Claudia Schaefer on ‘Autobiography and Self Portrait: Images of Self, Images of the Other’
From ‘Frida Kahlo’s Cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical Realism, and the Cosmic Race’ in Textured Lives
Schaefer compares Kahlo’s self-analysis with Freud’s ‘talking cure’ and sees painting for Kahlo as a kind of therapy. In her paintings, Kahlo presents her own history, past and present, to create a kind of autobiography in art. Schaefer quotes Paul de Man who describes autobiography as ‘textual production’ (see ‘Autobiography as De-facement’, MLN 94 (Dec ’79): 919-930). Equivalent to written autobiography, these paintings are not a developmental narrative but offer ‘a permanent lack of equilibrium (22). Unsurprisingly, Schaefer plunges back into autobiographical readings suggesting that Kahlo’s ‘physical appearance’, Mexican background and her life experience were the wounds to be examined in Kahlo’s autobiography (23).
Now Schaefer considers Kahlo’s painting about Diego Rivera, who appears, according to Schaefer as an object of ‘obsession/possession as well as the Other’ (23). She refers to Self Portrait as a Tehuana and Diego and I as examples. These paintings also feature the third eye as a means to look in and out. Enhanced perception can also be seen in:
• Thinking About Death (1943):
• Sun and Life (1947):
• and The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me and Senor Xólotl (1949).
Schaefer wonders if Kahlo’s desire for a third eye echoes Mexican politicians’ desire for insight into the future of their country and she cites Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick Schaefer ponders whether Kahlo was ‘becoming something akin to a martyr to a past era, caught between the celebration of the individual subject of “stardom” and the defence of collective utopian revolutionary ideals’ (24).
In any case, Kahlo makes a world of her own body and a metalanguage to go with it that includes: ‘native Tehuana costumes, tears, eyebrows transformed into birds’ wings, skeletons, fetuses [sic], hair ribbons, tropical flora and fauna, and the splitting or doubling of her own image’ (24). Her presence is ‘visible, concrete’ (24).
In thinking about the split between European and Mexican cultures, Schaefer quotes Janet A. Kaplan who has studied the 30s and 40s Mexican art groups: the European set (Varo, Horna, Carrington Gerszo) and the muralistas (Rivera, Kahlo, Orozco). Kahlo’s adoption of Tehuana costume is very significant in the light of these two rather antagonistic groups.
Kahlo often seeks identity in relation to others in her paintings: for example the conflict between men and women in A Few Small Nips . Often these paintings evoke a tension between the subject as autonomous or as passive object.
Kahlo often seems to observe herself as an object, not a subject, experiencing a detached consciousness of her own persona. ‘Frida’, with her unblinking gaze, swirling hair, joined eyebrows and tortured body, becomes the public identity of the real woman Frida Kahlo, much as her beloved Mexico reduces and institutionalizes the Revolution into icons for mass identification and consumption. (28)
Schaefer quotes Berger when he writes about the public and private split in twentieth century women. Similarly Kahlo ‘acts and simultaneously perceives herself acting; she paints and describes the process of painting through her product; she feels pain and watches herself react’ (28). However, Kahlo’s quest ‘to attain the paradise of a complete mental and physical body’ is also a ‘search in Mexico for a utopian social body after the Revolution’ (28).