All 21 entries tagged Pascale Petit

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August 20, 2010

Jen Hadfield and the Inspiration of Place.

This week I have been working away at writing up a profile of the writer Jen Hadfield for the American publisher Scribners and Sons. I always find it useful to immerse myself in other poets’ work and I usually find that, by the time I reach the surface again, I have learned a great deal. When I was writing my PhD thesis, I devoted myself to the poems of Gwyneth Lewis , Pascale Petit and Deryn Rees-Jones, and I still notice their influence on my writing.

With Hadfield though, I am learning new lessons, particularly in terms of writing about place. Many of Hadfield’s poems devote themselves entirely to reconstituting sense experiences in words. The reviewer Stephen Burt suggested that Hadfield’s aim is to produce sensibilia, sense experiences that are usually beyond the human mind. The detail of Hadfield’s poems is astounding and intimate. It presents us with familiar things in an unfamiliar manner. So a flinching hedgehog becomes a flinching kidney in a frying pan, an image that suggests too the vulnerability of animals in human worlds.

Hadfield lives on the Shetland Isles (specifically West Burra), and in interview, she has talked about how the isolation of the place is nourishing. She enjoys the loneliness, but also the dangers from wind and weather, which remind her of her own mortality every day. This experience of weather is quite unusual in Britain (though the snows last winter gave many people an insight into how Britain would cope with extreme weather: not very well!).

Extreme weather is an everyday feature of the USA. Driving across the States this summer, I encountered incredible heat in the desert; long, winding roads alongside sheer drops in the Rockies; and on the way home in the Mid-West a tornado. Living in Pennsylvania, the winter is intimidating too, the snow snapping power lines, blocking roads, drifting up to stop windows and doors. As Hadfield suggests, however, there is something awe-inspiring about seeing this weather at work: an experience is that both humbling and invigorating. This isn’t an especially new insight, but, having lived in the UK for most of my life, the capricious and indomitable weather in the US has come as a wonderful surprise.

August 06, 2010

Poetry Papers at the CWWN Conference

Writing about web page

A paper that I really enjoyed during the conference was by Jane Dowson , who was one of my external examiners for my PhD. We have many interests in common and I was pleased to see Dowson presenting on Kate Clanchy , Pascale Petit and Gwyneth Lewis . Dowson described these poets as inhabiting a New Confessionalism, which needs to be negotiated carefully. Dowson quoted Clare Pollard who suggested that ‘To revert to confessional mode now might be to reaffirm the cultural image of the “Mad Poetess”,’ and she commented on the hostile critical reception faced by Kate Clanchy on the publication of her collection about motherhood Newborn. Dowson condemns the dismissal of confessional poets and uses her ‘new critical grammar’ to discuss Pascale Petit and Gwyneth Lewis. This means:
• paying attention to ‘the unsayable via symbolism, typography, rhythm, self-reflexivity’;
• ‘building alliance with the reader as eavesdropper, confidant/e, listener-subject’;
• being aware of ‘the pleasure and healing of recognition, shared intimacy, community, imaginative expansion’;
• and paying particular attention to intertextuality.

One of my favourite panels from the conference was “Sexuality, Danger and Money in Three Women Poets”. I went along to this panel because it was on three poets that I do not know quite so well; I had never come across Arielle Greenberg or Katy Lederer but I had read a few books by Anne Carson (e.g. Decreation). Unfortunately, I had a farcical moment in this panel where all of my pens ran out of ink at once, so these notes are just from memory and are not quite as detailed as usual.

Darcy L. Brandel discussed Arielle Greeberg’s negotiations of language and violation. She focussed in particular of Greenberg’s interpretation of Marcel Duchamp’s art installation Étant donnés, which presents the viewer with a wooden door that has a peephole for each eye. Through the peepholes can be seen a naked mannequin and a lush landscape. Brandel discussed the ambiguity of this image: is the naked woman/mannequin powerful or powerless? Is she offering an invitation to the viewer or is she being violated? In her analysis of Greenburg’s poem ‘Given’, Brandel offered detailed analysis of the poet’s experimental use of language and outlined the poet’s condemnation of the artwork’s voyeurism: ‘in the afterlife—-is so accommodating a gift / of gaslight murdered by air’.

Next Paul Crossthwaite spoke about Katy Lederer’s collection The Heaven-sent Leaf, a collection of 45 almost-sonnets. Crossthwaite focussed on how Lederer brings together money and poetry comparing the two as systems with economies, values and currencies. Lederer worked as a “brainworker” at a hedge fund in midtown Manhattan, and the book was published at the beginning of the downturn in the world economy. Crossthwaite talked (among other things) about how bringing the language of finance into poetry lends it at times a prosiness that is in tension with the sprung and musical lines elsewhere in the poems.

