February 14, 2007

Frida Kahlo's Masquerade

Kahlo - Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace

“For Frida Kahlo beauty was inextricably bound up with masquerade. In her self-portraits [...], whatever the degree of pain implied, by tears or wounds, her face remains severe and expressionless with an unflinching gaze. At the same time the mask-like face is surrounded by luxuriant growths, accoutrements, ornaments and familiars – a monkey, a doll, a hairless dog. The ornament borders on fetishism, as does all masquerade, but the imaginary look is that of self-regard, therefore a feminine, non-male and narcissistic look. There is neither coyness nor cruelty, none of the nuance necessary to the male eroticization of the female look. The masquerade serves the purpose of displacement from a traumatic childhood of the subject herself, ever-remembered, ever-repeated.

“Throughout Kahlo’s work there is a particular fetishization of nature, an imagery of fecundity and luxuriant generation which is clearly the defence against her knowledge of her own barrenness, one of the products of her childhood accident. Veins, fronds and vines often merge in the body itself. There are three modes of self portraiture: the body damaged, the body [157] masked and ornamented, the body twined and enmeshed with plants. In some paintings even the rays of the sun are incorporated in the web. Fruit in still lifes become part of the body, flesh-like, or skulls with vacant eyes. It is as though in compensation for her barrenness, and a defence against trauma, are condensed in pullulating images of cosmic and natural vitality sometimes counterposed with images of barrenness itself, of lava rock and broken ligneous forms.

“In a sense, nature is being turned into a complex of signs. Similarly the body itself becomes a bearer of signs, some legible, some esoteric. Masquerade becomes a mode of inscription, by which the trauma of injury and its effects are written negatively in metaphor. It is as if the intensity of the trauma brings with it a need to transfer the body from the register of image to that of pictography. The faces are read as masks, and ornaments as emblems and attributes. The discourse of the body is itself inscribed with a kind of codex of nature and cosmos, in which sun and moon, plant and animal, are pictograms. At the same time this pictographic effect de-eroticizes the imagery.” (157-158)

Mulvey, Laura and Peter Wollen. ‘Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti’. Art in Modern Culture: an Anthology of Critical Texts. Ed. Francis Franscina and Jonathan Harris. London: Phaidon, 1992. 145 – 159.


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