Frida Kahlo and the Transcultural Encounter
Transcultural Encounters Amongst Women:
Redrawing Boundaries in Hispanic and Lusophone Art, Literature and Film.
Edited by Pat Byrne, Gabrielle Carty and Niamh Thornton. Cambridge Scholar Press, 2010
The artist Frida Kahlo is a modern icon. In recent years the advent of “Fridamania” has ensured her fame. However, in this chapter I do not seek to examine the phenomenon of the cult of the celebrity in contemporary culture. Rather, I specifically wish to draw attention to the means by which the discourses of critics, theorists and academics have contributed to the reification of Frida Kahlo’s life and image at the expense of a serious critique of her art. Invariably, theorists have scrutinised the most dramatic and tragic details of her existence as a means by which to understand and interpret her work and such an approach has resulted in an inappropriate conflation between Kahlo the woman and Kahlo the artist. Even distinguished scholars have contributed to the common perception of Kahlo as fetish—an effigy of female victimhood—and situated her as representative of certain stereotypes: alienated daughter, childless woman and mistreated wife, amongst others. Such speculative lenses have, I suggest, resulted in victimising Kahlo more effectively than her own artistic representations ever did, culminating in a failure of theory to consider her work within a more challenging discursive schema.
In this chapter I aim to liberate Kahlo’s work from such speculative analyses. Contending that her artistic sensibility is infinitely more subversive and transgressive than such reductive discourses intimate, I will appraise Kahlo’s work as radical sites of resistance to hegemonic globalising rationales. Providing a context for the complexity of her work, the first section of this chapter outlines aspects of Kahlo’s life-story, locations (socio-political, historical, cultural and gendered) and artistic influences, and a brief summary of the advent of Fridamania—the cult of Kahlo. Through an exploration of the problematic relationship between critical discourse and the transcultural encounter, the second section attempts to understand why interpretations of Kahlo’s work have been hampered by a reductive hegemonic perspective. The third section re-considers Kahlo’s work within a frame that expands upon previous limiting interpretative analyses. Viewing her subversive representations of the body and Mexican identity as radically dialectical, this section claims that her work is a criticalepistemicintervention in the ontology and phenomenology of subject formation. In the concluding section I suggest that Kahlo’s work, if viewed as offering a transformative, dynamic and evolving dialogic space, can encourage new modalities of understanding and communication that can re-invigorate the aesthetical and ethical dynamics of the transcultural encounter.
Frida Kahlo: Her Life, Influences and Fridamania
Disproportionate academic attention focused on the sensational aspects of Kahlo’s life has meant that other, perhaps more important, influences on her work have been largely ignored. A dilemma arises for the theorist wishing to creatively engage with Kahlo’s work: which influencing factors of an artist’s life and work should one pay attention to, account for, privilege? Kahlo’s life-story is undeniably colourful. She actively created her own personal mythology; her paintings are a fusion of myth and personal history, a weaving of fact and fiction. Yet, it is true that all socially engaged human beings create their own histories and mythologies. Memory, recall and truth-telling work in an extraordinarily subjective and contrary fashion but are vital to subject formation. Thus the stories that we tell about ourselves are as revealing as those we omit. It is with these caveats in mind that I offer a selective overview of the life of Kahlo and of some of the influences that prevailed upon her.
Frida Kahlo was born into a middle-class family in Mexico in 1907. Her father, Guillermo Kahlo, a photographer, was of hybridised European ancestry, and her mother, Matilde Calderón y González, was of primarily indigenous blood. In 1925 Kahlo was involved in a tramcar accident in which she suffered severe injuries and, as a result, she was plagued by chronic health problems until her death at the age of 47. Whilst recovering from her injuries she was forced to lie supine on her bed, encased in a full body cast, for many months and it was under these circumstances that she first began to paint. She married the famous muralist, Diego Rivera, twice—in 1929 and 1940. At the time of Kahlo’s birth, Mexico was struggling through a period of intense political upheaval. This period of political turbulence, characterised by an insurgence of diverse ideologies—socialist, liberal, anarchist and populist, led to a critical re-evaluation of what it meant to be Mexican, living in a postcolonial world amidst a cross-fertilisation of cultures. Kahlo was one of a ‘post-revolutionary intelligentsia’ who actively engaged with an ideological articulation of Mexican identity, known as mexicanidad (Zamudio-Taylor 2007, 14). According to Victor Zamudio-Taylor, the discourse of mexicanidad was founded on ‘a social imaginary’ that synthesised ‘Mexico as a modern nation based on a recognition of its rich history and its indigenous and mestizo cultures’ (ibid.). In keeping with the prevalent ideology of mexicanidad being articulated by her contemporaries, Kahlo’s paintings invoke the iconography of Mexican folk art and pagan Mexican mythology. However, in her work there are critical departures that disrupt the hegemony of the prevalent ideology of mexicanidad being promulgated by her male contemporaries. As Victor Zamudio-Taylor (ibid.) has observed, Kahlo’s work is:
characterised for the most part by personal themes and an intimate scale, standing in stark contrast to the ideological and epic treatment of politics and history in the works of the Mexican school, particularly in the public mural programs.
