FRIDA KAHLO: THE UNMISTAKABLY LATIN AMERICAN ARTIST

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“Some birds are not meant to be caged; their feathers are just too bright.” (Shawshank Redemption)

FRIDA KAHLO: THE UNMISTAKABLY LATIN AMERICAN ARTIST.

What would our life look like if its matrix were built around colour and pain? Imagine a canvas that portrays a naked young woman with Latin features lying on a bed, battered and stubbed by man. Her hands are dropping on the sides of the bed, like those of a martyr, palms open, like those of Jesus on the cross.

There are bloodstains on the greenish-yellow floor, on the cot, on the white shirt of the man standing by her, and, strangely, even on the wooden frame. “The impact on the viewer is immediate, almost physical. We feel that someone in our actual space -perhaps ourselves- has committed this violence. The transition from fiction to reality is made by a trail of blood.”[1]How would we react to such painting? Now, let us stop imagining and transport ourselves to the blue house in Mexico where Frida Kahlo lived with Diego Rivera. It is 1935. Diego has ‘betrayed’ Frida, in having a fling with her younger sister Christina. Frida – who would have not been jealous otherwise – paints A Few Small Nips, where she turns a recent newspaper story of a man who stabbed a woman to death and did not make a big deal out of it, into a self-reflective piece of artistic expression. In A Few Small Nips we have already all the elements and characteristics that will accompany us in our argument on Frida Kahlo as an unmistakably Latin American artist, though an exploration and application of the concepts of ‘hybridity’ and ‘syncretism’.

Mexico is a country with a longest history of civilisations and independent cultures. Until the ‘West’ came in, colonised and destabilised. This process of ‘cultural imperialism’ started in the 15th Century, and will probably never be over. When Mexico, along with other Latin American countries, gained independence in the 1840’s, the country was left to deal with a juxtaposition of religious, socio-political, economic and cultural systems.

One of the first episodes of the Mexican ‘people’ (if of a ‘people’ as ‘homogenous’ we can talk) opening up and at the same time closing down to external influences took place in the years of the Mexican Revolution. Begun in 1909, the revolution was about land redistribution, against the power of the church and the widening of political power but also one in which the Indigenous and the mixed sides of Mexican culture were revalued, with artists starting to mix ancient and popular themes and styles into their work, like Rivera and Kahlo did.[2] We will call this cultural/ artistic modernism, and we will interpret it as a way of attempting to create a national/ cultural identity out of external influences that come from so many corners of the world, and internal ‘paradoxes’ that stem from the socio-political and cultural assets of Mexico itself. As Canclini puts it, the core issues are “how to articulate the local and the cosmopolitan, the promises of modernity and the inertia of tradition; how cultural fields can achieve greater autonomy and at the same time make that will for independence compatible with the precarious development of the artistic and literary market; and in what ways the industrial reordering of culture re-creates inequalities.”[3] Such panoramic of Mexico’s situation clarifies my previous point on the opposition fiction/ reality made when introducing A Few Small Nips, and it is one that we ought to bear in mind throughout the whole discussion. In fact, as Canclini once more points out, “we are undergoing a serious crisis of the comprehension of reality – or that reality itself has become particularly complex [emphasis mine] – and also a crisis of belief. I understand that this is a general phenomenon in Western countries that doubtlessly becomes more acute in our own [Latin America].”[4]

One of the theoretical issues that I believe should be dealt with is that of an approach to cultural studies that tends to be arguably too focused on structures of an economic origin. From a Western perspective, as Santiago Colas puts forward, industrial capitalism is given as a pre-requisite for the modernisation of Latin America, as of most ‘Third World’ countries. But “it is important to understand that this prescriptive theory depended on a dualistic vision of ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ societies. This dualism is precisely what contemporary theories problematise.”[5] And this is all for the good. The same could be said for the other ‘traditional’ theory of dependency, which posits “capitalism as the problem’s cause rather than its solution.”[6]

What we need is to assess a theory that takes into account a very broad spectrum of local and global socio-political, economic, cultural, geographical aspects. I argue that we need to leave behind obsolete binary oppositions such as West/ Other, civilised/ indigenous, etc., while acknowledging that we are inevitably (as E.H. Carr teaches us) speaking from and under the influence of a certain dominant ‘Western’ perspective.