The final paper was presented by Maya Linden on desire, danger and ambivalence in Anne Carson’s poetic form. Linden talked particularly about Carson’s collection Autobiography of Red and The Beauty of the Husband focussing on how Carson approaches femininity, masochism and self-destructiveness. Linden seemed to be suggesting that the ambivalence in Carson’s writing is a problem for more conventional feminisms and that there needs to be a more expansive kind of politics to understand Carson’s work.

July 14, 2008

The Weeping Woman: Review of Deborah Miranda and Pascale Petit

Book front cover
The Zen of La Llorona / The Huntress
5 out of 5 stars

Deborah Miranda. The Zen of La Llorona. Cambridge: Salt. £8.99
Pascale Petit. The Huntress. Bridgend: Seren. £7.99

The Mexican folktale of La Llorona, sometimes known as the ‘weeping woman’ tells a story of infanticide as a lineage of violence is passed down from the conquering Spanish conquistador to the oppressed Mexican woman who must father his child. The power of this story filters into two new poetry collections: Deborah Miranda’s The Zen of La Llorona and Pascale Petit’s The Huntress.

The Zen of La Llorona begins in the voice of La Llorona’s child. In ‘Three Months Without Electricity’, the daughter struggles to understand her mother’s coldness:

In the warm water, I am first a fish,
then a dark seal, then a turtle, peering out of my ocean
to see the wax well up, lucid, drench
the burning air of my mother’s silence.

The metrical and alliterative emphases of the first two lines fall on words describing water creatures. Like La Llorona’s drowned infant, the child is intimate with the river and water. The image of wax welling up is ambiguous: does ‘welling up’ evoke an outpouring of tears or does it refer to frozen and repressed feelings? The ambiguity of La Llorona is clear; in murdering her own children she must lack emotion, yet she is the weeping woman. The miscommunication between mother and daughter is clear in the image of blistering silence.

Later in the collection, Miranda’s view shifts and in ‘Driving Past Suicide for Three Novembers’, the voice is that of La Llorona herself:

When I arrive home tonight
my husband will reach for me in the dark–
his need, his comfort, his right.
Who will tell my children
marriage is more
than a glistening soul
served up on a silver platter?

The conversational tone of delivery is disarming as it builds to a final image of appetite and consumption. In a style dominated by monosyllabic words and avoiding regular meter, Miranda describes the horror of the marriage matter-of-factly. This angle views La Llorona from a different perspective. Miranda admits that a legacy of suffering can emerge in the relationship with one’s children, because pain is distancing and difficult to explain.

The Zen of La Llorona maps a journey through suffering towards understanding, yet it deals with not only women’s pain, but with the distress of all outsiders. In ‘After San Quentin’, Miranda discusses her family name and the Spanish language:

In Spain it used to mean looking.
Here, Miranda means you have the right
to remain silent…
it means
our own words can and will
be used against us; it means
a court of law is not surprised
to find my father, again and again, within its gates…

Miranda’s father wants to retain the difference, the specific name, that links him to his ancestors and roots, yet to have a Spanish-language name in North America is to be defined as a criminal. The irony is that such a pronouncement is self-fulfilling and brutal social judgements create a lineage of suffering to the father and his extended family.

The idea of lineage is also present in Petit’s The Huntress, which juxtaposes colonial violence and gender conflict. Some critics have made the mistake of thinking that Petit’s The Huntress is set amongst the flora and fauna of the Amazon, but, drawing on Aztec myths of blood sacrifice, The Huntress uses a Mexican setting—few realise that Mexico contains its own rainforest.

Reviewers can be forgiven for missing this point, since Petit’s earlier collection, The Zoo Father, was set in the Amazon. Like The Zoo Father, The Huntress represents confrontation with an abusive parent, but here it is the mother. The narrative of La Llorona is at the heart of the collection, as the daughter-narrator uses Aztec mythologies as a means to communicate and understand. The initial reception of Petit’s collection has been somewhat preoccupied by the intense anger directed at the mother. In ‘At the Gate of Secrets’, the narrator tells how she will only be reconciled with her mother in ‘the grave / where we will torment one another’. Yet in other poems, such as ‘The Rattlesnake Mother’, the daughter states, ‘I think now how hard it was for her / to be a rattlesnake’. Petit’s poetry is designed to subvert readers’ expectations about female relationships and there will never be a Hollywood ending with saccharine tears and reconciliation. Sometimes Petit’s subversiveness can seem inflammatory, such as in ‘Portrait of my Mother as Coatlicue’:

Like Cortes, I found her monstrous
and would have preferred
to bury her in the cathedral crypt.

