May 15, 2006

Parallels Between Frida Kahlo and Pascale Petit: the Problem of Confession

Writing about web page http://www.fridakahlo.it/

Frida Kahlo

Next Monday (22nd May) I am going to be part of a panel at the Arts Faculty seminar talking about women and life-writing. I will be talking specifically on the Welsh-French poet, Pascale Petit, and her poems on the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, in The Wounded Deer: Fourteen Poems After Frida Kahlo . I am going to talk about the problem of confession and how Petit turns to writing ‘biographical’ poems about another woman.

I think that Deryn Rees-Jones’ comment in Consorting with Angels may have some relevance here:

The woman who confesses is frequently read as testifying only to her anguish and her own “weakness”; she is simply revealing the awfulness of femininity which was known to be there all along, and which, in the most simplistic terms has led to her oppression in the first place. And it is here that we see the exact nature of the problem: for if the woman poet does remain silent, if the awfulness of her confessional truth is such that it will only oppress her further, she is left where she started and cannot speak at all. Alternatively, she can speak a version of self which also confirms a certain kind of femininity – that of beauty passivity, orderliness and self-control – but which nevertheless fails to “tell it like it is”. (Deryn Rees-Jones, 25)

Petit suffers this problem and interestingly so does Kahlo. Some have and do say that to craete a mythical version of oneself in one’s writing will inevitably lead to an audience seeing that version as one and the same as the ‘authentic’ self and that artists that follow this route should be prepared to face the consequences.

At the recent Frida Kahlo exhibition (Tate Modern 9th June – 9th October 2005), the curator’s commetary began with the question ‘Who was Frida Kahlo?’, a question that revealed more about the cult of personality that has grown up around Kahlo than her art. (1) This biographical slant remained an integral part of the commentary:

  • ‘Certainly the biographical details of her remarkable life inflect many aspects of her work’. (1)
  • Commenting on The Bus : ‘The modern young woman at the end of the bench could be taken for Frida herself.’ (5)
  • Commenting on Khalo’s watercolours: ‘An unassuming sketch in thsi room records the accident that was to change Kahlo’s life so dramatically.’ (7)
  • Commenting on Kahlo’s ex-voto paintings: ‘rather than being tokens of gratitude, Kahlo’s ‘ex-votos’ are unflinching images of traumatic events drawn from her own experience, in which life and death coalesce.’ (7)
  • Commenting on Henry Ford Hospital : ‘The link to sterility probably relates to Kahlo’s sense of her own infertility.’ (10)
  • Commenting on Two Nudes in a Forest : ’’The painting also touches on Kahlo’s bisexuality – the pair are watched by a spider monkey, a symbol of lust – and could equally be interpreted as Kahlo herself and a woman she loved.’ (20)
  • Commenting on Kahlo’s death: ‘Doctors reported a pulmonary embolism, relating to a bout of pnuemonia, though it has also been suggested that she committed suicide.’ (29-30)
  • Commenting on Surrealism: ‘This dream-like imagery may owe something to Surrealism, of which, despite her statements to the contrary, Kahlo was very likely aware.’ (15)

I list the curator’s comments here to show how much room is made for speculation and how often confessional, self-driven art gives the viewer (or reader) such a sense of knowing the artist that statements like the lats one on Surrealism appear. The interpreter knows more about the intentions behind the art than the artist.


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