As Colas rightly emphasises, “many Latin American political and cultural theorists of Postmodernity depart from the observation […] that capitalist development produces neither uniformed modernisation nor neatly demarcated regions of industrialisation and underdevelopment, but, rather, heterogeneity and differences.”[7]

In this within this expanded and dynamic framework that we place our analysis of the hybrid and the syncretic in Frida Kahlo.

This is the macrocosm. The microcosm is that of Frida, who is part of this macrocosm yet has a number of personal issues, pains and colours to express.

The fundamental idea is, as I see it, that of intertextuality, i.e. borrowing ideas from the past to make a statement on the present or to comment on an event. William Rowe defines hybridity as “the ways in which forms become separated from existing practices and recombine with new forms in new practices. […] With the transition, symbols become detached from their previous contexts.”[8] I would like to point out here that this should not imply, as far as a definition goes, that symbols lose their meaning in their previous contexts. In fact, its original significance in the works of Kahlo as in those of many Latin American artists, does remain, and, juxtaposed to a number of other signifiers, serve to stimulate a reflection on identity and the role of cultural imperialism. Whereas I would be careful in siding up with Raymundo Mier when he says that hybrid implies lack of identity (in that we could argue that this very ‘lack of identity’, as he calls it, is the identity itself, seen as an ‘uncertain’, in a somehow postmodernist fashion, flow and interactions of all the above mentioned structures), I agree with him when he considers what I would name the ‘reverse’ potential of hybridity. “To me, the idea of hybrid cultures, then, seems extraordinarily suggestive, because it permits the imagination of social morphologies, fields of singularised regularity, designations of catastrophe, but a catastrophe that is not a limiting border, a mere point of singularity, the space of a fracture. Hybrid culture does not designate a void, a fissure, in the process of transition, rather the very material of a culture, of its vitality and its force of singularised and dissipated invention.”[9] Ultimately, therefore, I would put forward, somehow here backed up by Canclini, an idea for which all cultures, at all times, and even more today, with discourses of globalisation, are hybrid, in a constant process of negotiation. “I have the impression that these hybridisations are characteristic of any cultural process in any historical period and that it is, above all, a theoretical perspective that permits us to distinguish the mixtures of cultures, of symbolic forms, or the processes of intertextuality.”[10]

Like Mexico and like Frida, in our individual microcosm we are the acme’ of hybridity, of synthesised heterogeneity, of, as Frida writes of Diego, Diversity in Unity[11]… from here the very postmodern slogans ‘My Mind Ain’t Nuthin But A Big Ol’ Collage’ by New Kingdom and ‘I Is A Crowd’: “the self no longer amputates itself [and, I add, should we aim to amputate it] down to a single part but instead asserts that I is a crowd, that the human is a population of processes.”[12]

This ‘population of processes’ is evident in most, if not all, of Kahlo’s work, both in form and content. I will be picking up on some characteristics of a selection of her paintings, those that are functional to the points I want to make.

The form (as on-canvas mis-en-scene) in Henry Ford Hospital already sheds light on the content, which will be about pain and trying to cope with it in the realm of formation of an identity. The arrangement of the elements on the painting are studied as to create the idea that Frida (laying on the bed, having a miscarriage) is a lonely Mexican woman in a desert industrial environment, who has to deal with a number of things that are ‘separated’ from us in our analysis, as if to negotiate their meaning we needed a certain degree of ‘distanciation’, yet linked by an umbilical cord to us at the same time. Like thoughts becoming reality, “The snail, Frida once explained, refers to the slowlyness of the miscarriage, which, like a snail, was ‘soft, covered and at the same time, open’.”[13] The snail is a symbol of the cultural clash of the Latin and Northern American societies just as much as her Mexican costume hanging on a rope in My Dress Hangs There (1933). The fact that both of these symbols are put, along with others, in great (and quasi-surreal) evidence on the canvas, emphasises their meaning greatly. “In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote of a thread of blood that began in the murdered Jose Arcadio’s ear, travelled all through the town of Macondo, and returned to its source. Similarly, Frida combined concrete realism and fantasy when she took the insides of her body out, and presented them as symbols of feeling.”[14]

The theme of alienation, especially for the ‘Others’ in Western society is a frequent one. In Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States (1932) this is juxtaposed to the situation in Mexico, with Frida standing in between the two, smoking a cigarette with the left (=Mexican) hand, that is though pointing to the right (=United States). Similarly in the Mexican flag she holds with her right hand. Interesting to point out, the American flag is only partially visible, obfuscated by smoke, and with no one to hold it proudly.

