Face to Face (fourth excerpt)

Frida Kahlo, Fruits of The Earth (1938)

[This is the fourth excerpt from my review of the book Frida Kahlo Face to Face by Judy Chicago and Frances Borzello, for which I interviewed Chicago on 17 June 2011.]

            Speaking of empathy, popularity and politics, I often found myself seeking out gossip within the pages of the book Frida Kahlo Face to Face. Certain passages provided more joy than others; one of the best examples is on p. 188 where Chicago infers that Kahlo experienced ‘near-unending sexual orgasms’ because of her depiction of Fruits of the Earth (1938). Having read Chicago’s autobiography Through the Flower and its description of her sexual awakening and concomitant multiple orgasms, I am familiar with the themes that occupy her mind and the language she uses to describe them. Reading her refer yet again to sexologists Masters and Johnson in the Frida Kahlo book, I thought to myself ‘typical Judy’ and was about to conclude that her interpretation of the still life was pure projection. A few pages later, however, another of Kahlo’s still lives is reproduced entitled The Bride Frightened at Seeing Life Opened (1943), seeing that painting I was forced to recognise that Chicago’s perception of sexual metaphors in Kahlo's gourds might be more apt than it had at first appeared.

            It’s undeniable that private matters spur curiosity, but can I find a political motivation behind such prying? When Chicago repeatedly distances herself from Kahlo, shocked by the way she put up with husband Rivera’s philandering and takes this as evidence of ‘a disparity in [their] personalities’, I wondered if what she claimed to be a matter of psychology was really a result of the different places in time they occupy.[1] How do you separate the two? It may be fair to assume that had Kahlo been alive today, she would have reacted differently to Diego’s infidelities.[2] There is also the view that Kahlo gave as good as she got because she did, after all, have a few extra-marital affairs of her own. In Borzello’s words, yet another of the painter’s paradoxes was: ‘[s]exual adventuress yet undying love for Diego’.

            Relatedly, Marlo Thomas’ Huffington Post article “Men Behaving Badly… It’s a Good Thing” focuses on the recent trend of American women in the public eye refusing to ‘stand by their man’ after they’ve been cheated on. Thomas commends these women along with the hotel maid who reported that she was raped by French politician Strauss Kahn. Masses of women protesters outside Stauss Kahn’s arraignment hearing illustrate Thomas’s statement: “We are seeing the end of a tradition and the beginning of a revolution.”[3] I would argue that the revolution already happened; it is because feminists challenged the boundary between the personal and the professional that legislation protecting women against sexual harassment was introduced.[4] When Chicago discusses Kahlo’s self-depiction as victim, she quotes art historian Paula Harper, stating: ‘women artists were more inclined to present themselves as victims rather than to portray men as perpetrators’.[5] Not only women artists, but women in general failed to get angry or point the finger – that is, until now – as Thomas’ article highlights. Chicago goes on: ‘the absence of anger in [Kahlo’s] work might have contributed to her immense popularity in that the expression of rage in women, in both art and life, is still unacceptable.’ Rage turned inward (self-blame), was the accepted (and popular) response and one that women are now rallying against. SlutWalks are one example of such protests, as expounded on by Judy Chicago during the interview and afterward at her talk in The National Gallery.[6]

            ‘Sisterhood is powerful’ because recognising that you are not alone in your experience makes you feel better as an individual, bolstering you to forge ahead. More awareness of shared experience means more change, not just personally, but politically.[7] That said, I am conscious that while feminism claims to address all women across borders of space and time (whether they call themselves feminists or not), it is at best anachronistic to say that all women share something fundamental. Like a good ‘post-feminist’ I get a little uncomfortable when Chicago uses the word ‘universal’, yet I read the Face to Face monograph wanting to find commonalities between Kahlo’s, Chicago’s and my own experiences. Towards the end of the book, when Chicago admits to struggling with ‘internalising the needs and persona of a male partner till they overshadow one’s own’, I felt satisfied; now I shared yet another intimate thing with these two women.[8]

[1] Chicago, J. and Borzello, F., Frida Kahlo Face to Face, New York: Prestel, 2010, p.18.

[2] Frida Kahlo Face to Face, p.47.  

[3] Thomas, M., “Men Behaving Badly…It’s a Good Thing”, The Huffington Post, 13 June 2011.

Photo credit: Reuters/Mike Segar

[4] See Jane Gallop’s essay “The Personal and The Professional: Walking The Line” in Anecdotal Theory, Durham: Duke University Press, 2002, pp.55-56.

[5] Frida Kahlo Face to Face, p. 218.

[6] SlutWalk protest marches began in April 2011 in Toronto and became a movement of rallies across the world protesting against the explanation or excuse of rape by referring to any aspect of a woman’s appearance. Chicago commented wittily that ‘Tracy Emin is the SlutWalk of the art world’.

[7] Sisterhood is Powerful is also the title of 1970 anthology edited by Robin Morgan, representative of second-wave feminist ideology.See also Verta Taylor’s Rock-a-by Baby for a specific analysis of how support groups have been synonymous with social movements in creating actual political change. Taylor, V., 1996, Rock-a-by Baby: Feminism, Self-Help and Postpartum Depression, New York: Routledge.

[8] Frida Kahlo Face to Face, p.141.