Coatlicue is a monstrous mother-goddess who in Aztec mythology wore a Medusa-like skirt of snakes. The daughter views Coatlicue with anxiety reminiscent of male fears about the female body and sexual appetite. In mentioning Cortez, Petit makes the connection here between the female body and the Orientalist view of other cultures: the ‘exotic’ and ‘sinister’ Aztec temples become the foundations for Roman Catholic cathedrals, just as the female body is appropriated to create a patriarchal lineage. What is so unnerving about this poem is Petit’s positioning of her daughter-narrator as Cortes, the coloniser, and it is problematic to consider where this comparison leads. Yet the narrator relents, stating: ‘But she was my mother, / as much a victim as a devourer.’ As in The Zen of La Llorona, the narrator of The Huntress comes to recognise that her mother’s violence and cruelty are inherited from her own experiences of pain. One of the most powerful poems, ‘Lunettes,’ creates a chain of association that begins with her father’s ‘glasses in the moonlight’ working its way through image after imager, until Petit finds an explicit motif for men’s brutality and women’s pain: ‘a forked iron plate / into which the stock of a field-gun carriage is inserted’.

January 26, 2007

Perloff on Ferenc Juhász

Kahlo -The Little Deer

In The Huntress, Petit makes her own poem out of Juhász’ long poem, ‘The Boy Changed into a Stag Clamours at the Gate of Secrets’, but what is so special about Juhász and why does Petit use his poem in this way? Perloff suggests in this essay that at the time of writing, there are three registers for poetry: ‘the low or plain-colloquial’ (e.g. the New York poets), ‘the middle or observational-meditative’ (e.g. Confessional poets) and ‘the high or ceremonial grand’ (117). Ferenc Juhász falls into this last category, a mode designed ‘to convey the poet’s all but inexpressible and momentous experience of otherness’ (118). For Perloff, Anglo-American poets can, ‘never quite express the naked and almost unbearable passion found in Juhász’s work’ (118). In considering his collection The Boy Changed Into A Stag, Perloff suggests that Juhász, ‘has none of self-consciousness characteristic of much of our visionary poetry; it has a strange sense of inevitability, as if its maker were not so much writing a poem as uttering a cry from the heart’ (118).

Perloff now offers some thoughts on the technical aspects of Juhász’s art and suggests that the two most pertinent techniques are repetition and ‘the catalogue’. Perloff admires the way in which Juhász builds up ‘strings of nouns’ in ‘paratactic units’ (parataxis being clauses joined without conjunctions) and also enjoys Juhász’s use of anaphora (repetition for effect), internal repetition and strings of appositive phrases (i.e. phrases that refer to the same person or thing and have the same relationship to other sentence elements) (118).

Perloff also comments on Juhász’s relationship with nature using ‘The Boy Changed into a Stag Clamours at the Gate of Secrets’ as an example:

In Juhász’s powerful myth, the Mother, an abstract, generic female figure like those of Lorca, finally loses the Prodigal Son, whose future depends on his ability to cut the knot. To be human, the poet implies, is to suffer, and accordingly, the greatest virtue one can exercise is energy—the power to survive in the marvellous but terrible world of nature. (121)

Perloff, Marjorie J. ‘Review: Poetry Chronicle:1970-71’. Contemporary Literature. Vol 14, no. 1 (winter 1973), 97-131.

January 25, 2007

Ferenc Juhász (entry from The Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature

Pascale Petit refers to Kuhasz in her collection, The Huntress, so I am interested in his background and poetics.

Ferenc Juhász was a Hungarian poet, born in Bia, the son of a poor bricklayer. In 1947 he moved to Budapest, where he studied Hungarian philology for a while, later earning his living as a writer and an editor. Juhász’s first works, Szárnyas csikó (1949; Winged Foal), A Sántha család (1950; The Sántha Family), and Apám (1950; Father), were heavily influenced by such classic Hungarian writers as Sándor Peto”fi and János Arany (see Hungarian literature), yet these volumes give evidence of Juhász’s poetic gifts, especially his daring use of imagery. After a period of naive revolutionary optimism, Juhász became disenchanted with the political status quo. The volume Óda a reptüléshez (1953; Ode to Flight) broke through the rigid canons of socialist realism, and his next work, A tékozló ország (1954; The Prodigal Country), a very long epic poem on the peasant revolt of 1514 led by György Dózsa, ends with a passionate hymn to freedom. From an aesthetic point of view, this work, in spite of its heterogeneous character, is an important landmark: it marks the liberation of the Hungarian poetic imagination from the tutelage of old-fashioned realism, and it is also a bold experiment in verse form, demonstrating Juhász’s “extended syllabic line.”

