynamic, in-process, in continual states of becoming and are thereby pertinent to the extended temporal arc of postmodernity, an era obsessed with the politics of identity.
Performing identity as hybridity, her paintings are profoundly proto-postmodern in spirit as they reveal this stable subject of modernity to be a mythical construction. In this way, Kahlo’s ceaseless and persistent self-curation through her artwork creates, as David Halperin points out, a “queer archive” through her various performances of a subjectivity that is “at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant … an identity without an essence’ and the presentation of queered selfhood as that which is ‘not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative.”(62)
Born in 1907, three years prior to the Mexican revolution, Kahlo grew up in postcolonial Mexico amidst a cross-fertilization of cultures — Hispanic, American and indigenous — and alongside various socialist, liberal, anarchist and populist movements. Raised as a Catholic, she was also well versed in the multifaceted aspects of the Aztec culture as well as in popular indigenous beliefs and folklore traditions.
Kahlo’s work not only reflects these influences but borrows from them. Braiding history and myth, fact and fiction, she interlaces her history and intimate experiences with iconographies and symbols garnered from diverse belief systems and folkloric traditions ― Aztec, Catholic, Hindu and Buddhist ― to present a bricolage of the personal and the collective. This artistic synthesis in turn interrogates socio-cultural codes and signifiers through a sustained phenomenological enquiry into the ontology of subjectivity.
Kahlo suffered a bout of polio in her early years which permanently affected her right leg and she was involved in a tramcar accident as a teenager during which a rod of steel pierced her vagina and broke her spinal column. The accident resulted in many operations, health complications and perhaps rendered her unable to carry a pregnancy to full-term. Kahlo remained pre-occupied with death and the fragility of the body.
Her paintings testify to her life experiences which are mediated and transformed through Kahlo’s unique artistic process and creative artifice. The Broken Column (1944) references her own body as a symbol of pain and suffering by garnering from indigenous and Catholic ideologies and iconographies. In this work Kahlo’s ruptured spinal column is replaced by a fractured Ionic column and a corset holds her damaged body together. Her flesh is cleft and this wounding is reflected in the landscape that surrounds her.
The white fabric covering her lower torso mimics the cloth draped around the crucified Christ in paintings from the Italian and Spanish Baroque period. The nails puncturing Kahlo’s body are not only reminiscent of artistic renderings of the crucifixion of Christ, but of the many paintings of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian that depict his corpus pierced by many arrows. But Kahlo’s painting does not evoke the pathos of the sacrificed body of Christ or the homoerotic subtext of the penetrated Saint Sebastian. The Broken Column critiques Christian patriarchal and masculinist visions of the sublimation of spiritual pain through corporeal mortification. Performing her female body as a site of resistance to such ideological appropriation, Kahlo offers an alternative to Catholic economies of bodily suffering and sacrifice.
In addition, being neither exhibited as a spectacle for scopophilic pleasure nor observed as a contained, safe and passive declaration of feminine virtue, Kahlo’s defiantly naked body critiques the artistic convention of the female nude in the canon in Western art. The Broken Column references La Llorona, who was the archetypal “outsider” woman of Mexican folklore. The antithetical “Other” of the ‘insider” wife and mother woman ideal, La Llorona was known as “The Weeping Woman” who is said to have been an unmarried mother who ― like that other famous outsider mother, Medea ― killed her children in a fit of rage after being abandoned by her lover.
A threat to the dominant patriarchal order, La Llorona’s femininity, sexuality and maternal energy are deviant, subversive. It is this figure that Kahlo deploys as antidote to that other famous weeping woman, the Mater Dolorosa or Our Lady of the Sorrows who is emblematic of asexual purity and devotional maternal love. Whilet in The Broken Column Kahlo’s face is enigmatic and expressionless, nonetheless she weeps fountains of tears. Creating a symbolic synthesis from Christian iconographies of masculine sacrifice and maternal virtue and the deviant figure of La Llorona, Kahlo complexes any dualism instituted between the sacred and profane to provide an allegory for all human suffering through the curation of pain through the creative process.
In The Body in Pain Elaine Scarry argues that personal pain is ultimately untranslatable, yet experienced intensely by the psyche and body of the sufferer. Scarry suggests that physical pain leads to destruction and the unmaking of the human world, whereas human creativity has the potential to transform of pain and contribute to the making of the world.
The Christian symbolism of martyrdom and the Virgin’s suffering allegorizes pain from the universal to the personal, whereas in an iconoclastic move Kahlo’s The Broken Column weaves from the personal experience of pain towards the universal conditions of suffering. This work is infused with a symbolic reciprocity between life and death, death and sacrifice being situated in terms of a means of exchange, a transition or transformation between states of profane being rather than acting as an allegory for spiritual salvation.