Kahlo’s paintings both synthesise and subvert the ideology of mexicanidad,offering a critique of this new formulation of Mexican identity, even whilst it is being created. The ideology of mexicanidad, thoughculturally specific to Mexico, resonated with the international zeitgeist of modernism which had initiated an interest in indigenous art forms. Artists such as Édouard Manet (1832-1883), Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1873), intrigued by the romance and the otherness of ethnic art forms, actively appropriated aspects of Asian, African and New World cultures within their Modernist aesthetic. In a departure from her Mexican contemporaries, Kahlo’s work encompassed the broader Modernist trend towards an expanded notion of primitivism that included art made by marginalised or excluded groups such as ‘children, the insane, and self-taught artists’ (Zamudio-Taylor 2007, 27). Whilst sharing much of the political and cultural ideology of her contemporaries, in her work she asserted the right to problematise the paradigmatic notions of gender, nationhood and artistic responsibility being advocated by the muralists (See Ades 1998). Viewed from this perspective, her paintings are profoundly political—operational sites of resistance to hegemonic normativity. It seems that even within the iconoclastic culture of post-revolutionary Mexico, Kahlo was a die-hard radical.
Under the tutelage of her father, Kahlo was well versed in the history of occidental art. She was particularly interested in the Dutch, German and Italian Renaissance painters, and is known to have been inspired by a variety of Modernist contemporary artistic movements such as the Cubists, the Surrealists (especially René Magritte), the Italian Futurist and Dada painters and the Neue Sachlichkeit (or New Objectivity painters), such as Otto Dix. The artistic influence of the West is well documented in Kahlo’s oeuvre and this has helped to shape critical analyses of her art. Theorists have invariably propagated an US-Eurocentric bias when engaged in an exegesis of Kahlo’s paintings. Far too little attention is paid to the importance of the vernacular—pre-Hispanic indigenous art, Mexican folk art, 19th century Mexican painting and sculpture, Spanish colonial religious painting, the Estridentista artistic movement—in her work. Apart from the political and aesthetic factors which shaped Kahlo and her art, her work was further influenced by the close contact she had with the accoutrements of her father’s photographic studio. Allowing herself to be photographed many times throughout her life, Kahlo’s paintings evidence a fascination with photography. She repeatedly represented herself in the stance of a photographer’s subject and the structure of her works, Nadia Ugalde Gómez (2004, 23) suggests are:
…inspired by this type of image. She would take poses, postures and referential objects, such as curtains and backdrops, clocks and furniture, bases and columns, as well as toys, dolls and hobbyhorses, from the artificial atmosphere of the photographic studio, where people went in order to perpetuate their own image.
Unfortunately, the influence of her father’s work on Kahlo’s paintings is often overlooked. Instead, her multipicitous self-portraits are usually interpreted as evidence of her inherent narcissism and self-obsession rather than, as I would suggest, a profound and enduring enquiry into the complex and paradoxical nature of the human condition. Whilst Kahlo was born into, and lived through, a period of intense political and ideological transition, unlike many of her contemporaries her works do not promote any singular ideology. Instead, they mediate between a cross-pollination of cultures, identities and ideologies and offer a personalised self-reflexive synthesis that interrogates post-revolutionary Mexican identity. I suggest that this reflexive stance with regard to the construction and formation of identity forms a unifying theme in her work and may help to account for the breadth of her popular appeal in recent years.