Not even Frida ‘knows where she stands’ – uncertainty! Still, once could deduce that it is exactly there, on that border, that she stands. Frida paints here her own hybrid identity, and discussing the two socio-political and historically different systems, she hints at the uncertainty and hybrid condition of national identity in Mexico (a similar feeling of ‘duality’ that we encounter also in the above mentioned My Dress Hangs There)

This is achieved through a further juxtaposition of signifying practices: the moon and the sun, with the meaning they carry (and the fact that they are both on the left –Mexican- side is another hint); the Aztec temple and the industrial capitalist temple; fields and industries; votive statues and pipes; the invention of electrical transmission and flowers. Frida could never assimilate American politics and culture (as it  is clear from her letters published in Herrera’s biography), and did not seem to want to, in that she had a formed opinion about them, having come to the conclusion that they do not fit in with her ideals. Therefore, in a painting like Self-Portrait on the Borderline we could also re-read ‘hybridity’, as far as her own art goes, as an imposition –in canvas- of her own judgements, juxtaposed and clearly not assimilated. Reality is therefore not just a ‘flow’ of hybrid forms, rather a heterogeneous representation of the ‘lived’, as opposed to the ‘fantasised upon’ or even ‘dreamed’. “Cultural and political borders are not necessarily congruent,”[15] as Ella Shohat says.

The cigarette Frida is holding could also be read as a sign of a ‘modern’ woman who wants to break down clichés and traditional values on women. For this reason Frida’s work has often been read as a precursor of feminist discourses. Still, if anything, it is probably a further self-reflection on the changing condition of a woman in a changing country part of a changing world. Her strength lays in her ability of expressing it, without shame. In Frida and the Abortion, she places her hand in a way that “was meant to show that she was masturbating. Even so, Frida looks straight out at the spectator, totally unabashed.”[16] Frida was not only an unmistakably Latin American artist, but a very strong one too. Once more, we can point out the hybridity of the ‘feminine’ discourse. On one side there is the more ‘modern’, ‘Western’ use of a cigarette to imply emancipation, on the other the limitations a woman can incur in Mexico, where, as Octavio Paz explains, women’s inferiority “is constitutional and resides in their sex, their submissiveness, which is a wound that never heals.” As much as the wound from the abortion in Frida and the Abortion will obviously never heal, what she can heal is the wound of her ‘congenital’ submissiveness. From here, it is obvious how “not only did these self-portraits radically challenge existing conventions for representing the female body, but they continue to mediate the work of subsequent generations of women artists seeking to explore constructions of gender, sexuality, nature, and culture through self-representation.”[17]

Our argument so far clarifies already that the hybridity and syncretism in Frida Kahlo’s work are motivated by a ‘crowd’ of “universal conflicts with which everyone struggles from birth: the need to integrate once primitive and rational natures; the need to establish a cohesive sense of self and identity; the need to feel comfortable as an individual, separate and apart; and the acceptance of one’s aloneness”[18]. In a very beautifully written paragraph of his The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz exemplifies the feeling of aloneness: “The adolescent vacillates between infancy and youth, halting for a moment before the infinite richness of the world. He is astonished at the fact of his being, and this astonishment leads to reflection: as he leans over the river of his consciousness, he asks himself if the face that appears there, disfigured by the water, is his own. The singularity of his being, which is pure sensation in children, becomes a problem and a question.”[19]

Frida did look for interlocutors, but often would not find them, and would engage in discussion on a canvas. The Two Fridas (1939) was painted, as Frida herself said, with the idea of her double representing the her childhood imaginary friend. She finds a companion in herself. For this reason, her vast portraiture has to be understood as “self-aware, not self-absorbed.”[20] In The Two Fridas she positions herself “within the dualities out of which she formed the narratives of her identity: European/ Mexican, nature/ culture, body/ body politic. They indicate their dual cultural heritage, her simultaneous existence as the loved woman and the rejected lover, the self located within a physical body that bore the signs of both disabling pain and conventionalised beauty.”[21] Painted after Diego filed for divorce, The Two Fridas is about living or/ and dying. The two Fridas hold each other’s hand, and they are united by the artery that one, though, has cut off on her end. Obviously, she is the one that has cut off the relationship with Diego (the other one actually holds a miniature picture of him). One of them wears a 19th Century ‘middle class’ dress, the other one a traditional indigenous costume, which shows, once more, her hybrid heritage.