Juhász’s next collection, A virágok hatalma (1956; The Power of Flowers), contains some of his most mature and moving work, but it poses the threat that his visionary panbiologism - the proliferation of natural and cosmic imagery in his work - will devour the message and destroy the “traditional” structure of the poem. In the long poem “A szarvassá változott királyfi . . .” (1955; The Boy Changed into a Stag”), Juhász adapted folk motifs used by Bé1a Bartók in Cantana Profana, creating in his poem a Bartókean synthesis of sound and image. Some years later, in József Attila sírja (1963; Eng. tr., The Grave of Attila József, 1968), Juhász appeared to have lost the balance between form and content, his theme being overgrown by functionally irrelevant clusters of metaphors. This tendency has continued in A szent tu”zözön regéi (1969; Tales of the Sacred Fire-Flood), which consists of endless variations on the theme of universal catastrophe and the ultimate devastation of nature and mankind, as well as in A halottak királya (1971; The King of Dead), where the poet returns to a more traditional verse form, but remains obsessed with death, corruption, and decay, his images and metaphors gushing forth in a monotonous, exasperating torrent of verse. His poetry has found more than one English translator, including Kenneth McRobbie (1970) and David Wevill (1970).

See: K. McRobbie, Introduction to F. Juhász, The Boy Changed into a Stag: Selected Poems (1970).

Ferenc Juhász, a Hungarian Poet

I have been doing some research into the Hungarian poet, Ferenc Juhász, because in her collection, The Huntress, Pascale Petit writes a version of his poem ‘At the Gate of Secrets’. Juhász was born in Budapest (1928) and was awarded the highest prize in Hungarian literature. The Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature explains the background to his work

A new phase in Hungarian cultural policy was ushered in by the so-called Lukács controversy in which Lukács was castigated by Communist Party spokesmen for preferring “Western” critical realism to (Soviet) socialist realism. Although the era of enforced socialist realism was relatively short (1948-53), its adverse effects could be felt for years afterwards, and only since the early 1960s can one speak of a genuine pluralism in the cultural policy of the government. Nevertheless it was in the early 1950s that a new constellation of poetic talents emerged. These were poets of peasant origin -Ferenc Juhász, László Nagy, István Simon, Imre Takáics, and Sándor Czóri—-who soon left behind their primitive realism or initial naive romanticism. These writers, especially Juhász and Nagy, created a syncretic imaginative style that grappled first with problems of the small community and later with those of a chaotic yet interdependent world. (“Hungarian Literature”)

The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics goes further descriing Juhasz as one of the two great Hungraian poets (along with László Nagy (1925-78)). It describes how ‘[t]heir instinctive images go directly from impression to creation of a vision’ and commenting specifically on Juhász, it states that while ‘[h]is lyric mirrors the suffering of the troubled mind’, it also, ‘turns towards great visions, a world-view of micro- and macrocosms’ (“Hungarian Poetry”).

January 19, 2007

Pain and Imagining

Khalo, Frida -The Broken Column

‘Pain and Imagining’ by Elaine Scarry

In this essay, Scarry considers the relationship between pain and imagining and she begins by defining pain. Pain is exceptional, according to Scarry, because unlike other sensory experiences, it is objectless: ‘Hearing and touch are of objects outside the boundaries of the body, as desire is desire of x, fear is fear of y, hunger is hunger for z; but pain is not “of”or “for” anything–it is itself alone’ (162). Pain then includes ‘the complete absence of referential content’ (163). Interestingly, Scarry suggests that it is precisely this absence, ‘that may give rise to imagining by first occasioning the process that eventually brings forth the dense sea of artifacts [sic] and symbols that we make and move about in’ (162). Scarry goes further stating that: ‘The only state that is as anomalous as pain is the imagination’ (162). Yet while pain is objectless, the imagination is all about the creation of objects.

Thus, while pain is like seeing or desiring but not like seeing x or desiring y, the opposite but equally extraordinary characteristic belongs to imagining. It is like the x or y that are the objects of vision or desire, but not like the felt-occurrences of seeing or desiring.