The late 1960s heralded a re-emergence of interest in the life and work of Frida Kahlo when Mexican-American women artists and theorists (most notably the art critic Amalia Mesa-Bains), feminists from across the Americas, and Latinas from the United States began a critical re-evaluation of her oeuvre. Following two exhibitions of her paintings, organised in the USA in 1978 and in England in 1982, an awareness of her work has become more widespread within the public imaginary.(1) By the 1990s the phenomenon of Fridamania—the cult of Kahlo—had begun to make an appearance proclaiming Kahlo’s heroic status to Mexican Americans, marginalised groups and/or counter-cultural groups such as gays, postcolonial immigrants and feminists. In recent years exhibitions, books and films about Kahlo are ubiquitous. Hayden Herrera, has noted that ‘one of her self-portraits appeared on a 2001 United States postage stamp. In Texas she achieved sainthood – Santa Frida, the patron saint of unwed mothers and undocumented workers’ (Herrera 2007, 56). However, Herrera, who wrote a seminal biography on Kahlo, has herself contributed to the artist’s mythic and fetishistic status by claiming that her image is ‘like a primitive totem (it) has healing powers (…) Kahlo’s self-portraits are invocations’ (ibid). The result is that Kahlo is now a collectable commodity. Gerardo Mosquera, in The Marco Polo Syndrome: Some Problems Around Art and Eurocentism,has observed this remarkable phenomenon. He claims that although most Latin American artists do not normally fetch high prices at the major art auctions, artists who ‘satisfy the expectations of a more or less stereotyped Latin-Americanicity’ and artists who agree to ‘display their identity, to be fantastic, to look like no one else or to look like Frida’ (Mosquera 2005, 221-2) are the ones most sought after. The salacious interest in Kahlo’s remarkable personal experiences—her suffering body, her childlessness, her bi-sexuality—and her exotic appearance has ensured that the demand for Kahlo’s paintings is high. However, it is apparent that such interest has resulted in the creation of a fetishistic prototype for both Latin American identity and for female artists in general.
The Transcultural Encounter and the Problematics of Discourse
Why has the art of Frida Kahlo consistently been interpreted through such a reductive theoretical, critical and academic lens? Traditionally, academic discourse has been largely predicated on a presumption of critical neutrality. However, I suggest that such a presumption of neutrality produces potentially globalising effects that fundamentally problematise the veracity of the academic transcultural encounter. Globalisation is a term ubiquitously applied within economic discursive schema but rarely applied to discourses emanating from the academic elite. In contemporary fiscal discourse heterochthonous economic forces are readily perceived as those which potentially oppress and marginalise authocthonous minority markets. I suggest that academic discourse which is perceived as authoritatively ‘neutral’ can create a similar totalising effect on authocthonous minority voices. The position that I have outlined is by no means an anarchic indictment directed at academia. Eminent critics, in wide ranging disciplines (postcolonial studies, poststructuralist theory, feminist theories, indeed most postmodern studies in general), have illuminated and deconstructed the subtle means by which discourses (academic or otherwise) produce potentially totalising effects on others; this is particularly true of oppressed and marginalised groups. Poststructuralist writers, such as Giles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, have admirably critiqued the pivotal role that discourse plays in the formation of subject identity, highlighting the complex dynamic that exists between discourse, power and agency. Disclaiming the positivist rationale of the sovereign subject, such theorists favour a ‘becoming’, mobile or in-process subject: one whose identity is constituted by the shifting discourses of power which speak ‘through’ it. Thus poststructuralists posit that the subject is de-centred and that identity is constructed extrinsically. Their insights highlight the limits of discourse andtherebyraise the critical question: who can meaningfully speak on behalf of whom?
Despite this innovative theoretical approach, the ghost of Enlightenment thinking continues to haunt even the most enlightened thinkers. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1993, 66-101) has observed that even poststructuralist theorists, such as Delueze and Foucault, risk falling into an essentialist trap by speaking for or centring oppressed groups. She suggests that there is always a risk of ‘a clandestine restoration of subjective essentialism’ (Spivak 1993:74). In positioning themselves as an authoritative mediating ‘voice’ for the marginalised, the oppressed and those who cannot speak, intellectuals can fail to take account of the diversity of specific locational factors (historical, cultural, socio-political and gendered) which prevail upon situated subjects (both themselves and others). Postcolonial theorists have alerted us to the fact that all discourse is inherently culturally biased. Viewed from this perspective, the authority of ‘neutral’ academic discourse encounters its limitations when it aims to speak on behalf of others as the theorist can effectively, albeit unintentionally, veil the complex power dynamics, both macrocosmic and microcosmic, embedded in discourse. This is the achilles heel that lies latent within the transcultural academic encounter: discourse can assume the existence of a global or transcultural subject when it is apparent that no such subject exists. For these reasons I suggest that the transcultural subject exists only as a discursive construct, not a phenomenological reality. The authenticity of the transcultural encounter is particularly precarious when attempting to evaluate an artist such as Frida Kahlo who occupies and articulates multiple marginal locations simultaneously. Analysis of her work has suffered from the construction and application of meanings and significations to her work which may not exist at all. Therefore, rigorous critical self-reflexivity (regarding congenital cultural specificities and privileges) is necessary to alert the theorist to the danger of constructing new myths whilst actively engaged in the deconstruction of old ones.
