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Frida Kahlo and Mexican Tradition Identity

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“Self-Portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace” by Frida Kahlo. By Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Frida Kahlo and Mexican Tradition Identity

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) was perhaps the most radical woman painter of the 20th century. Who is not familiar with her flamboyant appearance – the austere, beautiful woman with her black hair and dark unibrow?

Frida Kahlo was radical in the clarity with which she told of her life and suffering. However, despite her weeping and love, or desperate soul searching Kahlo’s art inquires into the contemporary political and cultural stress of her Mexico. She did not draw inspiration from the world’s art metropolises but, rather, from the pictorial storytelling tradition of the Mexican people. Popular image, in the case of Frida Kahlo, is the artist herself, her image, her elaborate hair, her featured brows, and her Mexican costume. She embodies a set of axioms about Mexico itself: passionate, exotic, yet constantly struggling against pain and deceit.

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Self Portrait with Monkeys, 1943 - by Frida Kahlo

In Self Portrait with Monkeys, the background is a tropic plant and which is a common theme Frida liked to use. She posed herself in an academic setting. At that time Frida started to work as a teacher at School of Painting and Sculpture in Mexico City. But not long after she started her teaching, her health condition got worsened and she had to hold the classes in her own house. Eventually, the class was downsized to only four loyal students. They call themselves "Los Fridos", which means they are loyal to Frida Kahlo. Here Frida painted herself surrounded by four monkeys and which may imply her four loyal students.

Her paintings tell stories, together with her writings (she kept a diary for the last ten years of her life as a repository of her feelings), and together they explore the toughness and vulnerability of the human body. In many paintings, she melds together the ancient past with her present, merging animals, plants, personae, and mythical beings. It is a practice that is artistic as much as it is shamanic, one related to the concept of Aztec duality, and that is also addressed in other terms.

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Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America, 1932

According to Anderson, while, on the one hand, Kahlo’s paintings reflect the nationalist ideology of post-revolutionary Mexico with the re-evaluation of indigenous and traditions, on the other hand, Kahlo refuses to romanticize the autochthonous, as post-revolutionary Mexico attempted to do. Kahlo, instead, through personal introspection, sought to redefine the modern mestizo/a. Indeed, the evocation of the Aztec and Zapotec, and the imagery of a folk Mexico is an evident pattern in her paintings.

After Porfirio Diaz’s thirty-four-year dictatorship in 1920, the election saw Alvaro Obregon as his successor. He rejected the anti-autochthonous philosophy and policy of his predecessor and developed a program for the creation of public, social art that would allow the masses to receive the ideals of the Revolution.

Since Frida grew up after the Mexican revolution and reached the maturity when indigeneity and Mexicanidad were strong forces in her country, we would expect to find her politics reflected in her art. In 1920, when the popular uprising of the Mexican Revolution began, society’s values were still entirely established upon the veneration of the male as the center of the family and as having the right to the possession of both land and women. As a consequence of the violence of the Revolution, the idea of attempting to construct a new society arose, however, this caused difficulties in maintaining a national identity, while it clashed with the constant advances in technology and capitalism that were represented by the United States, and this took place in a Country that is divided both geographically and culturally.

The education system was extended to serve indigenous and rural populations, and there was considerable commissioning of murals depicting folkloric elements of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, from both the past and the present.

Contemporary manifestations of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past were supported and glorified by the Government and focused on the variety and richness of Mexican culture. A strongly anti-Spanish idealization of Aztec Mexico and a focus on the ‘Indian Question’ became the center of interest of the Mexican indigenes. By refusing Spanish colonialism, Mexican nationalism identified the Aztecs as the roots of an indigenous political unit. This glorification of indigenous peoples evolved into what Luis Villoro has described as the dialectic of the indigenista mindset. The unique and pristine nature of Mexican culture, through the reappreciation of its autochthonous people, was a protagonist in the revolution and supported the nationalist movement between the 1920s and the 1940s. However, by the early 20th Century, the United States began to replace Spain by interfering in the country’s internal political struggles. The leaders aimed to elevate the lifestyle of the ‘real’ Americans against the rest of the world, but particularly against the United States.

