Research point: Frida Kahlo

The course notes ask us to:

Do some research into the work of three important women artists of the twentieth century: Hannah Höch (1889–1978), Tamara de Lempicka (1898–1980) and Frida Kahlo (1907–54).

These artists produced some of the underpinning imagery for the feminist art movement and this is reflected in some of the art work produced today. Write brief notes in your learning log about the social and political conditions that made these artists communicate in the ways they did. How is this demonstrated in their work? How did these artists establish their own artistic identity?

Frida Kahlo

To me Kahlo is perhaps the least obviously ‘feminist’ of the three artists in terms of her work, as in it doesn’t overtly seek to move forward or even comment upon issues of gender inequality – and yet the combination of her female-centric subject matter and her radical political outlook in life generally combined to make her something of a feminist icon.

While Höch and de Lempicka used their respective societies as the basis (or at least inspiration) for their work, Kahlo’s work is intensely personal. Over a third of her output is self-portraiture. She used painting to express (exorcise?) the pain that she endured in her life. While some of this pain was physical (childhood illness, horrific car accident) and gender-neutral, much was inherently feminine in nature: her tempestuous relationship with her two-time/two-timing husband Diego Rivera, her reproductive health issues that led to several miscarriages.

So some of the subject matter was feminist (or at least feminine) in nature, but it was other factors that led to Kahlo becoming a feminist icon. Firstly, her strength in the face of the unrelenting pain that life threw at her – she was no shrinking violet, she stood up to the pain, she stared it down. Secondly, and in common with Höch and de Lempicka, she played with gender roles, blurring the boundaries between male and female, having affairs with both sexes. One of the most distinctive visual characteristics in the self-portraits is the facial hair – the mono-brow and sometimes the faint moustache. She is entirely unapologetic about these supposedly ‘unfeminine’ aspects of her appearance.

As with many self-portraitists, much of her work is simultaneously highly personal and exploring wider issues around identity. One of her most famous images is The Two Fridas (1939), a reaction to her divorce from Rivera and her torn sense of identity. It is rich with symbolism – the stormy clouds depicting the divorce, the modern vs rustic dress dilemma (looking backwards / looking forwards), the ‘broken heart’ signifying suffering, the hand-holding signifying that these are both equal parts of her character.

The Two Fridas, 1939 – Frida Kahlo

What was revolutionary about Kahlo’s work was how intensely personal it was – raw, emotional, sometimes surreal, often disturbing. Female artists hadn’t poured out their pain onto the canvas in such depth and detail before Kahlo, and in that sense she opened the door for a more autobiographical, expressive approach to art that particularly influenced women and gave them the inspiration to make their (often gender-specific) suffering the subject of their art.

Sources (accessed 31/03/2016) (accessed 31/03/2016) (accessed 31/03/2016) (accessed 31/03/2016) (accessed 31/03/2016)


2 thoughts on “Research point: Frida Kahlo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s