Critiquing Prevailing Discourses: An analysis of Kahlo’s Radical Artistic Dialectic
When discussing the specifics by which Kahlo’s work evidences a radical approach to the painting of subjectivity, it is important to remember that she was born in 1907 and died in 1954. These dates place her firmly within a Modernist timeframe and there are, undoubtedly, strong Modernist elements within her work (See Zamudio-Taylor 2007). With the advent of postmodernism in the latter half of the twentieth century, contemporary artists began to institute a critique of traditional and modernist representations of subjectivity, embodiment and identity. Specifically, many female artists re-visited the tradition of the prototypical “female nude” and began to use the body (often their own) as a site of reclamation, a location on and through which to re-define the signs and significations embedded in Modernist discursive constructs of identity and gendered corporeality. The work of these artists can be seen as re-generative in intent.
Although Kahlo is primarily viewed as a Modernist painter, I suggest that through her complex representation of multiple identities—her radical representations of the body and of Mexican identity—anticipates the critique of subjectivity offered by postmodern artistic trends. Given the tradition of the female nude in occidental art, Kahlo’s deployment of the body is, I contend, anarchic. Critiquing artistic depictions of the naked female body, Lynda Nead (1992) has claimed that the traditional female nude marks the border between art and obscenity (See Nead 1992). According to Nead, no longer illicit—a visceral signifier for sex or sexual desire—the naked, real-life and unstructured female body is symbolically re-codified, regulated and contained within the pictorial frame. Being newly defined, delimited and re-structured as a “nude” it becomes an object of beauty, an object suitable for art. Whitney Chadwick (1991, 2007) has directed our attention towards the power dynamics at play when the female body is painted. She claims that as the privilege of painting the naked female body traditionally belonged exclusively to male artists, this allowed those artists to claim an exclusive equation between masculine artistic creative energy and masculine sexual energy as their depictions frame the female body as a locus for male viewing pleasure. This subject is further explored by Rosemary Betterton, who writes (1987, 252):
Male artists and critics have consistently justified their enjoyment of the nude by appealing to abstract conceptions of ideal form, beauty and aesthetic value. Such a view renders invisible the relationships of power and subordination involved when a male artist depicts the female body. It ignores or denies the difference between looking at the body of a woman and looking at a pile of fruit.
Betterton makes a highly politicised point. Claiming that the female body is not merely an inanimate ‘object’, and cannot be regarded as such, she highlights the discourse that neutralises the particularity of subjective experience and obfuscates the reality of power dynamics played out both in the production and in the consumption of an artwork. The nude, as defined by Nead, is a site of desire and therefore little attention was paid to an investigation into the specificity of female embodied knowledge and experience. The ideology of womanhood, as it has been broadly constructed within the lived worlds of patriarchy, has censored and delineated the acceptable parameters of articulation emanating from the feminine sphere.
Given the various parameters that I have outlined, concerning the articulation of female experience, Kahlo’s work authors a startling account of female subjectivity. Her bodies are never objects that invite the viewer into a scopophilic, spectatorial space of sexual possession, they specifically explore the problematic particularity of female subjectivity, embodiment, knowledge and experience. Often naked, her bodies are never nude.(2) In contrast to the safe, contained, passive and idealised nude that Nead speaks of, Kahlo’s bodies are subversive, uncontained, dynamic and visceral: unregulated-broken, mutilated, bleeding and leaking—they overspill the traditional conceptual frame. She strips away the comfort of the feminine sphere, anarchically painting what had never been visible before:—the abject, the secret, the previously unspeakable: the bloodied act of childbirth, an aborted foetus in a jar, a woman in the act of suicide, an adult-faced baby Frida being breastfed.(3) Her self-portraits and paintings do not present woman as an object defined in relation to someone else, a Lacanian objet a—daughter, sister, mother, wife—for although she painted herself in all of these identities, they did not define her.(4) Intervening in the canon of prototypical allegorical and mythological women, benign goddess, suffering saint, bountiful Mother Nature, inspirational muse, grieving mother of Christ– Kahlo articulates the hidden, immanent reality of female experience, the pain and the suffering. Her works interrogate the hegemonic socialised norms of “femininity” which regulate the “sign” of woman.(5) Primarily evidenced in the self-portraits in which Kahlo, as subject, occupies and performs multiple identities, these signs are re-worked, re-conceptualised and re-appropriated in a critical announcement of the realities of female embodiment. Theoretical analyses which situate Kahlo as an artist prone to confessional blood-letting, fail to take account of the radical reflexivity, the profound investigation into performativity that is taking place in her work.(6) It is as though Kahlo consciously engaged in prototypical representations of femininity and intentionally subverted them. Re-positioning Kahlo’s work in this way allows her oeuvre to be radically re-assessed as highly political statements that evidence a critical resistance to the normative hegemonic performance of gendered identity.
