The (com)modification of Frida Kahlo: when meaning gets lost

When art is commodified, it allows people around the world to engage with it beyond a gallery’s walls. But what happens when a painter’s core messages get left behind in favour of decoration, Emma Sutherland asks?

Frida Kahlo’s face is everywhere. Though the Mexican painter and cultural icon died in 1954, her works have enjoyed a longevity that other artists would envy. Yet in 2016 it is not the gallery context in which Kahlo is predominantly to be found. Rather, she has made a significant mark – albeit posthumously – on the world of commodities, with her face being placed on tote bags, bathing suits, socks, and iPhone cases – to name only a few items. While there are numerous versions of these products available for purchase, they tend to look relatively similar. That is because only the same few images of Kahlo are ever used for this merchandise: photographs or self-portraits featuring Kahlo in a flower crown or Kahlo accompanied by exotic animals. The emphasis tends to be on colour, pattern, and, of course, Kahlo’s famous eyebrows, the latter of which have been immortalised in caricature.

As each new Kahlo-themed accessory is produced, using the same few images as adornment, Kahlo is perpetuated – and then becomes fixed – as an icon of vibrancy, femininity, and decoration. But this legacy is misleading, and undermines the significance of Kahlo’s self-portraiture oeuvre, in which beauty and ornament are far from her primary concerns. For all of Kahlo’s current ubiquity, a major part of her identity is absent from her public image as represented through merchandise. While there is nothing wrong with wide audiences gaining access to and receiving aesthetic pleasure from Kahlo’s works via commodification, it is troubling that the crux of her self-portrait series is being lost in favour of the more decorative and palatable images. Kahlo’s most significant contribution to women’s representation – or, indeed, representation in general – is her radical portrayal of bodily pain. Yet the enduring importance of this work is at risk of being forgotten in the mainstream context.

Many of Kahlo’s self-portraits do not make for easy viewing. On the canvas she explores physical mutilation, grief, and the medicalisation of her body. It makes sense that painting became an outlet for her, given that she was plagued with medical problems from a young age. As a child she contracted polio, which resulted in a litany of pains and physical deformations. Then as a teenager, she was involved in a bus accident during which her pelvis was impaled and she fractured several bones. This accident caused life-long pain, disability, and obstructed her capacity to carry pregnancies, resulting in numerous miscarriages due to uterine damage. Kahlo’s is a distressing medical biography that undoubtedly had profound emotional impacts on her life. She fuelled this distress into her paintings and radically changed the form and purpose of the self-portrait, particularly for women painters. As art historian Frances Borzello argues, Kahlo is to be credited with “bringing pain into female self-portraiture”1.

Kahlo foregrounds her body in her self-portraits, imploring viewers to, as Bose suggests, “stay with her in pain”2 as she captures moments of intense physical suffering. In Henry Ford Hospital, 1932 (fig. 1), Kahlo depicts the trauma of miscarriage in, quite literally, visceral terms. Her nude, twisted body rests upon a bloodied bed and she lies there alone in a space that is gaping and isolated. It is a clinical setting, but a curious one, because Kahlo sets the hospital bed against an urban, industrial horizon. The bed, which reads “Henry Ford Hospital” on its frame, is tilted downwards so that it appears as if it could start slipping at any given moment. Kahlo does not shy away from blood or viscera and, in fact, she appropriates medical illustrations to essentially dissect herself. Her body is connected via a series of red veins to a number of floating objects that include a pelvis, a foetus, and a doctor’s model of a pregnant abdomen. Kahlo takes these symbols of pregnancy loss, an event which occurs internally and usually behind closed doors, and externalises them. Furthermore, she repurposes medical illustration for her own gain, using anatomical drawing as an aesthetic and discursive tool to communicate her experience of miscarriage, rather than allowing medical language to be a tool of oppression for her.

