Editorial Feature

Why We Need To See Frida Kahlo Beyond Her Biography

Author Frances Borzello explains how the artist revealed her true self within her works

With the rise of Frida Kahlo’s fame and fandom, especially since her death in 1954, it’s easy for different versions of the artist to be created. Since she started out, her identity has been blurred and influenced by the biographical details of her life, for instance her success constantly being measured against her husband Diego Rivera, or her work being dismissed as Mexican folk art because of where she was from. While these elements of Kahlo’s life are of course important to consider when looking at her work, they only provide a surface level understanding of the complexities that resided within her mind.

To get a better understanding of the artist beyond the factual details of her life, we spoke to author Frances Borzello. In 2016, Frances wrote Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits, a diverse exploration of female artists and self-portraits from the 12th century to modern day. Frances also co-wrote Frida Kahlo: Face-to-Face with artist Judy Chicago, which dissects hundreds of Kahlo’s portraits to discover her many facets as a woman, artist, historical figure and inspiration.

Here Frances explains what we can learn about Kahlo’s politics, her feminist attitudes, her relationship with her body and her personal philosophy when looking at her work, in the hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of the artist.

Untitled (Self-portrait with thorn necklace and hummingbird) by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Harry Ransom Center)

In what ways did Kahlo create her own myth of herself while working as an artist? How do you think she wanted to be perceived by the world?

Frida Kahlo is one of a handful of artists whose work is immediately recognizable. The mono-browed self-portrait and Mexican references that inhabit most of her paintings all signal Kahlo to even the most art-allergic. The figure she cut in terms of her looks, her behavior and her beliefs was her life’s work, and paintings were a branch of this. In constant pain, unable to carry a child, one leg shorter than another, encased in a corset to enable her to hold herself straight, she wanted to dance and debate and be admired – and through her paintings she told the world that she did and she was.

Why do you think she wanted her image as the focus of her creative output?

It is not so much that she ‘wanted’ her image as her focus, more that she could not have painted any other way. All of her passions and convictions were filtered through her self, expressed through her own face, her own body, her own clothes. Never abstract statements but personal – which of course accounts for their power to speak to us. The other reason is that as an untrained artist, elaborate compositions were beyond her. It was far simpler to start with her own image and work out from that, something she did increasingly successfully as she matured.

Self-portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Detroit Institute of Arts)

How do Kahlo’s self-portraits differ from other artists working at a similar time? What makes them unique?

As the center of her own drama, her self-portraits go way beyond that famous eyebrow. Within their – often surprisingly small – frames she presents the viewer with vivid presentations of her sufferings, joys, and politics. Just as with a charismatic character from fiction, we identify with a life laid out before us. In Seeing Ourselves, I suggested that women artists have developed a new branch of self-portraiture, the personified self-portrait that is a gate to bigger ideas. Using their self image as a point of entry, they build on it by including references that universalize the portrait, making it a starting point for wider ideas. Her self image adds humanity to her abstract ideas, which of course accounts for her art’s power to reach us on an emotional level.

What motifs and themes did she continually go back to?

Her themes and motifs divide into the personal and the political and in most paintings they are entwined. Politically speaking, she waved the flag for Mexican nationalism – literally so in Self Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States, 1932. But even when she bared her personal feelings – for Diego, for the split between her Mexican and European selves and for her physical pain – these too display her nationalist concerns.

What was Kahlo’s personal philosophy? And how is that seen within her work?

The paintings say it all: live life to the full, visualize everything within it as part of a whole. Barriers between private and public do not exist in Frida World. Your marriage ends so you paint Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940, the brown strands at your feet symbolic of the way you feel castrated. You identify with Mexico so you paint yourself with your damaged body as a thriving plant rooted in the Mexican soil. Her ‘religion’ was equally inclusive: with a mestizo Christian mother and a German, possibly Jewish, father she forged her own pantheistic vision of humanity at one with nature in an unceasing cycle of birth and death.

Sun and Life by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)

In what ways can we see Kahlo’s feminist attitudes within her work? Are there any paintings in particular which are especially revealing of this?

I see Kahlo’s feminism with its use of her sexuality, her interest in self-decoration, her devotion to Diego, as a variant of the ‘never underestimate the power of a woman, I Love Lucy’ kind of 1950s feminism in which women marshall their powers of beauty and intuition to get what they want. Endowed with a limp from childhood polio, a disabling teenage bus accident that left her with over 40 operations in her future, and a restless mind, I am convinced that all her life she sought validation that she was ‘all woman’ as the cliché has it, overcoming her disabilities with looks, personality, intelligence and her art.

