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).

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