All entries for Wednesday 14 February 2007

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.

Kahlo and Religious Icons


Lowe notes that Kahlo often uses the ex-voto, a representation of a supernatural event as a means of giving thanks to God:

The ex-voto mixes fact and fantasy, depicting the image of divine intervention to commemorate the miraculous recovery from a sickness or accident. It pictures two registers of reality: the earthly – an incident recorded with journalistic verity – and the divine, in the form of a patron saint shown floating above the victim. This fusion of the real and imaginary was enormously appealing to Kahlo, and it was this aspect of the ex-voto that she appropriated for her work. (61)

Kahlo also uses retablos of figures such as the Mater Dolorosa (Mother of Sorrows). Lowe notes that the Mater Dolorosa was thought, ‘ to guard against sorrow or pain, or at the hour of death’ (61). Lowe goes as far as to say that she thinks that Kahlo, ‘identified with the Mtaer Dolorosa, who is often depicted shedding tears of sorrow for her lost son’ (61)

Kahlo' s My Birth and Tlazolteotl

Kahlo - My Birth

Kahlo’s painting My Birth is particularly shocking in its cultural context, because it pictures Kahlo’s grown adult head emerging from the vagina of a woman whose face is covered by a sheet, a traditional gesture of grief or shame. Kahlo is literally situated as being born from a Chingada, a mother broken open, her legs splayed wide for all to see. (Brigley Thompson 2009: 204).

Further Reading

Brigley Thompson, Zoë (2009) ‘The Wound and the Mask: Rape, Recovery and Poetry in Pascale Petit’s The Wounded Deer: Fourteen Poems After Frida Kahlo’, Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives: Violence and Violation. London and New York: Routledge, 200-216.

For more entries on Frida Kahlo see this link .

Kahlo and the Soldaderas


Lowe notes that above all women have had problems in painting portraits. She notes: ‘Women artists who paint self-portraits have had to overcome an already given meaning – the equation of female self-reflection with vanity’ (58). Turning to the paintings by Kahlo, Lowe notes that her ‘construction of self’ is, ‘complex and astonishingly straightforward: without a hint of self-pity or sentimentality, Kahlo constructs her dreams, fears, passions, and pain with a forthrightness that defies social and artistic restrictions’ (58).

Kahlo - Pancho Villa and Adelita

Interestingly, Lowe draws attention to a painting by Kahlo from 1927 entitled Pancho Villa and Adelita. Adelita of course refers to an old folk song about soldaderas. During the Mexican Revolution, soldaderas were the women who travelled with the soldiers sometimes to care for them, other times to fight with them and occasionally to intellectualise on the progress of the war. Lowe explains that the song, ‘is sung from the point of view of a sergeant who sings of his passion for his beloved, of his suffering heart, and of her fear of his dying in battle’, and the sergeant, ‘entreats Adelita to bury his remains in the sierra and weep for him should he perish’ (59). According to Lowe, the song is about ‘mutual devotion’ as well as dedication to the revolution (59). Lowe believes that in Pancho Villa and Adelita, Kahlo wants to be associated with Adelita as a specific kind of Mexican womanhood and representatives of a militaristic femininity. In her political life, Kahlo was a member of the Communist Youth League, perhaps in an effort to come closer to the role of soldadera.

You can see this really bizarre version of Adelita here that i found on UTube. King Bob tries to sing in Spanish and can’t keep up, but it gives you an idea of how the song goes.

The lyrics go something like this:

En una alta serranía, una tropa acampada, una moza los seguía Locamente enamorada popular entre la tropa era Adelita: la mujer que al sargento le gustaba porque además de ser valiente era bonita y felizmente para todos trabajaba. Y se oía que gritaba aquél que tanto le gustaba: “Y si Adelita fuera mi novia, y si Adelita fuera mi mujer, le compraría un vestido de seda, la llevaría a bailar al cuartel. Y si Adelita se fuera con otro, la seguiría por tierra y por mar; si por mar en un buque de guerra, si por tierra en un tren militar”.

Funding Cuts for the British Library

I am sure most of you are aware of the budget cuts the government is proposing to impose on the British Library. According to a press release on the BL website, these cuts may force the library to start charging for users to access the collections (see:

If you think, as I do, that this is a really bad idea – please sign the online petition:

And do tell your friends to sign it too!

According to their website, the BL is actively campaigning against the proposed cuts and Lynne Brindley has asked those who feel strongly about this issue to contact the library and explain “why the British Library is important to you” and give us permission to use your letter in our campaign.

Please e-mail with your name, contact number and message, or write to Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB.

So if you have five minutes to spare, do send an e-mail or letter too.


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