Her lovers may have been a retaliation against the womanizing Diego, but they also added to her sense of self-worth. As a strategy to deal with Diego’s fame and eye for other women on their North American stay in the early 1930s, she eschewed western clothes for the costume of the Tehuana women (much admired by Diego for their spirit), even at parties with the patrons who were paying for Diego’s murals. She chose exoticism and thereby avoided competition.

Her indomitable refusal to be squashed or silenced and the physical space she dominated with her personal style forces our admiration across the decades. I see her as much a guerrilla fighter for the cause of women as a feminist.

How did Kahlo’s politics manifest themselves in her work?

Kahlo’s work is imbued with her nationalist and left wing politics. Even a seemingly innocent work like the self-portrait she made for Trotsky (Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky) after their short affair has a format based on Mexican versions of baroque portraiture. Look at any image, and the clothing, the animals, the jewelery, the mythic references, the borrowings from folk art, the anti-Americanism all reveal her commitment to her country’s history, products, and beliefs.

Self-portrait dedicated to Leon Trotsky by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of National Museum of Women in the Arts)

How did Kahlo depict disability in her self-portraits? What does this reveal about her relationship with her body?

I would say Kahlo is a painter of pain. Her image of her body pierced with arrows (The Broken Column, 1944) is a brilliant transposition from the religious imagery of St Sebastian shot through with arrows for refusing to disavow his faith, to herself encased in a steel brace after a spinal operation. Frida’s body lies under all her work. When she feels fine, it looks out at the viewer, made up and dressed to face the world. At times of pain, like Diego’s affair with her sister, she spares us nothing, not even the severed hand and damaged foot in Memory, 1937.

But never forget that this is art, not life. Her gift for the visual metaphor is shown in Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, as she turns the icon of the Virgin Mary into a defiant self image surrounded by the animals she saw as soul mates, and makes a daring reference to her suffering by transforming Christ’s crown of thorns into a thorny necklace, a queen of nature not of Christianity.

It’s clear Kahlo worked to create an impression of herself – was there a point when this slipped and another side was revealed?

The very idea of an impression ‘slipping’ takes away from Kahlo’s power as a creator of imagery. Whatever appeared in those paintings was meant to appear in those paintings. The only time you could argue that her control slips is near the end, when addled by drugs and drink, and in mental agony as her journal reveals, the uncontrolled brushstrokes and limbless body of The Circle, 1950 attests to her distress. Though even here as nature threatens to subsume the torso, there is a positive hint of her body being taken into the arms of the Mexican earth that sustained her.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)

What was Kahlo’s experience in art education? Who taught her to paint and explore her ideas?

Frida Kahlo had no formal art school training. Her experience was closer to those female would-be artists in the centuries before art schools allowed them in than to the trained women artists of the 20th century. Her mother’s gift of paints and a mirror above her bed when she was recuperating from the bus accident was the starting gun. Interest in art history, Diego’s recognition of her natural talent, and no doubt her first few sales, gave her the confidence to develop the art that is so admired today. As she matured, her inbuilt artistic intelligence expanded. The folk art that she and Diego so respected did not stop at subject matter, but also provided a format: retablos, those personal primitive scenes of lives saved by divine intervention, complete with written explanations, gave Kahlo a way to talk about herself and her concerns.

Why is her education an important factor to consider when looking at her work?

Her sparse artistic education can lead one to see Kahlo as an inspired innocent, a kind of sexy Grandma Moses. This is a trap. She may have had little training but she found a way to present an original vision. No artist works outside their time, particularly not a middle class artist with a photographer father, a muralist husband and an artistic social circle.

No one, stylistically speaking, could call Kahlo up to date with her invisible brush marks and reliance on a central personal image as a means of avoiding the potholes of elaborate composition and accurate drawing. But the truth is that the roots of her brilliance lay in those limitations. Her innate poetry and the visual alertness that opened her to such metaphors as depicting herself as a baby nourished at the breast of a woman in a Mexican burial mask, led Andre Breton in France to call her a surrealist – a “ribbon tied round a bomb” was his expression.

My Nurse and I by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)

In the past, the fact that Kahlo is often evaluated in terms of her biography has been talked about a lot – why is it important to see not only her, but all female artists, beyond this perspective?

Kahlo is an artist who put herself into her art, not just her appearance, but her love for Diego, her distress at his affair with her beloved sister, her pain from the operations, her conviction that she carried the blood of Mexico in her veins. However, the biographical approach is only partially helpful because it denies the artist any artistic skill or brains and it certainly can’t explain the vivid poetic gift that made her vision so compelling.

As with all the best artists, Kahlo’s art is not a diary ingenuously presented in paint but a recreation of personal beliefs, feelings and events through her particular lens into something unique and universal. Recently, I leafed once more through a book of her paintings, and once again – as I always do – I thought how helpless words are in the face of the strange richness of those images.

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