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Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick, 1954 by Frida Kahlo

The glorification of ancient and contemporary native culture stimulated a large mestizo population to incorporate previously disclaimed features of their heritage. As Stuart Hall asserts, this process of incorporating the past was indeed a manner through which to rediscover that past, but was also an intimate path in search of identity: ‘not an identity grounded in the archeology, but in the re-telling of the past.’ Within the chaos of this revival, Frida Kahlo, placed her interchangeable figure, not only as an artist, but also as a woman. She stresses that she belongs to the Mexican Tradition by changing her birthdate from 1907 to 1910, thus making it coincide with the Mexican Revolution. Kahlo liked to say she was a daughter of the Mexican Revolution.

My Dress Hangs There

Many of Kahlo’s paintings demonstrate anti-imperialist, anti-materialist, and, more specifically, anti-US themes. Indeed, it was during her American sojourn, while her husband, the well-known muralist Diego Rivera, was working on his Rockefeller Central mural unfinished and later destroyed by Nelson Rockefeller due to the identification of Lenin’s portrait in one of the characters – that Frida painted My Dress Hangs There. Achieved through a mixture of collage, photography, and painting – My Dress Hangs There is representative of a critique of industrialized North America. The painting – as Oriana Baddeley has stated – is Kahlo’s most formally adventurous work. Kahlo, in a theatrical manner, depicts the destruction, greed, and abuse of capitalism. Through her symbolism she reminds us of, and underlines, the evils and excesses of industry and consumerism. The painting seems to be a stage and the audience is invited to see the show of the world around them.

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My Dress Hangs There, 1933 by Frida Kahlo

The profound contrast between Mexican values and those Frida experienced in the United States served to crystalize her political attitudes. The Painting scourges the United States – equipped with a bourgeois lifestyle – represented with images of a toilette, a sports trophy on the top of a classical column; and a telephone situated on a pedestal in the form of a skyscraper. Kahlo depicts its hypocrisy by wrapping a dollar sign around the cross of a church. The steps of a Federal building presided over by a statue of George Washington, are a collage of a financial graph showing “weekly sales in millions”, while the commercialization of sex is interpreted by a deteriorating poster of Mae West as a Hollywood fantasy. The Church, the Industry, and Wall Street are joined together by telephone lines and, behind this inhuman environment, Kahlo places the people, highlighting their distance from their surroundings by the artist’s use of photo-collage.

The lower part of the canvas delineates the contrast between wealth and poverty in American society. In the forefront of this moral decay, corruption, poverty, and suffering, Kahlo places a vibrant immaculate figure: the traditional costume of Zapotec women, from the Isthmus of Tehuantapec – located in the South Eastern part of Mexico in the region of Oaxaca – but the Tehuana dress hangs empty. There is no flesh, no human presence, no heartbeat or breath – only a dress. Zapotec women – according to the mythology that revolves around them – do indeed represent an ideal of freedom, economic independence, and a matriarchal society. The image that they embodied may have led to Kahlo’s choice of dress. The absence of Nature, and a strongly masculine technology that masters the canvas, is in juxtaposition with the feminine presence that is embodied by the empty dress, the Statue of Liberty, and Mae West.

Women in the Tehuantapec region are known for their majesty, beauty, sensuality, intelligence, courage, and strength. Popular legend recounts that their society is a matriarchy, where women manage markets, are responsible for fiscal affairs, and dominate men. Their dress is lovely: an embroidered blouse and long, usually purple or red velvet, skirt with white cotton voile at the hem. Frida, in a certain way, opted to dress as a Tehuana for the same reason that she adopted the Mexicanidad: to please Rivera. However, she does not modify her character to match the Rivera ideal. Rather, she invented a very individual personal style to dramatize the personality that she already had and that she knew Diego liked, and to hide her physical imperfections. Rivera was moved by the Tehuana costumes and headdresses he stated that all Mexican women should wear traditional Mexican costumes:

The classical Mexican dress has been created by people for people. The Mexican women who do not wear it do not belong to the people but are mentally and emotionally dependent on a foreign class to which they wish to belong, i.e., a great American and French bureaucracy.

Frida Kahlo was able to perceive the semiotic qualities of the clothing, which lie within its role as a metaphorical vehicle, and which is also easily understood by the eye of the viewer. Frida’s use of this traditional dress to strengthen her identity, reaffirm her political beliefs, and conceal her imperfections, also built on her sense of heritage and personal history, defining her identity, and reasserting her indigenous values and her Mexicanidad.