For Scarry, pain and imagining can also be thought of in terms of her phrase, ‘intentionality’. The phrase, ‘intentional state’, is a significant philosophical concept, which is explained by John R. Searle in his essay, ‘What is an Intentional State?’:

Many of our mental states are in some sense directed at objects and states of affairs in the world. If, for example, I have a belief, it must be a belief that such-and-such is the case. If I have a wish or a want, it must be a wish or a want to do something, or that something should happen or should be the case. If I have an intention, it must be an intention to do something. If I have a fear, it must be a fear of something or that something will occur. And so on, through a large number of other cases. It is this feature of directedness of our mental states that many philosophers have labelled ‘Intentionality’. Now clearly not all of our mental states are in this way directed or Intentional. For example, if I have a pain, ache, tickle, or itch, such conscious states are not in that sense directed at anything; they are not ‘about’ anything, in the way that our beliefs, fears etc. must in some sense be about something. (74)

Scarry takes this idea of intentionality and applies it to pain and the imagination, so that pain is like ‘an intentional state without an intentional object’ while imagining produces ‘an intentional object without an experienceable intentional state’ (164). Scarry then wonders whether pain could be the imagination’s intentional state or whether the imagination might be pain’s intentional object. At last, Scarry admits that ‘pain only becomes an intentional state once it is brought into relation with the objectifying power of the imagination: through that relation, pain will be transformed from a wholly passive and helpless occurrence into a self-modifying and, when most successful, self-eliminating one’ (164). Ultimately, pain and imagining are extremes of intentionality, as pain demands presence in the body and an intentional state, while imagining heightens ‘self-objectification’ and offers an escape from physical sensation. Scarry describes them as ‘framing events’ around ‘all other perceptual, somatic, and emotional events’ (165). In experiencing everyday sensations, one can verge further towards pain or towards imagining:

[I]f a thorn cuts through the skin of the woman’s finger, she feels not the thorn, but her body hurting her. If instead she experiences across the skin of her fingers not the awareness of the feel of those fingers but the feel of the fine weave of another woman’s work, or if she traces the lettering of an engraved message and becomes mindful not of events in her hands but of the form and motivating force of the signs, or if that night she experiences the intensely feelable presence of her beloved, she in each of these moments experiences the sensation of “touch” not as bodily sensations but as self-displacing, self-transforming objectification […]. (166)

The imagination allows us to conjure objects where there are none in sensational experience. Sometimes this occurs in order to eliminate discomfort felt in one’s bodily experience. Scarry gives the example of imagining a cup of water when one is thirsty. The imagination is used in other less dramatic self-modifying ways; for example, Scarry mentions the shift of gaze from a view of the countryside to the city, which, for her, represents, ‘continually exchanging one object for another, exercising control over the direction and content of touch, hearing, seeing, smell, and taste’ (168).

One process that represents the framing elements of pain and imagining is work, which has been a synonym in Western culture both for creation and suffering: ‘The more it realizes and transforms itself in its object, the closer to the imagination, to art, to culture; the more it is unable to bring forth an object or, bringing it forth, is then cut off from its object, the more it approaches the condition of pain’ (169). Work is then ‘controlled discomfort’ (171).

This oscillation between pain and imagining is also shown in the parallels between idea of the weapon and the tool. Scarry sees two arrangements in this juxtapositions: that of a ‘pain-weapon-imagined object’ and the other of ‘work-tool-artifact [sic]’ (172). For Scarry, the weapon has, ‘an elementary place in the transformations of pain into the projected image’ (172).

[T]here are many outwardly visible indications that the image of the weapon is not just one among thousands of signs but is a sign occupying a primal place in the most original moment of transformation. Of such outward indications, perhaps the most important to recall here is the centrality of the image in the language of people in physical pain. Physical pain is not only itself resistant to language but also actively destroys language, deconstructing it into the pre-language of cries and groans. To hear those cries is to witness the shattering of language. Conversely, to be present when the person in pain rediscovers speech and so regains his powers of slef-objectification is almost to be present at the birth, or rebirth, of language. That the person in pain very typically moves through a handful of descriptive words to an “as if” construction, and an “as if” construction that has a weapon on the other side, indicates the primacy of the sign in the elementary work of projection into metaphor. To describe one’s hurt in an image of agency is to project it into an object which, though at first conceived of as moving toward the body, by its very separability from the becomes an image that can be lifted away, carrying some of the attributes of pain with it. (173)

Interestingly, in thinking about the parallels between tools and weapons, the two objects can seem often to be one and the same thing, yet as Scarry points out, the purpose for which they are used is very different: ‘If one holds the two side by side in front of the mind–a hand (as weapon) and a hand (as tool), a knife (weapon) and a knife (tool), a hammer and a hammer, an ax [sic] and an ax[sic]–it is then clear that what differentiates them is not the object itself but the surface on which they fall’ (173).

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
John R. Searle. ‘What Is an Intentional State?’. Mind (New Series). Vol. 88, 349 (January 1979), 74-92.

November 16, 2006

Claudia Schaefer on Apocalypse and Rebirth: Pain as Filter for the Observation of Reality

Frida Kahlo

From ‘Frida Kahlo’s Cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical Realism, and the Cosmic Race’

As Frida Kahlo is a sufferer (of the trolley accident, of polio and scoliosis), Claudia Schaefer identifies her in this essay with Samuel Taylor Coleridge who suffered rheumatism all his life. Here is what Schaefer believes they have in common:
• the experience of ‘a physical apocalypse’ that effected their art;
• and the relation to drugs and addiction (Coleridge’s theorisation about drugs and art and Kahlo’s alcohol and morphine abuse).