Then again, as much as we can find characteristics of Surrealism in her work, even though she always famously denied of being one, we have to be careful in always leaving the possibility of doubt in our arguments: “I paint my own reality,” she said. “The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint always whatever passes through my head, without any other consideration.”[22]

Frida constantly emphasised that she was not a dreamer, and she definitely does come across as very empirical and pragmatic, at least in her art. Passionate, physical and complete attachment to the things we love, need and come from has a fantastic visual strength in Roots (1943). In Roots (painted at a content time with Diego) Frida literally roots herself into the Mexican soil, becoming part of it, and nurturing it, as a pantheist. This could possibly be seen as one her most decided paintings, where, unlike in Self-Portrait on the Border…, in all the flow of uncertainty and hybridity, she knows where she stands and roots her own identity with and inside of it, she penetrates, letting her hair go wild (stereotypically) like that of an Amazon.

If in Roots she gives to nature, in My Nurse and I (1937) she takes from nature. In My Nurse and I Frida figures like a child (that could signify her own Mexican and cultural identity) with a mature face (that could signify her mind) sucking on the breast of an Indian nurse. Milk is coming out of both breasts, and also falling from the sky, as if to say that her land has a lot of nutriment to give, if only treated correctly. “It is a declaration of her faith in the continuity of Mexican culture, in the idea that Mexico’s ancient [Indian, obviously, given the mask the nurse is wearing] heritage is reborn in each new generation, and that Frida, as an adult artist, continues to be nourished by her Indian ancestry.”[23] To be noted is that this attachment is also signified by the similar features of the mask to Frida’s (e.g. the unibrow, the serious expression).

I would like to here raise the notion of syncretism more specifically. Syncretism has a very similar meaning to hybridity, with a tendency though to be used when talking about motifs of a religious, ritualistic or cult-related nature. Indian/ Mexican masks are part of a ceremonial for people to celebrate themselves and, as a sort of ritual, play with their own identity. Masks function as an escape from the everyday world into the cosmic time of the ancestors; they symbolise individual transition (marked in Frida’s paintings) through their differentiation according to the season they are worn in; they embody duplicity, the possibility for an individual (exploration) to look in different directions and not be see.

In My Nurse and I we therefore find both hybridity and syncretism at play, in a painting that reminds me of Christian iconography depicting the Holy Virgin and child. In this smooth juxtaposition of artistic and cultural forms Frida is able to achieve a synthesis that is significant, ‘real’ and heterogeneous in its own right.

Finally, let us take up once more the idea, partially suggested by William Rowe and Vivian Schelling, of hybridity as resistance. In fact, by incorporating, say, the colonial discourse into traditional practices, the artist takes her own time to decide, to look in many directions without being seen, to negotiate. By incorporating and self-reflecting, an even stronger and richer identity can stem. As in the case of the batuque, Rowe and Schelling explain, “syncretism also reveals a double duality of resistance and accommodation to white civilisation.”[24] Talking about hybridity in Kahlo’s art and relating it to the condition of Latin America could be precarious in that it could imply a ‘levelling-down’ of the cultural and topical differences that constitute the make-up of a nation. In fact, since, as mentioned before, we come from a Western perspective, talking about ‘Other’ countries as having a struggling hybrid national culture can be imprecise and counter-productive. From which my previous comment on the need to investigate the concepts of hybridity and syncretism as applying to the West too, by relating them to other topicalities. “In critical practice, this means tracing the various local and global, social and political, cultural and aesthetic strands that are incorporated and transformed through the formal and technical activity of a text.” As Colas goes on, “The fact that global structures of domination survive on differentiation requires us to grasp the various, local postmodernities as related, but not therefore homogeneous or identical. As critics we must retain, not pretend to resolve, a tension between what will remain an unsatisfactorily homogenizing term: postmodernism, and the heterogeneous local forms produced within and sometimes against its logic.”[25]