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Nickolas Muray, Frida in New York, New York City, 1946. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Her transitions from being a single to a married woman, from a private to a public role as the spouse of a well-known artist, and from being an individual to being an artist are reflected in her conscious appropriation and assimilation of her culture, both ancient and contemporary. Indeed, her transition mirrors Mexico itself, in a “phase of self-examination and self-definition after the revolution”. Frida expressed her belonging to what she called la Raza (the race), not only through her art, but through her conduct, in the decoration of her home, and, above all, in her wardrobe19. Native costumes highlighted her link with Nature. The Indian costume represented one more way of proclaiming her alliance with the race. The Zapotec women are identified with the image of the strong Indian woman, La llorona (the weeping woman), in strong contrast to the Chingada, whose representation is related to Mexico’s hybrid post-conquest culture.

Both characters – as described in Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude – are descended from an Aztec mother goddess: Llorona is, in a broader sense, the symbol of the trauma of the Spanish invasion. Mad with grief over the loss of her child, she wanders the streets, crying and calling for a spectral memory of the past before the Conquest. La Llorona is a long-suffering mother figure. In contrast, the Chingada is the mother of the mestizo culture, ‘the Mother forcibly opened, violated or deceived’. The feminine soul was defaced and stolen by the male forces of the Spanish invaders.

The Indian Mexico was raped and abused by the conquistador yet bearing his bastard child. The rhetoric of the Tehuana opposes the nihilism of traditional feminizations of colonial trauma and asserts the potential of a dignified cultural resistance.

The empty Tehuana dress is in sharp contrast with the industrialization of consumerist North America. Since Kahlo does not depict herself within it, it suggests absence and displacement. According to Herrera, Frida did not enjoy her stay in New York, often complaining of homesickness, and of her dissatisfaction with the racism she experienced.

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Frida Wearing Tehuana Dress, Coyoacán 1940

The Tehuana dress, for Frida, therefore, embodies the true Mexican identity. It represents the exotic Mexican in a reality where industrialization is the first on a scale of values. The Tehuana dress represents the purity and richness of a culture that is far from the industrial world of the United States which is, on the contrary, oversaturated, consumer-oriented, and depersonalized. It represents the most recondite belonging to the real Mexico. In a letter to a friend, Kahlo writes:

Meanwhile, some of the gringa-women are imitating me and trying to dress a la Mexicana, but the poor souls only look like cabbages and, to tell you the truth, they look impossible. That doesn’t mean that I look good in them either.

The Tehuana dress is the most decorative of the pre-Hispanic forms of clothing. The Mexican Indian dress is extremely variable in every region of the country. Kahlo’s devotion to her country and her use of the themes and symbolism of the indigenous Aztecs make her art, at the same time, both political and cultural. Kahlo knew what she wanted her art to be.

Some critics have tried to classify me as a Surrealist, but I do not consider myself a Surrealist ... I detest Surrealism. To me, it seems a manifestation of bourgeois art. A deviation from the true art that the people hope for from the artist ... I wish to be worthy, with my paintings, of the people to whom I belong and to the ideas that strengthen me.

Her emphasis on the Aztec, rather than on the Mayan, Toltec, or other indigenous cultures, corresponds to her political demands for a unified Mexico, nationalist and independent. Unlike Rivera, who approved of Trotsky’s internationalism, Frida exalted the nationalism of Stalin, who was probably seen as a unifying force within his country. Her focus was anti-materialist and, especially, anti-US.

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Frida Kahlo, 'The love embrace of the universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, me and Señor Xólotl', 1949

The Mexicanidad of Kahlo takes the form of a pure nationalism, focusing on the art and artifacts that unite all indigents, regardless of their political positions, and on the Aztec tradition so revered as a symbol of native, pre-Hispanic cultures. In her art, Frida expressed her nationalism, encouraging the representation of the pre-Columbian, powerful, and authoritarian society that had joined a large area of the Middle Americas by force and conquest. Indigenismo was the expression of nostalgia for an imagined, folkloric figure of indigeneity. Most indigenous people were separated, socially and economically, from the mainstream of Mexican society, even though lo indigena embodied the root and essence of all ‘true’ Mexicans. Paradoxically, lo indigena incorporates, for Mexican society in general, on one side that which is most ultimately Mexican and, on the other, that which is most foreign and separate.

