Frida Kahlo: icon of the beauty-pain paradox

self portrait thorn necklace
‘Self Portrait with a Thorn Necklace’

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It appears to have become a truth universally accepted in our society that in the quest for beauty and perfection, one must submit oneself to a certain degree of pain. This could not have been more apt for the artist Frida Kahlo. Living in the shadow of the great Diego Rivera, it is not only through her exotic lifestyle, but also in her works of art that she sought to stand out from the crowd. Indeed, it is impossible not to notice the way she interweaved her iconic mono-brow and indigenous dress into her paintings to ensure her lasting legacy.

Kahlo’s life was undoubtedly an eventful one, moving in artistic circles and having affairs with both men and women, yet regretfully marked by pain.  At a young age she had to abandon her aspirations to study medicine on account of a bus crash which crushed her spine and pelvis.  The injury acquired from this accident lead to multiple miscarriages and ultimately the inability to bear children.  Although she subjected herself to many further operations in the hope of remedying the situation, they only exacerbated her agony.  If this were not enough, her physical pain was all played out against the emotional turmoil that she faced with the death of her mother and the multiple affairs of her notoriously philandering husband, Diego Rivera.  Nevertheless, it was in 1932, the year of Kahlo’s second miscarriage and the death of her mother, that Rivera encouraged her to create a series of paintings relating to prominent events in her life.  This artistic pursuit led to the creation of some of Kahlo’s most famous works and ultimately gave rise to the recurring portrayal of pain in her art.

henry ford hospital
‘Henry Ford Hospital’

One of these paintings, entitled Henry Ford Hospital (1932), depicts Kahlo’s miscarriage. She finds herself abandoned on a bed amidst a barren and phallic industrial landscape surrounded by six images: a fully formed male foetus, an orchid, a snail, a female torso, fractured pelvis and an autoclave. These images may be rich in Aztec, Christian and personal symbolism, yet, connected via a sanguineous umbilical cord, they ultimately serve to draw our eyes to the most striking image: Frida. The naked body represents a certain vulnerability and the nature of her body is contorted as she writhes in agony. If we look, however, to her face, framed by the iconic Kahlo mono-brow, we see large tears falling from her eyes.

Kahlo was and is a maverick who, in spite of her pain, faced life and lived it to the full

These overt displays of sorrow and pain are not uncommon in Kahlo’s oeuvre.  For example, in terms of physical pain Kahlo’s injured spine and pelvis are overtly referred to in not only The Tree of Hope (1946) with the scar on Kahlo’s lower back, but also in The Broken Column (1944) where Kahlo’s spine is replaced by a crumbling ionic column. Her stoic positioning in the centre of the painting, one again, dominates and the barren landscape is subverted by her pain. Nails penetrate her entire body. They become a metaphor for pain itself, with the largest nail placed in her heart, representing the emotional turmoil faced throughout her marriage. Indeed, Kahlo claimed that there had been two accidents in her life, one was the crash, the other Diego and that the latter was, by far, the worst. The final touch to this image of agony are the tears that once again pour from her eyes.  Moreover, it became quite common for Kahlo to draw tears onto photos of herself, once again demonstrating the pain she felt so profoundly.

broken column
‘The Broken Column’

Nevertheless, it is, perhaps, the intimacy of her paintings, the way her eyes in her self-portraits mirror her pain, that adds to the beauty of them.  Indeed, it was Keats who claimed that “beauty is truth, truth beauty” and perhaps it is due to the sincerity of her own self portrayal that we are so attracted to her works. In our society, we are bombarded with air-brushed images of how women should look and behave, yet Kahlo’s image, to this day, continues to subvert this portrayal of manufactured beauty.  It might be useful to consider this idea in light of her 1940 Self Portrait with a Thorn Necklace in which, as custom, she embraces her mono-brow and moustache. As far as we can see, her costume itself is simple and, instead of the garish costume popular jewellery of the epoch, she is adorned by nature. Nevertheless, ironically, this beauty is underlined by pain reflected in symbolism of the self-portrait. Any image of new life, whether inspired by Christian of Aztec iconography, is overshadowed by darker references.  Yet, for me, there is something about her eyes that connects with the viewer, that reveals her inner feelings, which in spite of the heavy symbolism, seem to hide behind the icon she has made of herself.

The extent of Kahlo’s status as an icon has been summarised by the term Frida-mania. Over the years she has become a symbol for feminists for the way in which she idolised the stoicism of Tehuana women, portrayed female experiences and subverted traditional gender roles; an icon for the LGBT movement for her open sexuality and cross-dressing; a religious idol with her apotheosis to Santa Frida; a trend-setter with Vogue paying homage to her adoption of indigenous dress.  Her face appears on mouse mats, a feature film, numerous documentaries, posters, one can buy one’s own Frida Kahlo moustache or even a Frida Kahlo Barbie doll. In fact, it’s rather ironic that Kahlo iconography should have become such a product of the Gringolandia that she so despised (see My Dress Hangs There and Self portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the U.S.) and this causes me to question what does this face really mean to those who have appropriated her image? What does Frida symbolise for them?

In my opinion, Kahlo was and is a maverick who, in spite of her pain, faced life and lived it to the full. Indeed, through the medium of painting she makes herself the epitome of suffering. There is a certain truth in the directness of her artistic style and perhaps the beauty is in the way in which she can display and embrace the intimate, painful and often brutal side of herself that we so often struggle to accept in ourselves.

Photographs: Libby Rosof and petrus.agricola

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