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Frida Kahlo and Self Image by Alix Greenberg

In her article, “Women Artists: Self Image,” Ellen Lubell says that because of today’s changing definitions of art and art forms, “which have expanded the media and formats in which self-images have been executed, self-images are as diverse as the preconceptions of the self.” Due to this notion, women’s self-portraits are no longer traditional three-quarter profile and head and shoulder view portrayals, they are portraits, which “appear as photographs, Xerox pieces, body art, [and] performance.” This significant shift in women’s self-portraiture, according to Lubell, is considered a movement. This movement has strongly influenced women’s self-portrayals in their work; women candidly make use of their bodies, emotions, sexuality, and political consciousness as subjects of their self- images, and/or as mediums for autobiographical expressions.[1]

In this essay, one of these female artists will be discussed: an artist who pioneered female art, as she is known to be one of the first female artists. Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907 – July 13, 1954), painted self-portraits primarily employing depictions of the indigenous culture of her country in a style that merges Realism, Symbolism, and Surrealism. In her paintings, it is evident that Frida spoke from the position of a woman; her work connects her own subjectivity and the “gendered system”[2] in which she was a part of, a system that subordinated women and criticized personal expressions of femininity. Frida’s self-portraits critique and fight this “gendered system” composed of male-gendered taboos, through use of violated, defiled, and sometimes tender reality. It is important to note that the intent of her paintings was not necessarily to critique this system, however, according to many art historians this is the case. In her essay, “Frida Kahlo: A Contemporary Feminist Reading,” Liza Bakewell says, “In [Frida Kahlo’s] work one sees a sensibility that is racially mixed, bisexually engendered, and situated inextricably within the flesh and blood of her own human embodied experiences. In sum, I would argue that her paintings represent a ‘feminist intervention in the histories of art.’”[3] This statement opens the door for a purely feminist reading of Frida Kahlo’s work, in terms of her defiance in relation to her self-image, to the stereotypical Mexican- male conception of female sex, to her mestiza race, to nature, and to her own sexuality. In this essay, I will prove Frida’s paintings have effectively influenced and liberated sexuality for all Mexican women. The paintings I will discuss are: Remembrance of an Open Wound (1938), The Broken Column (1944), My Birth (1932), What the Water Gave Me (1939), My Nurse and I (1937), and The Fruits of the Earth (1938). These paintings roughly and honestly explore the struggle of womanhood in an androcentric Mexican society, without adhering to any societal “rules.” When discussing Frida, it is important to call to mind other aspects of her life- such as class, politics, and her deteriorating health-, which affected her work. Elizabeth Garber of “Art Critics on Frida Kahlo: A Comparison of Feminist and Non-Feminist Voices” agrees, “To interpret Kahlo’s work without reference to her existence as a woman gives an incomplete reading of her paintings. To overlook the historical and artistic periods in which lived, her class, her political affiliations, her allegiance to her Mexican heritage, or to ignore the physical and psychological traumas of her personal life similarly make for an incomplete understanding of the meaning of Kahlo’s art.”[4]

First, it is essential to discuss the primal place from which the subjugation and condemnation of women originates: the vagina. Anatomically, women are open, which according to Mexican society (and society in general) makes them eternally defenseless and perpetually susceptible to injury and violation. The vagina is seen as something open and bloody, something constantly penetrated. This concept of being eternally open, hence the term “open wound,”[5] emphasizes the violence with which the stereotypically chauvinistic Mexican male conceives of sex. Frida responds to this negative view of female sexuality, not by becoming chaste, as she felt it “disembodies women”; instead she took advantage of her place and painted her supposed inferiority.  In doing this, she comments “not only the androcentrism of the representation of blood but the phallocentrism on which the definition of the “open wound” concept rests.”[6] Frida’s critique of her anatomical “wound” is clearly portrayed in Remembrance of an Open Wound. In this painting, we identify three theoretical wounds: a wounded foot covered in bandages, her vagina covered with the folds of her skirt, and the raw and bloody wound on her inner thigh, which strongly resembles a vagina. By covering up her injured foot and her vagina, she equates one “wound” with the other, lessening the notion of the eternal “open wound,” as if her foot may heal, so will her vagina. However, the “open wound” painted on her inner thigh, depicts this concept obviously and literally. Here, Frida rejects the notion of the subjugated, vulnerable woman who is expected to endure male violation. In showing us the open wound on her thigh, Frida’s defiance is apparent as she exposes an “open wound” that is clearly not a real vagina. Moreover, by concealing her actual vagina, she claims her vagina as hers, and no one else’s. We see that in Frida’s defiance and rejection of Mexican societal ideals of female sexuality, she defines the vagina “not passively as something penetrated and violated, not as something maternal, but as the locus of pleasure that she grants herself.”[7] Remembrance of an Open Wound defies the stereotype of the perpetually oppressed woman. It portrays an acceptance of femininity as well as apparent self-sufficiency: no men are needed.