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Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, their wedding photo, 1929

Frida started to dress in traditional clothes on the day of her marriage to Diego Rivera on the 21st of August 1929. Eventually, it wasn’t bohemian insouciance that encouraged her to choose a wedding dress, a skirt, a blouse, and a rebozo that she borrowed from an Indian maid. Of uncertain origin, the rebozo is a rectangular woven shawl of cotton, wool, or silk, sometimes embroidered and with long fringes. It was worn by all social classes, differentiated only by the type of its material.

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By dressing, she was choosing a new identity. This is demonstrated by the photographs in which – still a young girl – she appears dressed as a male, in a family photo taken by her father, Guillermo Kahlo.

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Guillermo Kahlo, 1926

Dressing, for Frida, was always a way to state her freedom and her personality. In Frida’s dress one can recognize creativity and the deep sense of color that she had as an artist. Her clothes, besides being in themselves a way to hide physical and emotional weaknesses, translated her temperament. Her outfit was a key element in building the strong personality that has transcended the history of twentieth-century painting. For her, clothing was equivalent to a kind of language, and, after she married, the intricate link between clothing and her image of herself, between her style and her painting, became more evident.

Kahlo quite distinctly merges the private and public aspects of her life in her sartorial allegory of post-revolutionary Mexico. Her fashion was her public statement of her Mexicanidad and of post-revolutionary Mexico’s attitude towards U.S. economic and cultural colonization.

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Photo of Frida Dress in Tehuana, 1943 by Frida Kahlo

If, on one hand, the Tehuana dress has political meaning, on the other, it can be seen like a piñata – the traditional paper mâché container stuffed with sweets and gifts that are set off during fiestas – as simultaneously being the embodiment of the decorative and the explosive. Yet, the dress was also a form of humor, an exalted theatrical camouflage, as well as a call to the image of the suffering, naked body beneath it, and the discovery of its secrets. Necklaces, rings, white organdy headgear, flowery peasant blouses, garnet-colored shawls, long skirts, all of it covering the broken body. The clothes, for Frida, were nevertheless, more than a second skin.

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Self Portrait as a Tehuana, 1943 by Frida Kahlo

Nonetheless, from the New York visit, Kahlo gained a clearer perspective on Mexico. Through the cultural and physical distance from her country, Kahlo was able, by the observation and appreciation of the Tehuana dress as a symbol of her Mexicanidad, to define her identity.

Self Portrait with Hummingbird

In Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Hummingbird from 1938 (or ‘Self Portrait with Necklace of Thorns’), which she sold to Nickolas Muray, we are presented with Kahlo’s direct gaze, almost martyred by wearing Christ’s crown of thorns; an association that is strengthened by the presence of blood, caused by the thorns which ring her neck. Suspended from the necklace of thorns hangs a dead hummingbird, the hummingbird of the painting’s title. The miniature hummingbird holds many meanings. In Mexican folk tradition, the hummingbird was used as a love charm to bring luck in love. Indeed, Kahlo painted this self-portrait in the months following her divorce from Diego, perhaps Mrs. Rivera used its symbolism as a talisman through which to attempt to re-establish the lost love. In a pre-Columbian association, the hummingbird embodies the images of courage, oracles, and magic, and it is associated with the great god Huitzilopochtli, and the god of rain, Tlaloc. In the Aztecs’ mythology, these birds symbolized the reincarnation of the spirit of dead warriors.

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Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, By Frida Kahlo

From both sides of the shoulders, two small animals stain the green wall of leaves that are in the background of the painting with black. A menacing cat, that seems ready to jump on the bird, and a monkey, precisely Caimito de Guayabal – a gift from Diego – is playing with Frida’s necklace.

The leaves in the background of the picture, with their veins, front and back, are turning to the audience, just like the picture of Frida with her frontal position. Among the leaves, you can see two flowers transformed into a dragonfly, perhaps as a symbol of transcendence, as the two filigree butterfly brooches adorning her head may be. 

For Kahlo, the butterfly was also a kind of emblem. In Mexican tradition the butterfly, with its intrinsic duality of transformation, from caterpillar to pupa to butterfly, was one of the founding tropes.