Henry Ford hospital - Frida Kahlo
Fig. 1. Henry Ford Hospital, 1932, Frida Kahlo. Image:Frida Kahlo.org

As cultural scholar Marta Zarzycka argues, Kahlo uses her self-portraits to put her physical pain “on the outside”, ensuring that her “damaged body” is represented on her terms and at the centre of her creative practice, rather than being marginalised or othered3. Zarzycka further asserts that Kahlo’s art allows viewers to try and grasp the unrepresentable, that is, another’s experience of pain3. When we only have regular access to the kinds of images of Kahlo that are found on accessories and clothes, we run the risk of disregarding the pained body that she wanted us to see in favour of one that is more enjoyable to look at but is ultimately, within the context of her oeuvre, a rarity. The Broken Column, 1944 (fig. 2) further speaks to Kahlo’s interest in portraying what is usually concealed. In this painting, Kahlo’s upper body is hollowed out in the middle, her spine replaced by a crumbling column and her torso encased in a metal corset. Her skin is pierced all over with little nails and tears grace her cheeks. The simplicity of the painting constitutes its haunting effect. We as viewers are not looking at Kahlo’s struggling body, but inside it. Moreover, the juxtaposition of skin with metal in so intimate a manner creates a jarring tableau that emphasises constriction and torment. Yet, although Kahlo’s physical suffering is immediately apparent, her direct, penetrating gaze lends her a sense of control. While she has no power over her pains and illnesses, she does have power over how she displays them to others and how they come to define her. In such paintings as this one, Kahlo refuses to be meek.

The Broken Column - Frida KahloFig. 2. The Broken Column, 1944, Frida Kahlo. Image:Frida Kahlo.org

According to medical sociologist Joanna Latimer, Kahlo’s self-portraits often breach “borderlines”, such as the divides between outside and inside, or self and other4. This idea is certainly realised in Without Hope, 1945 (fig. 3), arguably one of Kahlo’s most challenging works for viewers. In this self-portrait, the Kahlo figure seems trapped under her bed linen as she either vomits up, or is in the middle of reluctantly swallowing, a gory concoction of entrails, skulls, and animal carcasses. Once again Kahlo’s gaze is aimed at viewers, but viewers’ eyes are inevitably drawn instead to the sickening mass that meets her mouth, rendered in the Surrealist style. To borrow again from Latimer, such an image emphasises the “openness, fragility and leakiness” of Kahlo’s body-self4 and, while it verges on abject, Kahlo does not seek to revolt just because she can. The intricately-painted carnage above the Kahlo figure depicts her experience of force-feeding (due to malnourishment) in a manner that shocks viewers, not into alienation, but ideally into empathy. To be pushed into a position of horror or discomfort by this painting is to connect with Kahlo’s profound struggle; one that involves her body in every possible way. By creating a vivid image of viscera, Kahlo aims at a visceral response in her audience, who hopefully glimpse insight into her painful, often harrowing reality.

Without Hope - Frida KahloFig. 3. Without hope, 1945, Frida Kahlo. Image:Frida Kahlo.org

These three paintings represent significant moments in Frida Kahlo’s career and demonstrate her role in evolving self-portraiture towards pain and emotional honesty. To overlook these works and memorialise Kahlo in only a colourful, decorative framework is to modify the body that she vulnerably, yet purposefully, laid bare for her viewers. While it is encouraging that multiple generations from all around the world are being exposed to Kahlo through commodification, it is important to recognise that the decorative Kahlo reflects only one aspect of her identity. The Kahlo we see in pain, with a fragmented body and a tortured gaze is also one that she wanted viewers to engage. It seems only appropriate to celebrate and make accessible this version of Frida Kahlo as well.

References

1. Borzello, Frances, 1998. ‘Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits’. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. 45.

2. Bose, Joerg, 2005. ‘Images of Trauma: Pain, Recognition, and Disavowal in the Works of Frida Kahlo and Francis Bacon.’ The Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry 33: 51-70.

3. Zarzycka, Marta, 2006. ‘“Now I Live on a Painful Planet”: Frida Kahlo Revisited.’ Third Text 20: 73-84.

4. Latimer, Joanna, 2009. ‘Unsettling Bodies: Frida Kahlo’s Portraits and In/Dividuality.’ Sociological Review Monograph 56: 46-62.

Featured image: Visual Learning Sussex

Emma

Emma Sutherland studies at the University of Melbourne and has research interests in film aesthetics, cinema history, and representations of women’s health in visual culture.