Face to Face (third excerpt)

Frida Kahlo, Moses (1945)

[This is the third 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’s focus on personal subject matter is one of the ways her work ‘prefigured [… and] ‘intersected with the fundamental conviction of the Feminist art movement – that “female thoughts, female ideas, female ways of seeing were every bit as valid as their masculine counterparts who had set the standard for so long”.’[1] In line with this conviction, authors Chicago and Borzello reappraise Kahlo’s paintings on their own terms, that is, in light of the themes inherent within them as well as (to a certain extent) in relation to the work of other female, Mexican and queer artists respectively.[2] In this way the authors help to (re)define Kahlo’s aesthetic agency as active rather than reactive or derivative. The painter’s work and the way it is written about in Frida Kahlo Face to Face bring to mind the feminist catchphrase ‘the personal is the political’ and provoke questions about how autobiographical art can become political.

            As Borzello argues, Kahlo’s popularity is due to the way in which her paintings reflect the macrocosm in the microcosm; her story is undeniably her own and yet it resonates in the minds of millions of viewers who empathise with her experiences. This is due to the visual language she employs; ‘like any great poet, [Kahlo] works from the particular to the general, finding a vocabulary of imagery and a direct style that enables the viewer to share her emotion.’[3] Pointedly, the Face to Face book itself is geared to a mainstream, non-art audience, a cynic would say for purposes of profit, but I would argue, just as importantly, for political ones. They want to get the feminist message out there! The texts are written without art jargon and Chicago’s essays in particular are decidedly anti-elitist; she explains certain art historical movements such as Modernism and Abstract Expressionism in layman’s terms. When we discussed this in the interview, she said that she and the editors belaboured the decision to keep these descriptions in the book. Beyond the considerations of this one publication, Chicago positions herself in opposition to the elitism of the art world.[4]

            During the book tour discussion between Chicago, Borzello and Colin Wiggins (curator) that took place at The National Gallery in London, Chicago shunned the label ‘political artist’ for herself, stating defiantly ‘all art is political’. To her, art that is made by so-called ‘political artists’ illustrates time-bound political ideas without skill/aesthetics and without opening a dialogue about the human condition, which she by contrast always strives to accomplish with her work. What interests me about this statement is Chicago’s emphasis on ‘the universal’ and the idea of communicating with a broad audience who may not have first-hand knowledge or experience of the personal and political circumstances that have inspired the work. As Borzello noted, this is where Kahlo has succeeded; the sheer popularity of her work makes evident that the imagery she used to tell her story is legible to and appreciated by the masses. During the interview Judy Chicago and I discussed this populist aspect of Kahlo’s work and how this connects with Chicago’s own work.[5] Funnily enough that is probably the most compelling point of comparison between the two artists, yet it is one that Chicago only realised after the book went to press.

[To be continued...]

[1] Chicago, J. and Borzello, F., Frida Kahlo Face to Face, New York: Prestel, 2010, p. 15.

[2] In keeping with the accessibility of the Face to Face book itself, I feel the need to explain my use of the adjective queer in this context. I am using the word as it is defined on Wikipedia, as ‘an umbrella term for sexual minorities that are not heterosexual, heteronormative, or gender-binary.’ It also seems relevant to note that the word ‘queer’ which previously had derogatory connotations has been taken up and used as a positive, which echoes the feminist re-claiming of the word ‘cunt’.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queer, accessed June 2011.

[3] Frida Kahlo Face to Face, p. 43.

[4] Chicago pointed out in the interview that her two autobiographies were also distributed by mainstream publishers. Moreover, she discussed the issue of art world elitism specifically in relation to other feminist work like Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973–79). Because of the 1980s/90s debates around the ‘right’ kind of feminist art, I had already thought of Chicago’s work as being contrary to that of Mary Kelly, especially in terms of use of language and the visual representation (or objectification) of women’s bodies in art. In the interview I found out Chicago draws a line between herself and Kelly specifically because of the issue of elitism. She said she had recently been to a Mary Kelly show in which very little explanation was offered to the viewer about the opaque and highly intellectual works. She wondered if when Postpartum Document was first displayed whether or not women with children who went to see it would understand or identify with it. She also openly argued that an alternative, non-objectifying, visual representation of women's bodies can be made, in contrast to Kelly’s stance.

[5] Kahlo and Chicago both look to religious art and Socialist Realism as models for how to communicate their narratives. Chicago does this purposely because she chooses to use (in her words) ‘unmediated’, ‘universally’-understood imagery to communicate in accessible ways with broad audiences. Kahlo’s choice to use this language might be more the result of her familiarity with these genres as a self-taught, Mexican, Communist woman painter in the 1920-40s.