FRIDA KAHLO'S LEGACY

THE POETICS OF SELF

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HAYDEN HERRERA

 

        During the twenty-eight years of her painting career Frida Kahlo was best known as the exotic wife of the hugely famous muralist Diego Rivera. She was the woman who wore festive Mexican costumes and who painted peculiar, often shocking self-portraits. Since the late 1970s—thanks in part to feminism, the Chicano movement, and Multiculturalism—Kahlo has become an international cult figure. Exhibitions, books, and films about her abound. Her face graces

T-shirts, jewelry, coffee mugs, and computer mouse pads. One of

her self-portraits appeared on a 2001United States postage stamp. In Texas she achieved sainthood—Santa Frida, the patron saint of unwed mothers and undocumented workers. For many people Kahlo is a kind of icon, a touchstone to be turned to for strength. It is as if her image, like a primitive totem, has healing powers. The magic aura comes, I think, from the fact that her self-portraits were painted in order to confirm her tenuous hold on life. Like Mexican retablos (small votive images usually painted on tin and depicting a person being saved from some disaster by the intervention of a holy being), Kahlo's self-portraits are invocations. But Frida Kahlo did not invoke supernatural powers; rather she summoned forces deep within herself.

        Frida Kahlo's most passionate devotees tend to be young women artists. In the late 1970s and early 1980s she became a feminist role model, admired because she had the courage to make small, highly personal paintings in the heyday of Mexican muralism and because

she kept on working in spite of pain and in spite of being in the shadow of her powerful husband. Along with feminists and women artists, gay men adopted Kahlo as a role model in their struggle to achieve a more open society. Kahlo's wildly unconventional and often painful self-portraits - in 1932 she painted herself having a miscarriage and being born - were liberating for homosexual artists who wished in their work to address issues of sexual orientation. Chicanos and Chicanas idolized Kahlo because of her passion for her Mexican identity, her affiliation with what she called la raza, and her "revolutionary spirit."

          Some of the artists for whom Kahlo was strength-giving pay homage to her by including her image in their art as a kind of emblem. The Chicano artists Rupert Garcia and Esther Hernandez come to mind, as well as Mexican painters such as Lucia Maya. In the mid-1980s Maya did a series of drawings and lithographs in which Kahlo appeared, usually more than once. A number of artists have created altars to Frida. Most of the altars I have seen were more effective as acts of homage than as aesthetic objects. Encouraged by Kahlo's example many artists have turned to autobiographical subject matter, creating either narratives of events in their lives or imagery that alludes to their experience in a more metaphorical manner. Some painters have adopted Kahlo's intentionally folkloric style to give their subject

matter a certain distance as well as a distinct visual charm.

          The artists whom I would like to look at were propelled by Kahlo to invent their own pictorial languages. Their art does not look like Kahlo's, but they do draw upon certain ideas and freedoms that she explored. Their art tends, like hers, to be closely related to their lives.

Most of Kahlo's legatees follow her example in painting self-portraits, and several use the body—often wounded, fragmented, and in pain—as a way of expressing meaning.  My most important criterion in selecting the artists I discuss here is that they have transformed what

they took from her into something completely their own. By looking at this small group of artists and seeing how Kahlo's work inspired them, we can gain a better understanding of her contribution to the history of art. . .

                                           

 

          A number of women artists in the United States have been inspired by Kahlo. Many women whose artwork appears to have nothing to do with hers are nevertheless quick to acknowledge her importance to them: they gained strength from knowing that she persisted in painting her small, autobiographical works at a time when muralism dominated the Mexican art scene. They admired her also because she dealt with the problems of being a woman painter in a macho society. Finally they were encouraged by the fact that Kahlo kept on painting in spite of her deteriorating health and in spite of the anguish of feeling abandoned by her philandering husband. Of the women whose work was affected by Kahlo in fairly specific ways, I have chosen to discuss four. Two of them, Ellen Berman and Sarah McEneaney, have followed Kahlo's example by painting self-portraits that serve in part as a means to come to terms with traumatic events. These two are storytellers; they recount their experiences as part of an act of healing, an affirmation of life. Kiki Smith and Lesley Dill, in contrast, have been inspired by Kahlo to use the body to express psychic states. Their language is more abstract, more metaphorical. They too focus on the figure, but they transform it.