In the light of the prototypical representation of the female nude and the dominant ideology of womanhood how can Kahlo’s radical representation of female identity be accounted for? There are representational modalities and iconographies of the pictorial body which exist outside of the Western frame, some of which may have influenced Kahlo’s conceptualisation and representation of embodiment and identity. Detailed readings of Kahlo’s paintings reveal the multifarious references she made to her indigenous inheritance—a point often overlooked or simply not visible to the eye that views her work from a globalalised perspective, a perspective largely authored from an occidental, US or eurocentric viewpoint. Therefore, frequently the vital influence of Kahlo’s Mexican inheritance on her artistic sensibility is simply not afforded the attention it deserves. Pre-Hispanic pagan Mexican artifacts—of which Kahlo and Rivera were prodigious collectors–challenge much of the representative iconography within occidental artistic representations. Many of these artifacts (found, for example, at ritualistic and sacrificial sites) symbolically elaborate the subject as profoundly embodied, engaged in a cyclical, transformative relationship with creation and death.(7) Viewing Kahlo’s work through this expanded lens, highlights the infinitely nuanced and synthesised nature of her artistic representations. Similarly, many of Kahlo’s paintings demonstrate the influence of Mexican ex-votos or retablos. Small devotional paintings, usually on tin, executed by ordinary men and women to plead for God’s mercy or to thank him for an answered prayer, these votive works, like many of Kahlo’s paintings, often represent the body in distress.(8) Kahlo regularly depicts the body as a site of pain and sacrifice, and this is also true of Catholic Hispanic art in which the crucified Christ’s wounded body bleeds, the mourning Madonna weeps tears of blood, both bodies suffer.(9) In an emblematic re-working of the various representational modalities that I have outlined, Kahlo uses the body as a means by and through which to explore and expand upon conceptualisations of female subjectivity, embodiment, experience and knowledge. Presenting the body, her body, as a site of pain, sacrifice and love, she demands that we address the feminine sphere from the particularity of subjective experience.
In a further radical and reflexive approach to explorations of subjectivity, Kahlo’s work institutes a dialogue with hegemonic conceptualisations of Mexican identity, nationhood and gender. In the Labyrinth of Solitude (an extended meditation on the postcolonial Mexican psyche), Octavio Paz (1985) refers to a synthesis of allegorical women that have shaped Mexican notions of self and collective identity—La Malinche (the indigenous half-collaborator, half-victim, Indian interpreter and mistress of the Spanish conquistador, Hérnan Cortés) and La Chingada (the raped and beaten mother immortalised in popular slang) are two such figures. Paz claims that, as they stress the ambivalent relationship—of dependency and complicity—that exists between the colonised and the coloniser, these women highlight the collective mother/victim/nation—image that postcolonial Mexico had inherited. Orianna Baddeley (1998) has proposed that Kahlo’s works critique the collective inheritance of La Malinche and La Chingada and thus subvert the identification of woman with victimised nation. I suggest that Kahlo’s paintings reference, synthesise and crucially re-signify pre-colonial and postcolonial Mexican myth, allegory, ideology and history (social, cultural, economic and political). Kahlo regularly dressed and painted herself in pre-colonial Tehuana costume. The Tehuana were a matriarchal culture that resisted the strictures of gender social, cultural and economic normativity imposed by Spanish colonial rule. Invoking the Tehuana as a symbol allowed Kahlo to re-empower and re-codify the signs of La Malinche and La Chingada, which bothsignify woman as victim.(10) She simultaneously referenced both pagan and Catholic iconographies in many of her works, thus situating her spiritual inheritance within a Christian and pagan matrix.(11) In a reflexive re-negotation with conceptualisations of gender and nationhood, she painted herself in the liminal space of “Gringolandia” (the borderland between Mexico and the USA forming part of the territories that Mexico had lost to the USA in the USA-Mexico war of 1846-1848).(12) It is clear that Kahlo’s art forms a fluidic web. By incorporating a matrixial lexicon of symboligies in which dualisms collapse, Kahlo invokes and radicalises cognitions of both Mexican and occidental iconographies of identity, gender and nationhood. In so doing, she de-stabilises the binary of both authochthonous and heterochthonous perceptions and dialectically re-frames the symbolic syntax of signs and meanings. Representing multiple and contradictory identities that are unfixed, in-process and transformative provides Kahlo with a shape-shifting, shamanic modus through which to explore liminal states: shades, traces and shadows.
