November 02, 2006

‘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)

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November 02, 2006

‘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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