Face to Face (second excerpt)

Frida Kahlo, The Dream (1940)

[This is the second 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.]

Frida Kahlo Face to Face is at ‘once deeply personal and brilliantly perceptive’ perhaps because the authors both embrace and question the use of personal reflection as a tool for making and evaluating art.[1] Throughout the first chapter for example, Chicago compares her life and work to that of Kahlo on quite an intimate level, citing their relationship to the men in their lives, their love of animals and use of colour to represent emotions as points of connection and departure. However, at the same time Chicago criticises previous writing on Kahlo in which ‘biographical information… become[s] a substitute for rigorous analysis’.[2] She also derides contemporary artists and culture more generally for its faddish and sensationalist reliance on the confessional ‘from the touching to the banal’.[3] I therefore find myself tempted to relay my own relationship to Kahlo (and Chicago) in this text as well as to question my impulse to do so.[4]

            When I think of Frida Kahlo, I think of my early adolescence when I was obsessed with her, much like how in my graduate school years I became fixated on Chicago. Back in those post-pubescent years, I thought art was best when it expressed raw emotion and told personal (and tragic) stories, so Kahlo’s work and biography struck a chord with me. I devoured every book I could find about her and my mother took me to a play centring on her life and work. I remember being disappointed by the play, that it didn’t shed any new light on Kahlo for me. Little did I know back then that her presence as an art historical icon was indebted to the feminist movement of the 1970s. When Chicago did her slideshow (which gave rise to the Face to Face book) virtually no one had heard of Kahlo. Given how ubiquitous her imagery is now, it’s hard for me to imagine a world where she was not widely acclaimed and those who did know of her, probably most often thought of her as merely ‘Diego Rivera’s wife who dabbled in painting’. Moreover, it was a startling realisation that yet another aspect of my love of art, that is my hormone-fuelled admiration of Frida, was also indebted to 70s feminism.[5]

            This fact is only one of the many insights into Kahlo and her legacy this new book has given me. The entire introduction by Chicago (and much of the rest of the publication) is dedicated to re-contextualising Kahlo’s oeuvre in terms of both the feminist movement that brought it to light and an alternative set of formal and theoretical considerations outside what Chicago refers to as ‘the mainstream […] male-dominated modernist art narrative’.[6] For example, I had been educated to believe Andre Breton’s claim that Kahlo was a ‘natural Surrealist’, but Chicago and Borzello have made me question this assessment. Surrealism relies on Freud’s conception of the unconscious and the artists working in this mode sought to unearth this hidden level of the psyche through free association, automatic writing and the depiction of dreams. By contrast, Kahlo claimed to be a realist.[7] No matter how dreamlike the subject matter or paradoxical the content of Kahlo’s paintings, they reflected her lucid thoughts, feelings, experience and context; as Borzello wittily points out in a commentary on the painting The Dream (1940), Frida actually did sleep with a skeleton above her bed.[8]

[To be continued...]

[1] Quote is taken from Prestel’s press release for the publication.

[2] Chicago, J. and Borzello, F., Frida Kahlo Face to Face, New York: Prestel, 2010 p. 27.

[3] Frida Kahlo Face to Face, p. 28.

[4] The use of autobiography and personal anecdote is something which is also tactically prevalent in feminist  theory. See Nancy K. Miller’s Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts, New York: Routledge, 1991 and Jane Gallop’s Anecdotal Theory, Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 

[5] Throughout the book Chicago and Borzello elucidate Kahlo’s limited recognition in her lifetime and the legacy that was enabled by the feminist art movement in the 1970s. By citing numerous facts on disproportionate the male to female ratio in commercial gallery representation, art publishing and museum retrospectives, Chicago emphasizes that the erasure of the context which brought Kahlo’s work to the public eye mirrors the continuing omission of women artists in general from the institutional and academic canonisation of art history. Frida Kahlo Face to Face, pp. 12-13.

[6] Frida Kahlo Face to Face, p. 12.

[7] While Chicago notes the tendency to slot women artists into a male-dominated art historical narrative (a succession of easily defined movements) by isolating single artworks as examples and therefore failing to consider the breadth of women artist’s output, Borzello argues that despite Kahlo’s stated denial of the influence of the Surrealists movement, she did in fact mingle with Breton and co. and couldn’t have remained untouched by avant-garde ideas. As for the influence of Freud, Kahlo hadn’t read any of his theories until the very end of her life and only one painting demonstrates the direct influence of his book Moses and Monotheism (1939). Frida Kahlo Face to Face, p. 29, p. 42 & p. 156.   

[8] Frida Kahlo Face to Face, p. 148.