Schaefer quotes from Coleridge’s letters when he writes about illness and pain as a ‘Storehouse of wild Dreams for Poems, or intellectual Facts for metaphysical Speculation’ (qtd. by Appleyard, 72). Schaefer remembers the figure of the Ancient Mariner who is figured as a wandering Jew. In telling his tale over and over, the mariner recreate moments of pain in the hope that they will be recognized by the listener. Schaefer relates this to the trials of pilgrims.

For Kahlo, her permanently open physical and mental wounds are displayed as communication of that pain to the viewer and to engage in dialogue with her own dilapidated body and mind. Schaefer notices that Kahlo’s body is never alone but usually amongst people, animals, objects or characteristics of the landscape, yet it is the body that performs ‘the shared spectacle of suffering’ (15).

This self-consciousness confirms and substantiates (…) that Kahlo has extended the passive biological aspect of human existence to the active remembrance and consideration of human biological functions in the context of sexual activity and the ever-narrowing sphere between life and death. It might even be concluded that Kahlo creates an aesthetic of pain in which eroticism and death, or suffering and pleasure, are as closely entwined as she and Rivera, or as she and nature, are represented in her paintings. (15)

In painting the suffering Frida, ‘she’ is brought into existence and Schaefer sees this in terms of Bataille’s theorizing about acts of substitution where the individual is reconnected to a feeling of continuity (see Erotism: Death and Sensuality). Life-force is close to the threat of death in this figuring apparently. Schaefer thinks that Kahlo’s accident brings sex and death together.

Schaefer notes, however, that the pain for Kahlo is real and the physical pain enacts mental pain at her burdening with a disabled body (?!). Kahlo paints as an outlet for this pain: ‘The suffering image […] is narcissistic in its self-examination and exhibition, yet it is also cathartic in its public display of self-affirmation’ (16). Schaefer refers here to paintings that show Kahlo’s despair at the failures to repair her wounded body. In these works, Kahlo’s body is both a passive object of scientific study and a subjective, autonomous being: ‘The eyes – being both observer and observed, looking outward yet into a mirror – are always gazing at themselves, as does the artist for the creation of her self-portrait, to discover the identity being presented to the public and to look simultaneously at the observer, possibly attempting to analyze the reaction to their appearance or solicit complicity in consideration of this dilemma. (16)

In parallel with the viewer/object binary are juxtapositions between the US and Latin America. Schaefer refers to “Self-Portrait on the Border Between the US and Mexico” (1932) and My Dress Hangs There (1933). Schaefer’s interpretation of My Dress Hangs There is rather predictable: ‘the abandoned native costume (an empty tradition)’ (17). What makes her think that it is abandoned? Schafer concludes sensibly though that there is ‘no bedrock on which to foster the construction of cultural, political, or personal equilibrium’ (17).

Schaefer compares Kahlo’s art with the theory of Susan Sontag suggesting that both offer ‘science and technology as vehicles for opening up, for opening what has been a closed wound’ in women’s bodies and social bodies (17). Schaefer lists relevant works here including:
Frida and the Abortion (1932),
Remembrance of an Open Wound (1938),
My Birth (1932),
The Two Fridas (1939),
The Broken Column (1944),
Tree of Hope (1946),
• and Viva la Vida (1954).

These paintings reflect the illness that Kahlo suffered and the loss of people in her life, apparently. Schaefer imagines authorities suggesting that Kahlo gives up her body to pain and that her paintings resist this by recreating herself in her paintings as visible in society. Schaefer quotes Elaine Scarry who suggests that the body in pain must always be self-obsessed. Schaefer sees this in What the Water Gave Me (1938/39) and My Dress Hangs There.

There is also the presence of violence towards the body. Kahlo tried to attempt suicide and Schaefer sees such attempts as a means to be free of the burden of the body (!?). However, they can also be seen as affirmative of existence and proof of life. Schaefer here notes the speculation that Kahlo ‘demanded or submitted to more surgical procedures than absolutely necessary’ (19) (!?). Schaefer believes that Kahlo wanted to prolong her role as victim and/or martyr. Schaefer continues in this speculative, biographical vein noting that the frame of Kahlo’s self-portraits reflect her view of the world as an invalid.

Thankfully, Schaefer now returns to Coleridge noting that Stephen Bygrave in an essay on that poet describes Coleridge’s egotism as active and asserting the self rather than passive. Schaefer believes that this is true of Kahlo also.