This picture also evokes the miracle of Saint Veronica, who, after having wiped the face of the Savior, found His picture, with the crown of thorns, mysteriously transferred onto her veil. In addition, Veronica (from “vera-icon”) is associated with the stopping of blood flow. The frontal position of Frida – not common in other portraits – and the lack of depth, make this painting a sort of secular icon image. The monkey, her sweet monkey, which appears in at least eight other paintings, serves as a religious attribute and further emphasizes the iconic image. Probably, Kahlo also refers to the nahual-concept in Aztec tradition, and the use of the animal as an alter ego. For the Aztecs, parrots were considered beings that could take many forms. “In cultured Aztecs circles, nahual gave nahual, wise man and poet, and nahuatato, speakers of many tongues.” In Mexican culture, the bird is seen as a symbol of divination. Frida, who liked to call herself “la gran ocultadora”, the great concealer, and considered herself to be a magical being, might have identified herself with the veiled identity that the bird represents, multiple identities that is similar to the story of her Mexico. Frida’s uses of animals: monkeys, dogs, cats, and parrots, in conjunction with nature, could be interpreted as an allusion to the Mexicans’ religious belief, according to which their gods could transform themselves into animals. Iconographic analysis of Frida's self-portrait cannot “explain” their meaning, asserts Lowe. Moreover, it indicates the sophisticated and intrinsic level of meaning.

Kahlo never represented a single self but always a multicultural one. By mingling symbols from a diverse body of beliefs, she manages to reveal relations between things known and unknown.

Always, she drew a story into history, where dreams, reality and his- tory were, for her, interchangeable. She, herself made it clear in her statement “I never painted dreams, I painted my reality”. By painting herself as a martyr, Frida iconizes herself, she becomes, like an image in the votive painting, at the same time an abstract symbol and a powerful physical presence. Her self-portraits were like ex-voto, and she was the first artist to have rediscovered it. According to Paul Westheim:

What Frida retains of the popular spirit of the ex-voto, in addition to that vital affirmation, is the sincerity, the childish character of the forms, and the expression of truth told in such a way that it appears to contain a lie, since no limits are separating the real, the natural, objective world and the world of the imagination, the world of the unreal and the symbolic. 

Kahlo painted astonishing images, combining objects that are not linked with one another, mostly joining them with her self-centered image. It seems that Kahlo also perceived herself and the world around her as a single entity. Recognizable and recurring elements of her artistic universe are the Tehuana costumes, tropical flora, and fauna, the splitting or doubling of her image, eyebrows turned into birds’ wings, which is the personal form of Kahlo, and the cult of the ego. The native costume from Tehuantepec gives her an exotic identity and defines her as the Other in the city centers of her country as much as it did abroad. This was, for Frida, a declaration of solidarity with traditional Mexico in the face of a changing world of social, political, and economic modernization.

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Without Hope, 1945 by Frida Kahlo

Kahlo’s observation of herself plays two interchangeable roles. She is the subject and the object at the same time. In her introspection in seeking her identity, Frida explores the inner and outer world of her physical body and plays with these two worlds.

She merges and confuses them. By privatizing the public and publicizing the private, she makes them a whole. As much as her querido Mexico: “reduces and institutionalizes the Revolution into icons for mass identification and consumption.” In her images, Mexico appears to be pre-Columbian and post-revolutionary at the same time.

Inevitably, given her strong interest in Aztec culture and her homeland, her art encompasses both the political and the cultural aspects. She painted herself, she painted Mexico, and, she painted in such a way as to be understood by the people.

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Florence Arquin, 'Untitled (Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle)', c1950

Kahlo had been sympathetic to Communism since her youth: she joined the Young Communist League in 1927 when she was twenty. She compares the emblems of Communism with those of the Aztecs and pays attention to her politics and her commitment to social causes. The evocation of Aztec civilization echoes political acts at a time when the increasing interest in indigenous art coincided with an ardent sense of nationalism. By the mid-forties, her interest in Communism had moved beyond social conscience and had become an epistemological, perhaps even religious, search for “pillars” that could support her faith.

To better understand Frida Kahlo’s cultural contributions, one must pause to look at the growing interest in native Mexican Indian culture at that time. Indeed, this was considered to be the preservation of the essence of Mexico’s past, as immutable in the changing ocean of modernization.

One of the principal characteristics in Kahlo’s œuvre is her search for identity in terms of opposition or Others. This alluring retrieval of the exotic, or the Other, is represented by Kahlo “through the cracks and fissures in the mask that promises insight or revelation, but that neither exhausts nor even completely reveals, leaving intact a certain element of the unknown, after the viewer’s gaze has been enticed to draw nearer”.

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Diego y Yo, 1949 by Frida Kahlo

Written by Fortunata Calabró



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