Clearly, Kahlo mined her life experiences and used them as an intrinsic inspirational source for her art but re-situating her work in this way problematises discourses that view her paintings as fetishistic, confessional and self-obsessive blood-lettings. I suggest that her oeuvre can be re-conceptualised as a public confession of private experience, a radical exomologesis that is a deeply reflexive interrogation into the instability of identity. The iconography that infuses Kahlo’s art is a composite of intrinsic experience and extrinsic symbology (pre-Hispanic, indigenous, pagan, Catholic, classical) that enables her work to transits from thepersonal to the collective experience, from the particular to the universal. Situated within this frame, Kahlo’s artworks problematise and radicalise the perceived binaries of intrinsic:extrinsic, personal:collective and particular:universal. Her paintings challenge canonic pictorial representations of the human condition which presuppose that the viewer and the represented experience are comprehensible within a universal paradigm. Such representations typically address individual experience through metaphor, myth or allegory, thus neutralising the particularity of subjective experience and assuming a collective experience of subjectivity. In other words, Kahlo challenges the canon which globalises experience with its presumption of a transcultural subject and a transcultural point of address.
Discursive constructs of normativity mark the signs of ‘Woman’ or ‘being Mexican’ with hegemonic inscriptions which carry signifiers for the acceptable paradigmatic performance of identities: cultural, socio-political and gendered. Negotiating with established iconographies—re-codifying them and deploying herself as critical subject—enabled Kahlo to articulate the particularity of her own embodied, lived experiences whilst simultaneously addressing, yet not assuming to speak on behalf of, the shared experiences of humankind. Thus her paintings are radically dialectical. As I have illustrated, in recent years postmodern and poststructuralist theorists have discussed the inherently contingent nature of identity formation. Seminally, Judith Butler (1999) has claimed that identity is extrinsically constructed through repetitive ‘performative’ acts which evidence that identity is not an innate or stable reality. She claims that it is impossible for the subject to arrive at a final destination point as the ‘performing’ body is no more than a complex of socially constituted states. Thus, the subject is in a persistent state of departure, a constant state of becoming. Perceived as multiple and complex performances, Kahlo’s work can be re-conceived as critically self-reflexive with regard to the contingency of subjectivity. Her paintings resist being viewed as a vindication or victimisation of identities—of womanhood, of being Mexican, of being a spurned wife, of being childless or of being bi-sexual—as they attest to the inherent problematics, and ultimate inability, to be, to evidence, to prove, what any of these identity tags might mean.
The Ethics and Aesthetics of Subjectivity: Re-visiting the Transcultural Encounter
Occuping a third space in which the binary constructs of the Enlightenment – adult:child, man:woman, nature:nurture, human:animal, day:night, love:hate, pain:pleasure, conscious:unconscious, self:other—are collapsed, her subject inhabits a converse universe in which the adult and the child, pleasure and pain, the conscious and unconscious mind, are one and the same.(13) This third space welcomes the contradictions of knowing and not knowing; it is a space where they are invited to co-exist. Discourses which concentrate on the “speculative”, the “fantastical” and the “special” in Kahlo’s art precipitate a potentially violent academic encounter as an inability to incorporate the paradox of her artistic sensibility results in a commodification or fetishisation of it. Such discourses “other” Kahlo, by re-packaging her radical dialectic to situate her as exotic or merely different in an attempt to make her more understandable—but to whom? As I have illustrated, academic tendency ‘to speak on behalf of others’ has been widely evaluated by postmodern and poststructuralist theorists. Challenging the epistemic limits of Modernist metanarratives regarding the ontology and phenomenology of subjectivity and identity, such theorists suggest that Modernist hermeneutics fail to take account of the specificity of locations—historic, cultural, geographic, socio-political, gendered – which prevail upon the situated subject, most especially the subaltern, marginalised or oppressed subject. Spivak (1996) claims that the subaltern does have a voice; that the subaltern can speak of his or her experience but others do not know how to listen as others do not know how to enter into a discursive transaction between speaker and listener. Therefore, the silence of the subaltern is the result of a failure of interpretation, not of articulation. I suggest that considerations of Kahlo’s art have suffered from the syndrome outlined by Spivak. Her paintings ‘talk’ but observers may have a problem hearing or reading her complex text.
