Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Frida Kahlo: Deconstructing National Identity

Well, running still isn't going too well at the moment. I've been getting up to Cootha here and there, but due to certain circumstantial factors (sleeping on the floor due to bad back, staying up late, getting woken up by night-shift housemate, continuing recovery from Glasshouse) it hasn't been too pleasant. I really miss Chapel Hill - who would leave a place where all their closest friends live and that's a mile from the trails? An infatuated imbecile, that's who.

Anyways, the thing which has been going well recently is essay-writing. This one just rolled off the keyboard (so far unedited):

From her contraction of polio as a child, to her untimely death at age 47, it is clear that Frida Kahlo endured large amounts of physical and emotional pain (Mencimer, 2002). From her membership of the Mexican Communist Party and attendance at rallies against imperialism, it is also clear that she held strong political beliefs (Barnet-Sanchez, 1997). Most readings of her work have focused on these two aspects of her persona (Volk, 2000). However, this essay will argue that while the popularization of Frida Kahlo’s life story, and the rampant psychologising of her paintings has received heavy criticism from various authors (Lindauer,1999; Helland,1990; Barnet-Sanchez, 1997), the assertion that her art is fundamentally nationalist and indigenist is equally problematic. Frida’s work differed from that of her Mexican contemporaries in that it subversively questioned the unified, homogenized nature of national identity.
To this end, various examples will be used to illustrate the foregrounding of her physical pain and personal life in many readings of her art. Then, Frida’s historical, political and artistic context will be explained. Finally, two of her most famous paintings will be analysed in order to demonstrate how the artist problematizes the notion of national identity.
Frida’s recent popularity among mainstream audiences is largely due to her intense, passionate and painful life story, in the same way that most critics have treated her paintings as, according to Lindauer, “simple, straightforward illustrations of her biography (as quoted in Gilgoff, 2002)”. Given the assumption that the mass media is a mirror for mainstream societal values and beliefs, nowhere is this popular perception of Frida more evident than in Gilgoff’s (2002) article for US News Not Just Another Tragic face. The title suggests that the piece will explore something more profound than artist’s life story, but after introducing the abovementioned quote by Margaret Lindauer, author of Devouring Frida, he dismisses her opinion: “[y]es, but what a biography it is”. Gilgoff (2002) then launches into an account of the artist’s life, including the most widely known and formative events: her tragic bus accident at the age of 18, which left her in intense pain for the remainder of her life; her consuming love of, and tumultuous marriage with, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera; and her affair with Leon Trotsky. The author explains that, astoundingly, Frida had her own political beliefs, independent of those of Rivera, before fleetingly mentioning the subversive nature of her art. This article is representative of the mainstream perception of Frida; to the majority, her life story is more interesting and important than her art (Mencimer, 2002).
This popular perception has been reflected in many critical analyses of her art, perhaps best exemplified by readings of The Two Fridas. As the title suggests, this painting depicts two Fridas holding hands, seated next to each other. One is wearing the traditional Tehuana clothing, clutching a small photo of Rivera, with the other in a white European-stlyle dress, holding a pair of surgical scissors. These objects are at the end of exposed blood vessels, through which blood is pumped by their equally exposed hearts. Many critics believe that the Tehuana-clad Frida is loved by Rivera, the European Frida not, and that they are “joined by hearts that bleed over the loss of Rivera (Lindauer, 1999:144)”. The contrast between the two Fridas is said to represent “alienation between husband and wife, as well as between the Mexican and European heritages [of the artist] (Lindauer, 1999:144)”. This introduces the more politicised analyses of this work, which suggest that it depicts the struggle between European and indigenous principles in the construction of postrevolutionary Mexico (Lindauer, 1999). The indigenous woman appears to be stronger, reflecting postrevolutionary Mexico’s wish for independence from foreign command (Lindauer, 1999). Nevertheless, according to Helland (1990), the exhaustive psychoanalysis of Frida’s work has eclipsed and therefore deemphasised its political connotations.
The less-prominent politicized analyses of Kahlo’s art have treated her narrowly as a product of her historical and political context, no different to the renowned Mexican muralists of the time. During the nineteenth century, the occupations of Mexico by both the United States and France heightened the liberal government’s fear of losing the nation’s recently-gained independence (Rochfort, 1993). This led to a political paradigm shift, from the insistence on the “primacy of self interest” to an appellation to “the ideals of collective sacrifice and civic duty (Rochfort, 1993:15)”. During the Mexican Revolution, this ideology of Liberal patriotism was adopted and converted into “a specifically Mexican nationalist theory (Rochfort, 1993:15)” by the leaders and prominent intellectuals. As a result, many repudiated the individualistic capitalism of the US as well as Porfirian positivism, while reviving and revaluing indigenous traditions (Rochfort, 1993). Both artists and philosophers, including Diego Rivera and the other muralists, began the search for an authentic Mexico, an immutable essence that they attempted to extract from the country’s pre-Colombian traditions (Volk, 2000). Since Frida identified strongly with the Mexican Revolution, was a committed communist and indigenist, and was married to Rivera, many have placed her work alongside that of these post-revolutionary artists, interpreting it as being simply a manifestation of her political beliefs (Barnet-Sanchez, 1997).
