All entries for Thursday 02 November 2006

November 02, 2006

A Frida Kahlo Glossary

‘ “All Art is at Once Surface and Symbol” ‘: A Frida Kahlo Glossary’ by Tanya Barson

Dexter Emma and Tanya Barson eds. Frida Kahlo. London: Tate Publishing, 2005. 54-79

• ‘a sign of Kahlo’s early desire to confront and subvert the strict gender roles assigned within Mexican society and to be involved in the active, public and professional spheres traditionally dominated by men’;
• ‘symbolic of rebellious sexuality’;
• ‘an expression of a defining experience [seduction by her teacher when she was thirteen]’;
• ‘a way perhaps of aligning herself with images of physically robust Tehuana women’;
• ‘a gesture of retaliation for Diego’s affairs’ (56).

Frida Kahlo - My Birth

• ‘related […] to her experiences of miscarriage and abortion’;
• ‘ideas of fertility and the cycle of life and death’;
• ‘an examination of origins’;
• ‘self birth or creation’ (56);
• ‘her often difficult relationship with a distant and devoutly Catholic mother’;
• ‘ambivalent view of motherhood’;
• ‘fundamental taboos governing the female body’;
• Tlazolteotl: ‘an Aztec goddess of fertility associated with concepts of filth and purification’;
• the butterfly: ‘a symbol of the eternal soul in both Christian and Aztec belief’ (57).

• ‘metaphysical suffering’;
• Christ’s Passion;
• ‘[t]he sacred or bleeding heart’;
• Catholicism: ‘blood is a symbol of life and redemption through Christ’s sacrifice and red is therefore the symbolic colour of martyrdom’;
• Aztec belief: ‘blood was man’s most precious possession, a source of vital energy and nourishment for the gods and regeneration of the cosmos’;
• Aztec sacrifice;
• uterine blood: ‘ambivalent attitudes towards womanhood, fertility and childbirth’;
• ‘ambivalence of abjection’;
• ‘magenta symbolises blood’;
• ‘red ribbons stand in for umbilical cords or family blood ties’;
• blood heritage.

• to be chingada: ‘wounded, broken, torn open or deceived’;
• chingado/a: a recipient of abuse;
• chingon: perpetrator of abuse;
• chingada: associated with motherhood, La Llorona, ‘the violated mother’ (60).

• Eastern mysticism, Hinduism and Buddhism;
• the third eye.

• a day in the Day of the Dead festival is dedicated to difunitos or deceased children;
• post-mortem portraiture;
• ‘portraits of “dead angels” ’ (63).

• Kahlo and Rivera, male and female;
• life and death, divine and mortal;
• light and dark, sun and moon (Teotihuacan culture), night and day;
• interior and exterior, body and mind;
• Yin and Yang.
• conch and shell = male and female sexual organs;
• doppelgänger or mirror image;
• Aztec animal counterparts or alter-egos (64).

Hummingbird (Huitzilopochtli)
• ‘Kahlo identified herself with the hummingbird’;
• ‘a symbol to suggest her successive experiences of loss through love’;
• the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, “hummingbird on the left”, ‘guided the Aztecs on their epic journey to the site of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City)’ [?] (67).

In Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, she wears a dead hummingbird around her neck, thus reversing its traditional meaning to bad luck, injury and death. The painting was made following her remarriage to Rivera but was given to her former lover Nickolas Murray. The frontal composition of the painting bears a strong relationship to the photographs that Murray had taken of Kahlo, but also gives it a hieratic grandeur and beauty. In 1946 she made a drawing in which her eyebrows transform into a hummingbird. (67)

• Kahlo was called ‘La Gran Oscultadura (the great concealer)’ by friends;
• ‘Through her work there is a constant oscillation between masking and unmasking, self-concealment and self-exposure’;
• ‘there remain levels of disguise and camouflage in the obscure symbolism’;
• ‘Masks feature as intimations of death’ (70).

In one self-portrait painting, The Mask 1945, she wears a weeping Malinche mask, identifying herself with the anti-heroine and Mexican ‘Eve’. The emotion of the fake face perhaps conceals Kahlo’s habitually inscrutable expression, thus by adopting a mask, she paradoxically reveals more feeling than she does unmasked. (70).