Schaefer now turns to the influence of ex-voto paintings , storytelling Mexican murals and Michoacan ceramics . Somehow she now turns to the cult of celebrity that influences Kahlo and then to her paintings as images of vulgar and earthy topic.

Schaefer believes that Kahlo splits her personality in two: ‘I’ and ‘she’. Once more she descends into biographical detail trying to guess when this first ‘happened’ as if it is not an artistic conceit. She comes to the boring conclusion that one half is male, the other female etc. etc. The self of the outer world allows Kahlo to step out of her pain. She cannot escape herself, but she can study it.

Kahlo also paints with consciousness of the viewer and the painting’s effect on him or her. Schaefer even goes as far as to suggest that Kahlo wants ‘healing or acceptance’ from the viewer (21). The paintings can:
• ‘punish or self-punish’ (identifying with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (21);
• ‘evoke sympathy’ (21);
• ‘reconcile lovers’ (21);
• ‘seduce the public’s gaze’ (21);
• ‘express some kind of public repentance or visible reflection of her grief (guilt)’ (21);
• represent ‘pain as a salable product in society’ (22);
• and perform ‘the reification of her own image’ (22).

Schaefer, Claudia. Textured Lives: Women, Art and Representation in Modern Mexico. Tucson and London: The University of Arizona Press, 1992. 3-36.

November 14, 2006

Claudia Schaefer on Kahlo in Context

Writing about web page

The body is a site where the political and the aesthetic interpret the material. — Elizabeth A. Meese (Crossing the Double Cross)

Kahlo in Context

Frida KahloFrom ‘Frida Kahlo’s Cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical Realism, and the Cosmic Race’

Schaefer begins by pointing out that Kahlo is in a tradition of artists concerned with medical imagery including ‘wounds, operations, abortions, birth, and amputations’ (3). Schaefer believes that this emerges from the period of examination following the Mexican Revolution in which Kahlo lived. Schaefer also notes ‘the use of the personalized point of view of the female victim/patient’ rather than imagery of objective science. The body is not an object for the male gaze, but ‘a physically and psychologically naked, conscious presence seen through her own eyes and functioning as a valid focal point of artistic “narrativisation” ’ (4).

None of Kahlo’s paintings, whether overtly ‘autobiographical self-portraits or only indirectly self-referential, portray possessive/possessed, dominated objects of pornography (clothed or unclothed, as befits the scopophilic perspective of the viewer), nor do they reinforce the codified myths of Mexican society’s reverence for the virginal woman. On the contrary, what they show is a centered [sic] or framed series of real, aging, often inform, almost palpable, wounded or mutilated bodies, thus reversing a process of “silencing,” “banishment,” and “marginality generally imposed on the female body is modern discourse. (4).

Kahlo also creates a desiring “I” which Schaefer sees in terms of Jean-Pierre Guillerme’s nineteenth century article on art and medicine and his epigraph which demands self-consciousness for the whole human being:

On a beaucoup trop oublié les deux éléments qui s’ajoutent à la biologie pour que l’HOMO BIOLOGICUS devienne un être humain. C’est-à-dire la conscience de la sexualité et de la mort.

It has been too often forgotten that there are two elements that are added to biology in order that HOMO BIOLOGICUS BECOME A HUMAN BEING. Namely, the consciousness {both} of sexuality and of death.

Sexuality and death are two of Kahlo’s major concerns according to Schaefer. Kahlo deals with these themes by ‘ studying [the body] piece by piece within the context of the concurrent expression of life functions and death functions’ (5). The body is both ;an object of scientific interest’ and ‘an intimate object of sacrifice’ (5). Schaefer believes that after her accident on a trolley in Mexico City in 1925, Kahlo developed ‘a hypersensitivity to or hyperconsciousness of life as constantly inhabited by remainders of death’, such as the Mexican Day of the Dead festivities (5). Sexuality is a means of communicating and breaking through this deadening hyperconsciousness. Yet quoting Frederic Jameson in …, Schaefer also affirms that such personal narratives also represent the situation of the country of Mexico as a whole and as a third-world country.

Thinking historically for a moment, Schaefer notes the feudal morals that dominated the pre-revolutionary Mexico of Porfirio Díaz. This society had ‘the natural right of possession of women and land (both as property)’ (5). After the revolution, a new society was being constructed but there was conflict between the influences of ‘the United States immediately to the north, and the pull of its own historical tradition’ (6). Schafer refers to Juan García Ponce who sees in Mexico’s search for identity a romantic quest in which the protagonists try to unite tradition and economic revolutions. Although nation-makers in Mexico believes in progress and democracy, their attitudes to women did not change radically. Women were stuck firmly in tradición rather than revolución . According to Schaefer, women were thought of in three categories: ‘the doll-like beauty, the subjugated wife and mother, and the prostitute’ (7). Women who spoke up for themselves were a threat to the male-ordered society that dominated Mexico.