To further Frida’s claim that although women are inherently open, they are independent and not defined by men, she paints The Broken Column. In this painting, Frida stands in front of a desert-like landscape. Tears roll down her cheeks, as nails pierce her body, allowing a Jesus Christ- like interpretation. She stands upright, bound by metal straps to hold her failing spine in place. According to Sharyn R. Udall’s article, “Frida Kahlo’s Mexican Body: History, Identity, and Artistic Aspiration,” “in [Frida’s] famous 1944 self-portrait The Broken Column, she invoked still another kind of column- a Greek fluted one- as interior support. It is a cracked Ionic column, the “I” and its traditional association with female proportions perhaps a punning reference to herself.”[8]  Although we can attest to the fact that this is a literal painting about the pain Frida suffers due to her accident and the medicine that keeps her alive and the braces supporting her, there is a deeper read as well. To some art historians, The Broken Column deals with numerous feminist issues. For instance, the Ionic column presented here is equated with a phallus.[9] Indeed, the column is broken, as the title says and the painting supports, therefore the phallus is broken, it has lost its erection. Thus, The Broken Column suggests that an androcentric society, represented by the phallus, cannot support or define Frida’s female body, or any female body for that matter. In addition, Liza Bakewell, of “Frida Kahlo: A Contemporary Feminist Reading,” notes that Frida’s choice of depicting an Ionic column is not coincidental. She dates Frida’s decision to Ancient Greece. She says, “The canons of beauty promulgated in the Academies of Rome, Paris, and Mexico are rooted in the ideas of beauty formulated in Classical Greece, where men chiseled columns into geometric perfection and female forms into emblems of beauty- conceptions more “beautiful” than ideologically figured women as in Pygmalion’s Galatea. While referring to her own degenerating spine- “life is replaced by a crumbling ruin,” she writes in her diary- Frida deconstructs the Pygmalion complex. Classical beauty, alas, is hypothetical since it is based more on geometry than reality; in practice it crumbles. Frida’s backbone is not a perfectly chiseled form; it is not a male construction.”[10] Here, as Bakewell reveals, Frida defies stereotypes, which have lasted for centuries, since antiquity. In this painting, Frida has critiqued the way in which the female body is perceived, and has rejected the vulnerability of women, which stems from their anatomy.

Unlike The Broken Column and Remembrance of an Open Wound, My Birth is not a blatant dismissal of the stereotypical woman; it is a glorification of womanhood and its ability to produce. In fact, My Birth intentionally focuses on the vagina.  The painting relies on what only women can do, and men cannot destroy. In the very graphic My Birth, an assumed dead woman lies on a bed. Her face as well as her upper torso is covered with a white sheet, while the rest of her body remains naked. Her legs are spread open, revealing an exposed vagina, from which a head is being released. This protruding head is not only historically recognized as Frida, it also bears a striking resemblance to Frida. Due to the bizarre morbid reality of the scene, we associate this painting with Frida’s miscarriage, which occurred before she began painting this picture. Additionally, above the dead woman’s head hangs an image, which art historians have recognized as the Virgin Mother, the Mater Dolorosa, and the Saddened Virgin[11]. This woman appears distraught, as she weeps for the loss of her child- Jesus Christ.  Here, Frida connects herself to the Virgin Mother, as one who has lost a child. Additionally, it is necessary to point out that this connection could be made in relation to affirming womanhood. Indeed, the Virgin Mother did not need a man to conceive and give birth to a child, and, therefore, neither does Frida. As we see in My Birth, there is not a depiction of a man, which furthers this claim. Reverting to the birth scene, we assume that the supposed dead mother is both Frida and Frida’s mother, Matilde Kahlo, and the child is both Frida and the child she lost.  Although My Birth adheres to borderline grotesque imagery and dismal themes, the painting is optimistic, as it examines and celebrates the cycle of birth. As Bakewell rectifies, My Birth explores how “generations merge in a confluence of female bodies giving birth to one another, all defined by the physicality of one’s female origins.”[12] From this painting, it is entirely evident Frida has abolished the concept of the vagina as the “open-wound”; the vagina (and women) is no longer simply defined by male penetration; instead, it is a representation of women as the source of all life.