Being Kahlo’s primary mode of expression, it was through self-portraiture that she most consistently articulated the ever-present dualities and contradictions within the subject. Henry Ford Hospital details the miscarriage Kahlo had experienced in 1932, which she claimed (according to Malka Drucker) as “a closing of a critical event” and a “continuing with life”.(68) In this painting once again Kahlo deploys the image of the weeping La Llorona to disturb the Christian ideology and iconography of the virgin birth by representing another side to the reality of motherhood: the loss of a child.
Henry Ford Hospital was painted the same year as Birth or my Birth (1932), which was executed shortly after Kahlo’s mother’s death. Both paintings can be considered anti-nativity scenes that queer Catholic imagery of the Madonna and Child. In Birth or My Birth a mother is depicted, seemingly dead which her head shrouded beneath the sheet in the moment of giving birth to what seems to be a stillborn baby. The deaths represented in this work could reference Kahlo’s recently deceased mother or Kahlo’s recent child loss.
Equally Birth or My Birth could reference the ‘re-birth’ of Kahlo the artist after the trauma of her recent experiences. Once again, Kahlo references the devotional image of the Mater Dolorosa, which hangs over the bed on which the inanimate figures of the mother and child lie. The Virgin’s suffering provides an allegory through which Kahlo conveys an intimate phenomenology of loss and grief on a far more discrete, human scale. The iconic Mater Dolorosa is reduced in size and Kahlo uses the surplus pictorial space to place the birthing mother and the child’s head emerging from her genitalia in the centre of the frame. In this way, Kahlo de-sacralizes the virgin birth through the creation of a symbolic parody of Christian iconographies of suffering motherhood and femininity.
This depiction of the act of childbirth, which is taboo in the tradition of Occidental art, also references a statue of the Aztec Goddess Tlazolteol in the act of childbirth, which was known to Kahlo. The statue of Tlazolteol indexes contradiction, allowing paradox to remain in play as the Goddess was associated with fertility, filth, sexual excess and disease as well as with purification and the ability to bestow curative properties. Kahlo reclaims the act of childbirth from abjection by employing Tlazolteol and the Mater Dolorosa as creators of life and redeemers of humanity, whilst at the same time referencing her own creative artistic ability. Reconfiguring iconographies that index universal images of suffering and sacrifice she returns the viewer to the personal experience of pain, loss, and grief.
My Nurse and I (1937) further queers madonna and child iconography. In this work an adult-faced Kahlo is held in the arms of an indigenous woman whose breasts are leaking milk. Many existing interpretations of My Nurse and I suggest that it represents Kahlo’s psychological alienation from her own mother who, unable to breastfeed due to postpartum illness, handed the infant Frida over to a local, indigenous wet nurse. However, other symbologies in this painting inform a more nuanced dialectical interpretation. The left breast of the wet nurse is decorated with white vines or veins through which milk oozes, providing Kahlo with nourishment, perhaps referencing the celestial Ceiba Xcache tree, which pre-Columbian cultures understood to give eternal succour to infants who died prematurely or in childbirth.
The face of the wet nurse in My Nurse and I is obscured by what looks like a tribal mask and Kahlo’s visage is expressionless and mask-like. Whilst the mask can be interpreted as a representation of Kahlo’s maternal alienation, the Aztecs used ritualistic masks during sacrificial ceremonies so this painting could also be considered as a homage to the sacrifice of the indigenous woman whose milk kept Kahlo alive when she was an infant.
This painting may also reference the archetype of the universal mother (in the Aztec tradition of the Goddess) so could be perceived as creating an iconographic dialectic between pre-Columbian and Christian symbologies of motherhood and childbearing. In Exposed by the Mask the theater director Peter Hall claims that the artifice of the theatrical mask contains allows the audience to experience: “passions at an intensity which takes them beyond the moment of repulsion.”(24) Whereas the naked human face repels, the formal device of the mask permits control while preventing indulgence’ so that:
… both actor and audience experience the emotion, but remain – as they might not in life – in control. Lack of control never produces art; and lack of control is never capable of appreciating art.(16-17)
Implicit in Hall’s suggestion is the presence of a certain limiting restraint within theatrical dramatic technique and device. Many critics have pointed to an unrestrained outpouring of emotion in Kahlo’s oeuvre. Whilst Kahlo did not shy away from representing the terrible and the traumatic, her art evidences considerable restraint both in the composition and the execution of her canvases which are finely painted, with an eye to delicacy and detail. Kahlo seemed to have understood that art is theatre, that art can help us to grapple with the most enigmatic emotions we experience in life.