In conclusion, in this piece I have looked at Mexico’s socio-political, historical and cultural context in its interactions with the rest of the world. I have argued over the terms ‘hybridity’ and ‘syncretism’ as implying arguable perspective, and I have analysed how these terms apply to Frida Kahlo in making her an unmistakably (given certain formal terminological clarifications) Latin American artist. We have considered the concept of hybridity in Kahlo’s works through an analysis of the themes of her paintings (the heart, clothing, sexuality, ‘feminism’, Aztec culture, Christianity, Indian and colonial heritage, Surrealism, modernism, significance of colours, pain, etc.).

Furthermore, we have demonstrated how Kahlo ‘accepts’ hybrid and syncretic forms actively, as opposed to an unconscious usage, which in turns shows how it is in these terms that the history of Latin America and the world has to be studies. As Canclini says, “Being cultured – included being cultured in the modern era – implies not so much associating oneself with a repertory of exclusively modern objects and messages, but rather knowing how to incorporate the art and literature of the vanguard, as well as technological advances, into traditional matrices of social privilege and symbolic distinction.”[26]

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beverley, J., Oviedo, J. & Aronna, M. eds. The Postmodernism Debate in Latin America (US: Duke University Press, 1995)
Canclini, N. G. Hybrid Cultures (US: University of Minnesota Press, 1995)
Chadwick, W. Mirror – Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation (US: MIT Press, 1998)
Colas, S. Postmodernity in Latin America (p/c)
Eshun, K. More Brilliant Than The Sun (London: Quartet Books, 1989)
Herrera, H. (1983) Frida (London: Bloomsbury, 1989)
Lecture Notes from Peter Osborne, 25 October 2002
Paz, O. (1961) The Labyrinth of Solitude (London: Penguin, 1985)
Rowe, W. & Schelling, V. Memory and Modernity (London: Verso, 1991)
Shohat, E. & Stam R. Unthinking Eurocentrism (London: Routledge, 1994)

 

Interpretations and personal considerations were also inspired on the basis of the play on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera La Casa Azul, recently on show at the Lyric Theatre, London.

[1] Herrera, H. (1983) Frida (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), p. 180
[2] PO Lecture Notes
[3] Canclini, N. G. Hybrid Cultures (US: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), p. 53
[4] Canclini, N. G. The Hybrid: A Conversation with Margarita Zires, Raymundo Mier and Mabel Piccini, in Beverley, J., Oviedo, J. & Aronna, M. eds. The Postmodernism Debate in Latin America (US: Duke University Press, 1995)p. 92
[5] Colas, S. Postmodernity in Latin America (p/c), p. 12
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., p. 13
[8] Rowe, W. & Schelling, V. Memory and Modernity (London: Verso, 1991), p. 231
[9] Beverley, J., Oviedo, J. & Aronna, M. eds. The Postmodernism Debate in Latin America, p. 78
[10] Ibid., p. 83
[11] Chadwick, W. Mirror – Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation (US: MIT Press, 1998), p. 90
[12] Eshun, K. More Brilliant Than The Sun (London: Quartet Books, 1989), p. 027
[13] Herrera, H. (1983) Frida (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), p. 144
[14] Ibid., p. 189
[15] Shohat, E. & Stam R. Unthinking Eurocentrism (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 315
[16] Herrera, H. (1983) Frida (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), p. 191
[17] Chadwick, W. Mirror – Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation, p. ix
[18] Ibid., p. 102
[19] Paz, O. (1961) The Labyrinth of Solitude (London: Penguin, 1985), p. 9
[20] Chadwick, W. Mirror – Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation, p. 102
[21] Ibid., p. 30
[22] Herrera, H. Frida, p. xii
[23] Ibid., p. 219
[24] Rowe, W. & Schelling, V. Memory and Modernity (London: Verso, 1991), p. 124
[25] Colas, S. Postmodernity in Latin America (p/c), p. 17
[26] Canclini, N. G. Hybrid Cultures, p. 47

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