In the art world, women were often silent playing the role of discreet wife, while the men were the professionals. Women who did dabble maintained their art ‘at the level of a trivial, private hobby’ (7). The subject for their art was the private sphere. In relation to Kahlo, Schaefer writes: ‘Kahlo’s dolls and abortions can be seen as a dramatic and tragic parody of this cultural prescription for women’s art’ (7). Schaefer believes that Kahlo’s paintings would have been all the more fascinating for her contemporaries, because the intimacy of women’s bodies was not represented in the public sphere. The stuff of everyday life is reproduced in a tabloid-esque style and Kahlo exploits ‘the public’s ambiguity towards such representations’ (8). Like Posada, Kahlo asks the viewer to confront his or her own fear and the trick is in the way that she forces us to realise how fascinated we are by the grotesque.

Schaefer refers here to Mexican morbid curiosity and the mummified corpses of Guanajuato. I visited Guanajuato in 2004 and saw these ‘mummies’, which are actually bodies upturned by a mudslide and preserved by the minerals in the soil. The people of Guanajuato decided to put the bodies on display because they were so surprised by how well they had been preserved and they are still on display today, including the mummy of a foetus. Yet Schaefer notes that even these mummies are hidden in tunnels below the city and one enters by invitation.

Schaefer compares this to Kahlo and our knowledge of her ‘life-and-death struggles’ as well as our awareness that her body is on display in much of her work. However, Schaefer states: ‘It is not the object itself that is consumed by the spectator/intruder but an interpretation of it based on her own vision and point of view, which are conditioned by cultural values’ (9). Kahlo’s work shocks with its exposure of the body and although it uses domestic subjects, it is in no way domestic.

From the 20s to the 40s, there was a strong interest in indigenous Mexicans and ‘lo mexicano’, but women’s rights were not being extended. There were new activist groups and projects:
• the Ateneo de la Juvetud (Young People’s Athenaeum) which sought liberal ideals in literature and philosophy;
• and the book La raza cósmica circulated José Vasconcelos’ ideas who organized the mural projects as education secretary.

Schaefer argues against the interpretation of Kahlo’s work in relation to the Surrelaist movement of Breton et al and prefers to consider Kahlo in the category of magical realism.

Schaefer gives a brief outline of the genre of magical realism making the following points:
• that Franz Roh invented the term in relation to the visual arts in Europe;
• that American continental narratives appropriated the term (Arturo Uslar Pietri, Angel Flores, Carpentier);
• that the genre ‘glosses over social and economic discrepancies in favor [sic] of promoting an “exotic” artistic whole’ (11);
• and that the split between pre-Columbian culture and European ideas in Mexico meets Jameson’s criteria for production of magical realism.

So Kahlo’s work has a number of tensions: death and sexuality, nation-making and the woman problem, pre-Columbian culture and European capitalism, the real and the imaginary.

But what about her work as an autobiographical discourse? Schaefer mentions her self portraits of the 1930s and 40s and she notes that they were painted during a period when Mexican society was ‘cultivating the individual, bourgeois personality through the movie-star network with its wide-screen projection of illusions for vicarious social fulfillment’ (12). Schaefer mentions stars like Emilio Fernández, Mario Moreno, María Félix and Dolores del Río and she suggests that ‘Kahlo’s self-portraits utilize and play on consumer society’s reification of the face as the icon of feminine beauty’ (12).

The mask, whether literal or figurative, covers the ‘shadowy’ space behind it, which is composed of an uncharted and unconquered terrain that she suggestively exploits and explodes. This tantalizing lure of the ‘exotic’ or the Other is represented by Kahlo through the cracks and fissures in the mask that promise insight or revelation but that neither exhaust nor ever completely reveal, leaving intact a certain element of the unknown – a Hollywood –type mystique, as it were – after the viewer’s gaze has been enticed to draw nearer. On this surface, then, Kahlo unites cultural and individual fantasies of knowledge/self-knowledge in one problematic space of attraction and concealment (masquerade) in a perpetual cycle of gaze and counter-gaze. Her self portraits reproduce this point of confrontation and re-evoke its enticing closure with only the cracks for the observer to peer voyeuristically through, perhaps simultaneously conjuring up an image of the outsider’s looking at Mexico through the spaces of the so-called cortina de nopal (cactus curtain). (12-13)

Schaefer, Claudia. Textured Lives: Women, Art and Representation in Modern Mexico. Tucson and London: The University of Arizona Press, 1992. 3-36.


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