My Birth, The Broken Column, and Remembrance of an Open Wound signify Frida’s ability to embrace her female identity; instead of succumbing to societal ideals, she proudly paints her femaleness. In this essay, I have discussed Frida’s self -portraits in relation to social imaginaries of gender, her defiance of gender roles, and her independence from men; however, I have not discussed an important factor of Frida’s identity: her mestiza[13] race. Like all of her works, the paintings, which explore her native identity, intensely evoke feminism. Garber says, “Frida Kahlo developed her own sense of “rootedness” and “Mexican-ness” to an extreme degree…She was noted especially for her use of Tehuana costume- the long dresses of the women of Tehuantepec in Southern Mexico who enjoyed a mythic reputation for their personal and economic independence.”[14] Many of Frida’s paintings focus on her role as a woman in a male-biased Mexico, in addition to Mexican colonization and the “sexual discourses embedded in constructions of revolutionary Mexican identity.”[15] Frida comments on the absurdity of revolutionary ideas, her ethnic indigenous race, and her role as a supposed male-dominated woman. An example of this “absurdity” comes from the words of Mexican essayist, Octavio Paz, who says, “In a world made in man’s image, woman is only a reflection of masculine will and desire. When passive, she becomes a goddess, a beloved one, a being who embodies the ancient, stable elements of the universe: the earth, motherhood, and virginity.” Here, Paz comments on the subservient female status. It is important to note that Paz’s conception of the female earth differs from the Aztecs (sometimes) conception of the earth as a “destructive female monster.”[16] Additionally, Paz says, “The mestizo is the child of the violated Indian mother and the raping foreign father.”[17] Here, Frida’s ethnic indigenous race is verbally crucified. Primarily, Frida reacted to views claiming that the territory of the Mexican revolutionary state is like a passive, virginal, fertile, Indian woman. She confronted both the assumption that the earth is a passive female and to equating that passive female with being Indian. In these paintings, Frida maintains that the Mexican earth is female; however, her earth is an active sexualized woman, not a passive, sexually denied, virgin. She was able to achieve this “female earth” by utilizing her own experiences and her mestiza identity.

What the Water Gave Me is the most accurate example to express this idea. A woman, we assume is Frida, reclines in a bathtub, full of grey-blue still water. Frida’s torso and face are not depicted in the painting, however, her legs appear beneath the surface of the water and her toes emerge from the water. According to Liza Bakewell, “what the water gave Frida is knowledge of her body as landscape of eruptions. A skyscraper bursts forth from a volcano onto the “scene”; below it sits a skeleton that overlooks Frida’s parents, who stare out as they did in her family portrait; a naked body of a woman, perhaps Frida’s, is tied down, a rope wrapped around her neck and waist, threatening her life; the rope comes from a masked man to her left; on the water’s surface floats Frida’s Tehuana dress; and above it a 16th century galleon sails as if in conquest toward the roped woman.”[18] Emphasizing the view that the female earth is not a stereotypically passive virginal woman, Frida portrays her landscape using images of conflict, with an over-arching sense of strength. Bakewell says, “This is a landscape inspired by the contradictions and consequences gendered visions of the Mexican landscape- of passivity and motherhood, of violence and penetration- contrive. This is a landscape of upheaval, excess, disorder, and rupture.”[19] By focusing on her mestiza identity and painting sexual metaphor as well as confrontation of the Mexican revolutionary double standards, Frida successfully achieved a clear message regarding the female earth as a sexually active woman. Additionally, not only is What the Water Gave Me vivid and morbid, it relates sex to injury, as seen in the wound on Frida’s thigh. According to Herrera, this wound is “an invention-it points to her damaged sense of self as a sexual being.”[20] Although this statement may make Frida seem like the vulnerable woman, whom she blatantly rejects, the fact that she overtly painted a wound proves her confidence and lack of shame, as seen in Remembrance of an Open Wound. She proudly claims her womanhood- nothing can repress Frida.

As What the Water Gave Me projects Frida’s connection to the female earth, My Nurse and I asserts, “a universal female sensibility connected to nature.”[21] In this painting, a baby Frida sucks on a flower-encrusted breast- the flower design may be symbolic of blood vessels. This nurse wears a mask, art historians have identified as Aztec. Frida and her nurse are centered in front of greenery and a sky-blue backdrop. Gloria Orenstein says, “My Nurse and I which depicts the artist as ‘Femme-Enfant being suckled by a native wet-nurse/Earth Mother figure whose breast is composed of flowerlet blood-vessels.”[22] If this flower design is intended to be blood vessels and this woman is an earth-mother figure, Frida’s apparent connection to nature is all the more evident. Frida sucks from nature’s breast and ingests milk, which sustains and nourishes her. Like most babies who drink from their mother’s breast, Frida drinks from her mother’s- the Earth’s- breast. Furthermore, Earth’s milk gives her strength, furthering the notion that even in the face of emotional and physical pain and in the face of female repression, Frida can overcome. Garber says, “Kahlo’s iconography is deciphered as an expression of femaleness, a condition which is characterized by a tie with nature and various earth goddesses…Through Kahlo’s work, she projects and claims a universal female sensibility connected to nature. Kahlo’s importance as an artist is claimed in her ability to vividly communicate her “true” gender sensibility.”[23]