• ‘substitutes for the children Kahlo was unable to have’;
• ‘Since the Middle Ages they have symbolised the devil, heresy and paganism, later coming to represent the fall of man, vice and the embodiment of lust’ (used by Brueghel in this way who Kahlo admired);
• ‘the agent of licentious temptation’;
• ‘a symbol cautioning against excessive love, referring most often to parental love’;
• ‘flattery or blind love’;
• ‘In Mesoamerican culture monkeys represented sexual intercourse but in this context it was viewed as natural rather than sinful’;
• ‘the artist and imitative arts of painting and sculpture’ (71).

‘Reflecting on Kahlo: Mirrors, Masquerade and the Politics of Identification’ by Oriana Baddeley

Dexter Emma and Tanya Barson eds. Frida Kahlo. London: Tate Publishing, 2005. 47 – 53.

Underlying our responses to Frida’s art is a recognition of the projected Frida who stares out of the canvas. Here is a woman whom we think we know; her emotional ups and downs; her tastes for the unusual and symbolic; her complex love life, all remind us of elements of our own emotional lives. Her world is both known yet unknowable, like photographs of an aged parent with whom we can feel intimate yet separate. (50)

Kahlo, Frida - Fulang Chang and I at MOMA

Baddeley discusses Fulang Chang and I (1937) which was hung in the 1990s in MOMA alongside a mirror, so: ‘The spectators of the work were not only confronted by the face of the artist but also by their own, a curatorial decision that emphasised the later theoretical work above that of its initial content’ (50). Baddeley notes that Kahlo’s resurgence is related to cultural shifts in the United States, but also to the sense of the tragic that is associated with her life. For some artists Kahlo has become a symbol of ‘North American fascination with icons of minority culture’ (50).

Baddeley notices the synthesis in Kahlo’s work of indigenous cultures and Western fashions, of the body and the landscape in paintings like The Two Fridas (1939) and Tree of Hope Keep Firm (1946).

There is no more one true Frida than there is one true Mexico. The denial of absolute identity is the key to an understanding of Kahlo, her love of dressing up a rejection of the idea of the fixed or unchangeable. Knowledge and recognition of history can transform the present and in a sense, become the ultimate makeover. (52)

‘The Universal Dialectics of Frida Kahlo’ by Emma Dexter

Dexter Emma and Tanya Barson eds. Frida Kahlo. London: Tate Publishing, 2005. 11-29. (Notes on relevant sections).

Dexter presents a quotation from Kahlo:

I’ve done my paintings well … and they have a message of pain in them, but I think they’ll interest a few people. They’re not revolutionary, so why do I keep on believing they’re combative? (11)

Frida Kahlo
Dexter then reminds us of the dictum of 60s and 70s feminism: the personal is political. For feminists in that moment, this dictum was ‘a means of exposing the structure of oppressive patriarchy hidden beneath everyday life’ (11). Dexter thinks that Kahlo used this strategy too, but she notes that feminism ‘has tended to focus of [the work’s] autobiographical and confessional aspects at the expense of the political’ (11). Dexter quotes Baddeley and Fraser who suggest that Kahlo challenges neo-colonialism and she refers to Schaefer who sees Kahlo’s private allegories as metaphors for the struggle of a wider culture.

Dexter claims that, ‘all of Kahlo’s works are political’: her still lives, paintings that offer cultural commentary and images of the broken body (11). Dexter sees dualisms in Kahlo’s paintings and she lists different approaches one could take in analysing Kahlo’s paintings:
• ‘personal and family history’;
• ‘political and national allegiances’;
• her status as a Mexican woman;
• and her use of Aztec culture and its opposites: ‘life and death, male and female, light and dark, ancient and modern’ (12).

Dexter describes Aztec philosophy as ‘steeped in dualism’ with gods that represented more than one, often contradictory qualities. Dexter associates Kahlo with Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess representing death and life. I am a little worried about Dexter’s use of the word ‘dualism’ here. A dualism is ‘the division of something conceptually into two opposed or contrasted aspects, such as good and evil or mind and matter’, but I think that Kahlo’s work is more complex than is suggested by the word ‘dualism’. What Kahlo does is to bring two, seemingly divided elements into relation with each other. (12)

However Dexter goes on to say that harmony between two opposed elements is part of Eastern religion, which Kahlo had an interest in later in life. In order to reach such harmony, there must be dialectics and Dexter quotes Kahlo’s husband Rivera, who described a ‘universal dialectics’ that existed in Kahlo’s paintings. Dexter points to early photographs of Kahlo in a man’s suit and she believes that Kahlo is, ‘precociously acting out a combination of both genders’ (12). She also refers to Kahlo’s jewellery, Tehuana costume and her shawl in the style of women freedom fighters. Dexter believes that this kind of dress is political.


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