The West is now entering a post-global economic phase. Hung by its own progressive petard, the fiscal metanarrative of modernity is foundering. New challenges are arising, regarding how to appropriately respondeconomically, politically and ethically—to the current international situation. In a world still catching its breath after the vertiginous expiration of the global economic balloon, Stuart Sim (2009) has suggested that postmodern theory and artistic practice may have something to offer in the face of these new challenges. He writes:
We can learn to a certain extent from postmodernism, particularly as it is applied in the arts, how to challenge Western modernity, but it will require a considerable leap of imagination to move past that state to a truly post-Western culture. Nevertheless, the opportunities for doing so are beginning to emerge, and they deserve exploration – by the artistic community as much as anyone.
Can the theoretical and artistic insights of postmodernism pave the way for a revitalised transcultural global encounter in a wider sense? Art, and the discourse applied to it, may not singlehandedly have the power to paradigmatically change the world, but it does have the power to influence it. If the transcultural encounter is to be perceived anew, as an opportunity for dialogic exchange, can the West enter into a discursive transaction between listener and speaker, between the privileged and the oppressed, that appreciates the cultural specificity of experience, that acknowledges difference and that is open to transformation and renewal?
The third space occupied by Kahlo’s subject is a site of correlative transaction between the self and the other. This place of exchange is, I suggest is an ethical locus, a space in which ‘our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human’ (Butler 2005, 136). In this location the boundary of ethical and aesthetic categories can be explored, transgressed and articulated anew, we can ‘vacate the self-sufficient “I” as a kind of possession’ (ibid.). This location—an evolutionary transubjective site in which mutual and reciprocal transaction can take place—invites a potentially positive and transformative transcultural encounter, where the binary of self and other can be suspended, disturbed and, ultimately, collapsed.
I am not proposing that the artworks of Frida Kahlo, or any artist, necessitate a transformative experience in the viewer. In re-conceptualising the transcultural encounter, I merely wish to suggest that approaching the articulations of others–artistic or otherwise–as an opportunity for positive ethical transaction might just help to create the possibility for an improvement in interpersonal exchange on a wider scale. Seeing with open eyes, listening with open ears may, as Stuart Sim has observed, improve transcultural communication. In an embattled world struggling to cope with the ravages of imperial globalisation innovative approaches to communication will be vitally important. If viewed as an interrogation into the ethics of subjectivity and as sites of resistance to the hegemonic demand to prove, evidence or authenticate identity, Kahlo’s paintings can offer a significant contribution to postmodern, feminist and postcolonial discourse within an expanded framework. Her works can be re-situated as a radical intervention in the practice and process of negotiating the critical subject and in the deconstruction and re-construction of our own histories.
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1.Frida Kahlo, 1910-1954,The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1978 and Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti, Whitechapel Art Gallery London, 1982.
2. See Henry Ford Hospital o la cama volando [Henry Ford Hospital or The Flying Bed], 1932, oil on metal, 31 x 40.2cm: Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiña, Mexico City; Mi nacimiento [My Birth], 1932, oil on copper, 30.5 x 35cm: Private collection; Unos cuantos piquetitos [A Few Small Snips], 1935, oil on metal with painted frame, 68 x 78cm: Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiña, Mexico City; Mi nana y yo o Yo mamando [My Nurse and I or I suckle], 1937, oil on metal, 30.5 x 35cm: Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiña, Mexico City; Dos desnudos en un bosque o La tierra misma o Mi nana y yo [Two Nudes in a Forest or The Earth Itself or My Nurse and I], 1939, oil on metal, 25.1 x 30.2cm: Collection Jon A. and Mary Shirley, Medina, Washington; La columna rota [The Broken Column], 1944, oil on masonite, 39.8 x 30.5cm: Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiña, Mexico City; Arbol de la esperanza, manténte firme [Tree of Hope, Keep Firm], 1946, oil on masonite, 55.9 x 40.6cm: Private collection.
3. See Mi nacimiento o Nacimiento [My Birth or Birth], 1932, oil on copper, 30.5 x 35 cm: Private collection; El aborto [The Abortion], 1932, lithograph, 22.5 x 14.5 cm: Private collection; El suicidio de Dorothy Hale [The Suicide of Dorothy Hale], 1939, oil on masonite with painted frame, 59.7 x 49.5 cm: Collection of Phoenix Art Museum; Minana y yo o Uo Mamando [My Nurse and I or I suckle], 1937, oil on metal, 30.5 x 35 cm: Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiña, Mexico City.