Frida’s connection to nature along with her “‘true’ gender sensibility” is also noted in her representation of fruit. Like all of Frida’s still lifes, The Fruits of the Earth celebrates Mexican fruit as a derivation from the Mexican, female Earth. In this painting, fruits and vegetables sit on a wooden table. Because of the detailed, lush, sexually suggestive imagery, it is evident that the fruit alludes to female genitalia and the cracks and veins of the wood allude to the cavities of the human form. These symbolic genitalia make “anthropomorphic references” as they “confound the fleshiness of fruits with the fleshiness of female genitalia.”[24] Due to our knowledge of Frida’s defiance and femaleness, we can rightfully claim that her genital fruit does not allude to a passive, vulnerable female- nor does it allow for male penetration. In fact, these fruits are fruits of fertilization, rejoicing the openness of the Mexican female earth’s anatomy, as it produces much alive and succulent fruit. This adheres to the notion that the earth is an active, sexualized woman. The stereotypical Mexican-male conception of sex, as described earlier, is renounced, as Frida’s representation of these fruits is quintessentially that of a woman.

Remembrance of an Open Wound, The Broken Column, My Birth, What the Water Gave Me, My Nurse and I, and The Fruits of the Earth challenge the post-revolution stereotypical Mexican-male conception of female sex, which locates women as subordinate, fragile, and helpless. By employing her Mexicanness, mestiza heritage, nature, and self-portraiture, Frida Kahlo was able to create images of the Mexican Earth into a sexually active, female-defined, fertile female. No longer would women be subjugated by men, instead, women could create their own subjectivity, giving them the ability to define themselves. What made Frida’s work so effective was her ability to expose herself in a way no artist had done before. “Frida is the only example in the history of art of a woman who tears open her womb and her heart to recount the biological truth of what she feels inside them.” Because of the strict honesty of her work, Frida is known as “the ultimate painter and the greatest testimony to the reality of the artistic Renaissance in Mexico.”[25]

[1] Lubell, Ellen. "Women Artists: Self Image." Woman’s Art Journal 3.1 (1982):  12-13. JSTOR. 20 Apr. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org>. 

[2] Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading." Frontiers: a Journal of Women Studies 13.3 (1993):  165-189. JSTOR. 20 Apr. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org>. 

[3] Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading."

[4]  Garber, Elizabeth. "Art Critics on Frida Kahlo: a Comparison of Feminist and Non-Feminist Voices." Art Education 45.2 (1992):  42-48. JSTOR. 20 Apr. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org>. 

[5] Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading."

[6] Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading." 

[7] Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading."

[8] Udall, Sharyn R. "Frida Kahlo's Mexican Body: History, Identity, and Artistic Aspiration." Woman\_Art Journal 24.2 (2003):  10-14. JSTOR. 20 Apr. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org>. 

[9] Quotation by Hayden Herrera from: Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading."

[10] Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading."

[11] Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading."

[12] Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading."

[13] Mestizo is a term of Spanish origin used to designate people of mixed European and indigenous non-European ancestry. The term has traditionally been applied mostly to those of mixed European and indigenous Amerindian ancestry who inhabit the region spanning Latin America: from Mexico in the north to Argentina and Chile's Patagonia in the south. In other regions and countries previously under Spanish, Portuguese or French colonial rule, variants of the term may also be in usage for people of other mixtures. In the Philippines, the term Mestizo is used to indentify individuals who are mixed indigenous Austronesian and any other descent.

[14] Garber, Elizabeth. "Art Critics on Frida Kahlo: a Comparison of Feminist and Non-Feminist Voices."

[15] Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading."

[16] Professor Maria Fernandez

[17] Quotation by Octavio Paz from: Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading."

[18] Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading." 

[19] Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading."

[20] Quotation by Hayden Herrera from: Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading."

[21] Garber, Elizabeth. "Art Critics on Frida Kahlo: a Comparison of Feminist and Non-Feminist Voices."

[22] Quotation by Gloria Orenstein from: Garber, Elizabeth. "Art Critics on Frida Kahlo: a Comparison of Feminist and Non-Feminist Voices."

[23] Garber, Elizabeth. "Art Critics on Frida Kahlo: a Comparison of Feminist and Non-Feminist Voices."

[24] Bakewell, Liza. "Frida Kahlo: a Contemporary Feminist Reading."

[25] Excerpt from an essay originally published in Boletin del Seminario de Cultura Mexicana, 1 (no.2 [October 1943]) in Diego Rivera, Arte y Politica, selection, introduction, notes and biographical information by Raquel Tibol (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1979), pp.239-248.

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