       Ellen Berman (b. Paris, Texas, 1946) lives in Wimberley, Texas, an hour south of Austin. With a master's degree in English from the University of Houston, she began to teach literature, but a course in watercolor painting and a visit with her husband and her severely

handicapped five-year-old daughter, Sarah, to a Kahlo retrospective at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery in autumn 1978 changed her direction:

 

           We went into the Frida Kahlo show and were just knocked back on our heels. I'd never heard of her. I'd never seen any paintings anything like that. It was a particular time in my life. I had this daughter I was struggling to find a way to communicate with and to communicate about. I really didn't have a way to do either. And there was the sheer incredible, amazing strength and guts of these paintings. Two years later, when I went to art school, I knew  immediately that I had permission to paint my own story, my own experiences, and my own need to talk about these things, because Frida Kahlo did. I began to paint self-portraits right away. Kahlo completely gave me the key to open the door.

 

          In portraits of herself with her daughter, such as Sarah and I (and the Gulf of Mexico) (1984) Berman looks out at the viewer with something of Kahlo's challenging directness. "It's a defense painting," she says. "I was saying, 'Here we are. Take a good look.' I had stored up what I wanted to talk about and suddenly it burst out of me. Suddenly I had the tools to speak." Like Kahlo in her more painful self-portraits, Berman forces the viewer to confront her and her daughter Sarah's situation. She gave vent to her rage at the way people stared at Sarah by staring back in her paintings. By means of self-portraits she wanted, like Kahlo, to know herself and to make herself known. But Berman says that painting was not for her a form of exorcism. Her anguish was too relentless to be emptied out. It could only be recorded, which, to be sure, provided some comfort.  

When she painted Sarah and the Illustrated Insults (1984), Berman felt that she was almost copying Kahlo's images of her body in duress. "I was trying to use imagery in the way that she would. The portrait is about the various trials that Sarah had to endure: her hair standing out like lightning because she had seizures; the X-acto knife is like the scalpel when she had eye surgery; the burn from spilt coffee, the injections, the necklace of pills; the cameo refers to her muteness." In the background Berman (like Galan) painted two disembodied eyes that weep tears. Just as Kahlo recorded her miscarriages and surgeries in paint, Berman unabashedly addresses subjects that society would prefer remain invisible.

        Sarah died in her sleep when she was seventeen. In the years that followed, Berman painted a series of ferociously honest self-portraits. Like those of Kahlo, these portraits have an energy that suggests that painting them helped to steady tumultuous feelings. She also painted a group of what she calls "relic" paintings, most of them depictions of clothing that had belonged to Sarah. In addition, she produced a number of paintings of dolls in shoeboxes that make you think of dead babies, thus recalling Kahlo's Deceased Dimas Rosas (at Three Years

of Age) (1937), a painting that may allude to Kahlo's sorrow at not being able to bring a child to term. From the same years come numerous still lifes in which anthropomorphic fruits and vegetables interrelate like actors in some drama of loneliness and grief. Many of the still lifes show bruised and sometimes cut-open fruits carefully arranged on plates. Split Fig (1992), for example, closely recalls Kahlo's still lifes from the late 1930s, such as Tunas (1938), in which three prickly pears that resemble extracted hearts are displayed on a plate set against a tablecloth whose folds become an unruly sky.

        Berman loves to remember the "astonishing revelation" of her first encounter with Kahlo's work, but, she says: "It's hard to think about Frida now. She's become such a cultural phenomenon, so ubiquitous. She's almost become not herself." For all that, Kahlo remains in the back of her mind. "I think," she says, "that almost all women artists would say she was important to them, because of her guts, her determination, and her success."         

 

 

           Ellen Berman, interviewed by the author, Wimberley, Texas, September 25, 2006. Unless otherwise noted all quotations from Berman come from this interview.

 

 

Essay from Frida Kahlo, Edited by Elizabeth Carpenter, Catalog accompanying exhibition at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota , 2007

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