Screening personal experience through symbolic elaboration, Kahlo exhibits artistic restraint with regard to the conveyance of emotion via her mask-like features. In contradistinction to the inscrutability of Kahlo’s mask we can recall the pathos ridden figures of Christ’s crucifixion, Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom and the Virgin’s tears which humanize divine sacrifice and suffering through subjective facial and bodily expressions and gestures. In Kahlo’s painting the ambiguity of the mask allows the ambiguity of emotion to remain in full play while refraining from the presentation of a manifest identity.
In the diary that she wrote towards the end of her life, Kahlo continually drew and re- drew both the Third Eye motif and the Yin/Yang symbol. The Third Eye becomes a recurring motif in Kahlo’s self-portraits and later works and is placed in the middle of her husband Diego Rivera’s forehead in The Love Embrace of the Universe, The Earth (Mexico), Me, Diego and Mr. Xólotl (1949). Rivera is naked and Kahlo holds him in her arms like an adult baby. In turn, Kahlo is held in the embodied embrace of the Mexican earth, and it is this figure which grounds Kahlo in the landscape.
The Love Embrace of the Universe echoes the queering of Catholic Madonna and child iconography in the works previously discussed. This painting precisely references My Nurse and I, with the breasts of the Mexican Earth mother dripping milk onto Kahlo and Riviera. The Mexican Earth mother is in turn enclosed in the arms of the cosmological goddess who is formed out of light and dark, being both the sun and moon.
The painting is divided in half by the dark of the moon and the light of the sun which signifies that the cosmos is a union of opposites, a belief held by pre- Columbian peoples. The cacti evident in the background enhance the feeling of protection around the couple and attest to Mexico as their spiritual home. The dog resting on the arm of the goddess is Dr. Xólotl, Kahlo and Rivera’s pet dog.
The Aztec people believed that this breed of dog accompanied the dead to the afterworld and these canines were understood to be both the animal daemon of the goddess Quetzacoatl and the shamanic alter-ego (nahual) of the ancient Chichimec warrior Xólotl who was the ancestral precursor to the Aztecs. Kahlo and the goddess are connected across life and death as both have a gash etched into their necks. The omnipresence of life and death infuses this painting which is a symphony of dualisms that attests to the simultaneous presence of seeming opposites.
This painting announces a profound interrogation into the dualistic philosophies of the Enlightenment which informed the Modernist project by dividing matter into binary opposites. Here we have the sun and the moon, night and day, male and female, child and adult, wife and husband, mother and child, but none of these dualisms are represented within a traditional iconographic framework. The dualisms are placed in conversation rather than in opposition to produce an infinite and unresolved dialectic that disturbs metaphysical and epistemological hierarchies and binaries.
Kahlo’s iconography provides a dynamic space in which private, subjective experience is mixed with collective, monotheistic and pantheistic symbologies to instantiate an examination into the phenomenological, ontological and metaphysical categories that help to create and inform our lived realities.The conflicting elements co-exist in what Victor Zamudio-Taylor has termed a “third space”. We can call this third space a “queer space”, which is a liminal, hybrid, spatio-temporal possibility of becoming. Kahlo’s iconographic iconoclasticism is profoundly “queer”, as it contests the normative and the culturally hegemonic categories of subjecthood.
Her work pays testament to the performative nature of identity, whilst attesting to the ultimate failure to fully evidence, manifest, represent or capture the subject. The margin from which Kahlo’s art speaks does not deny subjectivity, but rather celebrates the subject’s unboundedness by articulating a mythology of the subject which allows meaning to remain present, yet enigmatic, in an open play of signification. Kahlo’s work a contributes to a critical investigation and re-conceptualization of the subject of modernity and postmodernity.
The multiplicitous national, ethnic, sexual, and gendered identities she performed institute queries that are still pertinent to postmodernity and the politics of identity. Queering the normative constructs of identity, her performative paintings elicit potent questions regarding the re- invention and re-evaluation of the identities of ourselves — how we are identified and how we chose to identify ourselves — and, just as importantly, the identities of others.
Tina Kinsella is Lecturer in Critical and Contextual Studies (Fine Art) at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dun Laoghaire, Dublin and Fellow at the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies, Trinity College Dublin. Her research institutes conversations between artistic practice and process, psychoanalysis, affect theory and gender theory to explore the intersections of subjectivity, aesthetics, ethics and politics.