In this vein, Helland (1990:8) argues that Frida developed a “particular form of Mexicanidad, a romantic nationalism that focused upon traditional art and artifacts…rever[ing] Aztec traditions”. This author makes the simplistic argument that Kahlo’s frequent use of Aztec symbols; such as the heart, blood, the Tehuana dress and Coatlicue; are references to her fervent indigenism and Mexican nationalism (Helland, 1990).
Frida’s painting Self-Portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States was analysed in this light. The piece depicts Frida, dressed in a European style and adorned with a “Coatlicue-like necklace (Helland, 1990:9)”, standing on the border between an industrial United States and a Mexico replete with Aztec imagery. The former contains billowing smokestacks, lifeless skyscrapers and odd devices rooted into the ground by cables. These provide a contrast to the flourishing plants on the Mexican side, as well as pre-Colombian sculptures and a crumbling temple of Tenochtitlan in the background. Helland (1990) interpreted this as a simple contrast of Frida’s Mexico with the industrialized civilization of the West. This author believes that the blood-garnished sun above the temple used for ritualistic purposes suggests human sacrifice. However, because Kahlo makes no negative comment on this practice in her painting, Helland (1990:9) treats the piece as “a concrete visual example of [her] idealization of the Aztec past”.
In this case, Helland has interpreted the presence of Aztec imagery and a mere hint at its positive portrayal as indicative of a dichotomy between ancient Mexico, the good, and the United States, the bad. This ignores the subtleties and nuances of Frida’s representation of indigenous symbols in this painting; a case of the art’s meaning being manipulated by the critic to fit in neatly with the artist’s political ideology and context. In this way, Helland’s politicised reading of Frida’s work is no different to the prominent psychologised readings, which manipulate the art’s meaning to suit her colourful life story.
Steven Volk (2000) offers a more detailed and profound analysis of Kahlo’s art in general, and Self-Portrait on the Border in specific, that is somewhat removed from speculation about the artist’s pain, personal life, or politics. This author suggests that, far from portraying her alleged romantic nationalism, Frida questioned, problematized and deconstructed the fundamental nature of national identity. Although Volk (2000) agrees with Helland (1990) that Self-Portrait on the Border is highly critical of US industrialism and consumerism, due to the lifelessness and filthiness of its depiction in the painting, he dismisses the notion that Frida has presented a simple dichotomy between good and bad. He notes that “each trope of [Mexican] nationalist narratives is taken up, only to be emptied of meaning (Volk, 2000:176)”. The pre-Colombian objects are “strewn about in various states of decay or abandon…[and] a bolt of lightning…threatens the temple as well as intimidating anyone who would seek solace in the ancient Aztec ideologies (Volk, 2000:176)”. In this way, Frida notes that Mexico’s past is inaccessible, and cannot be depicted or used as to construct foundational identity the postrevolutionary Mexican (Volk, 2000).
The Two Fridas can be read in a similar way. The portrayal of the European and the indigenous Fridas, united by blood vessels and hands, yet as ever-separate entities, connotes the artist’s belief that the two cannot be completely integrated. That is, that a single Mestizo identity, espoused by the postrevolutionary leaders as the foundation of the New Mexico, is imagined, is a construction, is impossible.
From this, it is clear that Frida Kahlo was sceptical of the notion of a unified national identity founded upon Indigenism and Mestizaje in postrevolutionary Mexico. On the contrary, she portrayed her home country as “contradictory, divided, problematic, dual, compelling, complex, and impossible to simplify (Volk, 2000:170)”. This opinion ran contrary to that of her patriotic contemporaries, such as Diego Rivera and the other prominent muralists. It is unfortunate that this unique and subversive aspect of her work has been overshadowed by the overly psychologised and politicised analyses which it has been afforded. It must always be remembered that, in the words of Garrard (quoted in Mencimer, 2002: 32): “Life is interesting, but art is what the interesting person makes”.

Barnet-Sanchez, H. (1997). Frida Kahlo: Her Life and Art Revisited. Latin American Research Review, 32(3), 243-257. Retrieved Octover 12, 2011, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2504009.
Gilgoff, D. (2002). Not Just Another Tragic Face. U.S. News & World Report, 133(17), 52. Retrieved October 15, 2011, from http://www.usnews.com/.
Helland, J. (1990). Aztec Imagery in Frida Kahlo’s Paintings: Indigenity and Political Commitment. Woman’s Art Journal, 11(2), 8-13. Retrieved October 8, 2011, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3690692.
Mencimer, S. (2002). The Trouble With Frida Kahlo: Uncomfortable truths about this season’s hottest female artist. Washington Monthly 34(6), 26-32. Retrieved October 15, 2011, from http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/.
Lindauer, M. (1999). Devouring Frida: The art history and popular celebrity of Frida Kahlo. Middletown, Conneticut: Wesleyan University Press.
Rochfort, D. (1993). Mexican Muralists: Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros. San Francisco, California: Chronicle Books.
Volk, S. (2000). Frida Kahlo Remaps the Nation. Social Identities, 6(2), 165-188. Retrieved October 15, 2011, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13504630050032053.

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