4. See the works of Jacques Lacan for his extensive discussion of the “objet a”.
5. See Autoretrato con pelo cortado [Self Portrait with Cropped Hair], 1940, oil on canvas, 40 x 27.9 cm: The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Autoretrato:“muy feo” [Self-Portrait:”very ugly”] 1933, fresco, 27.3 x 22.2 cm: Private collection. Most of Kahlo’s self-portraits show her with a visible growth of dark hair on her upper lip and between her eyebrows.
6. For analyses of Kahlo’s narcissism see Grimberg (1998, 2008).
7. See, for example, the painting entitled Mi nana y yo o Yo mamando [My Nurse and I or I suckle], 1937, oil on metal, 30.5 x 35cm: Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiña, Mexico City. The nurse in the painting wears an indigenous mask and the branches in her right breast may be referencing the Ceiba Yaxche tree; the Mayan celestrial tree of life, this tree provided milk for infants who died before their mothers had weaned them.
8. For example, the painting entitled Unos cuantos piquetitos! [A Few Small Snips!], 1935, oil on metal with painted frame, 68 x 78cm. Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiña, Mexico City, illustrates the influence of the ex-voto or retablo on Kahlo’s work.
9. See, for example, La columna rota [The Broken Column], 1944, oil on masonite, 39.8 x 30.5cm: Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiña, Mexico City; El Venado herido o El venadito o Soy un pobre venadito[The Wounded Deer or The Little Deer or I am a Poor Little Deer], 1946, oil on masonite, 22.4 x 30cm: Private collectionand Arbol de la esperanza, manténte firme [Tree of Hope, Keep Firm], 1946, oil on masonite, 55.9 x 40.6cm: Private collection. SeeRivera (2004) for a detailed discussion of the influence of Catholic Baroque art in the work of Frida Kahlo.
10. See Las dos Fridas [The Two Fridas], 1939, oil on canvas, 173.5 x 173cm. Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City. Diego en mi pensamiento o Pensamiendo de Diego oAutoretrato como Tehuana [Diego on My Mind orThinking of Diego or Self-Portrait as Tehuana], 1943, oil on masonite, 76 x 61cm. The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Modern and Contemporary Mexican Art, The Vergel Foundation; Autoretrato con medallón [Self-Portrait with Medallion], 1948, oil on masonite, 50 x 40cm. Private collection.
11. See Mi nacimiento o Nacimiento [My Birth or Birth1], 1932, oil on copper, 30.5 x 35cm: Private collection and Moisés o Núcleo Solar [Moses or Nucleus of Creation], 1945, oil on masonite, 50.8 x 94cm: Private collection, Texas.
12. See Autoretrato en la frontera entre México y los Estados Unidos [Self-Portrait on the Border Line between Mexico and the United States], 1932, oil on metal, 31.8 x 34.9cm: Collection Maria Rodriguez de Reyero.
13. The idea of a ‘third space’ in Kahlo’s work is from Zamudio-Taylor (2007, 17).
Mi nana y yo
La madre de Frida fue incapaz de amamantarla porque su hermana Cristina nació justo once meses después de ella. Ella tuvo que ser amamantada por una nodriza, una india, a la cual la familia contrató para esta función solamente, aunque más tarde fue despedida por beber en horas de trabajo. La relación entre ellas parece distante y fría, reducida al proceso práctico de alimentación. Debido a que el recuerdo pertenece a la adulta Frida, el bebé tiene una cabeza de adulto, y porque Frida no podía recordar las facciones de la nodriza, la pintó con la cara cubierta con una máscara funeraria precolombina. Frida escribió acerca de este cuadro diciendo: "Estoy en brazos de mi nodriza, con la cara de una mujer adulta y el cuerpo de una niñita, mientras leche cae de sus pezones como si fuera de los cielos"
La nodriza no abraza o acuna a Frida... la muestra como una ofrenda para el sacrificio. El espacio para un texto en la parte de abajo del cuadro sugiere que Frida pretendía pintar un"ex-voto" pero nunca llego a escribir el texto. En esta pintura, Frida transformó la expresión maternal de la Madonna y niño en un reflejo de perdida y separación de su propia madre, con la cual nunca estuvo muy unida.
Frida consideraba ésta una de sus obras más poderosas y es otra pintura en su serie que documenta los eventos más importantes de su vida. Un ídolo pre-Columbino podría haber servido de modelo para esta pintura.
En la versión original de esta pintura Frida tenía el pelo corto. Más tarde lo alargó.