The Iconography of Frida KahloIsaac CarreonEl Paso Community College AbstractFrida Kahlo is well known for her Mexican-American art; though considered very emotional and raw, she paved the way for other Mexican artist. Her paintings represent her revolutionist views and the deeply embedded roots in her indigenous culture.
Kahlo expresses her frustrations and cultural challenges through iconic imagery and metaphorical representations, making her one of the most profound artists of her time. Frida Kahlo is known worldwide for her paintings. Her paintings contained her indigenous ties, the conflicts with urbanization, which conflicted with her Mexican culture.
Through this conflict, she illustrated raw depictions of her emotional torment of loss and heartache. Kahlo, painted pictures which showed her vulnerability to society but through this rawness, it revealed her power as a woman, making herself a revolutionary icon for her country, Mexico. In her paintings such as, “The Two Fridas” (1939), “What The Water Gave Me” (1938), and “Self-Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States” (1932), Kahlo expresses antiquity and modernism of her roots by evoking emotions of the nagging constraints between choosing her nationality.
These three paintings openly represent her heritage and culture by use of symbolism and imagery to illuminate how she was torn between choosing her past or her future. By asking the following question:What is the iconography shared in between her paintings?Are the cultural representations/metaphors different in each painting?Does Frida Kahlo’s artwork express her conflict with choosing nationality?It further supports the idea that iconography played a major role in representing her self-identity using metaphorical imagery. What is the iconography shared between her paintings?Throughout each of her paintings, “The Two Fridas”, “What the Water Gave Me”, “The Self-Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States, Kahlo represents her Mexican culture by introducing traditional indigenous garments either being worn by herself or can be seen in the background. Frida Kahlo also uses iconic images such as buildings, the American flag or urbanized references to elude to her difficulties in establishing herself in the city life. The iconography is consistently similar in each of her works but changes enough to make each reference unique. In Kahlo’s painting of “The Two Fridas” (1939), Kahlo uses a self-portrait of herself seated and holding the hand of another version of her under a cloudy sky. Both are connected by a shared vein that connects to their separate hearts.
Looking closely at the painting, the vein on the left side has been cut by a pair of scissors that she holds, while the other vein on the right connects to an emblem of Diego Rivera. As the blood from the cut vein drops onto a white dress worn by her left self, no blood has dropped on her blue and green dress worn by her counterpart.The garments worn by both versions of her, would explain how she is tied to both the Mexican and American culture but feels more connected to her Hispanic roots. According to Sarah M. Lowe, in her book, “Frida Kahlo”, she explains how “virtually all of Kahlo’s self-portraits navigate her ego among political, social, and emotional structures: she conceives herself as Mexican, female, and physically damaged” (Lowe,1991) this illuminates the idea that her work has heavy ties to her heritage.
This is clearly evident by her dresses worn in the painting the one on the left represents an Anglo version of attire, while the dress on the right is a traditional Mexican dress. Lowe states that “Kahlo depicts the two Frida’s separated by a generation, differentiated by their clothing: on the left she is dressed in traditional Victorian dress, and on the right she wears a Tehuana skirt and blouse” (Lowe, 1991). At first glance, it seems as if she is severing the ties of her Anglo version and transforming into her old self. The symbolism of this piece is especially heavy due to the fact that the emblem or medallion in her hand has a picture of Rivera on it.
Diego Rivera not only had an emotional hold on his wife Frida Kahlo but some might say that the emblem connecting to her heart could possibly represent a physical/abusive hold as well. There are also other implications in this painting that she is also severing ties with the woman that Rivera was shaping her into. By looking closely at the painting, she holds a pair of scissors to cut the vein to the Anglo side. This might symbolize her femininity as well because scissors are a tool used by women to cut hair.
In “Frida Kahlo: A song for herself”, author Salomon Grimberg says, “Kahlo began to behave as Rivera liked her to behave, to dress as he liked her to dress, to paint as he liked her to paint” (Grimberg, 2008). This expresses the notion of hidden imagery in her works which suggests that her ball and chain was Diego Rivera and she became another person for him. The cloudy background could also hint at her emotional suffering as it looms over the image of her. Reverting to the scissors in her piece, represent that tie to her old life being cut while the blood stains her white dress another metaphorical reference for what is pure no longer being pure. Kahlo’s symbolism suggests many things, but the reoccurring theme of her cultural ties out shines most of what people can gather from this piece.
As it is evident, Kahlo kept her heritage close to her in almost all her paintings, not only did she represent the damaged done to her, but she used images of her past to help shape the person she could not be. (Silberman, 2008)Are the cultural representations/metaphors different in each painting?Kahlo’s three paintings contain representations that differ in each of the works. She uses visual imagery to allow the viewer insight into her culture. These metaphors range from vague depictions that are only known to those who recognize the Mexican culture, to imagery that is well known such as the Mayan temples or the industrial era of the United states.
Although the subject matter of her work remains similar, Kahlo takes several approaches to express her cultural heritage. The theme of cultural and personal shame appears in Kahlo’s work, “What the Water Gave Me” (1938). In the painting, it appears to be a woman (Frida Kahlo) who is submerged in a bathtub with a knee length view of the water, which seems to be a gateway to the subconscious mind. The water contains an image of a volcano with a protruding skyscraper and at the base of this structure is an Anglo male who is pulling on a line that is wrapped around the neck of a Mexican woman. As you look further into the painting, you see the portrait of Frida Kahlo’s parents in which she painted, and a traditional Tehuana dress floating away in the water. The last noticeable imagery of this piece is a female couple lying on a sponge, one Anglo, one Mexican. While studying the pieces, it becomes evident that her work is talking about the life of Frida and her personal demons.
An analysis of this painting would suggest that there are cultural references in this piece where the volcano and building meet. Kahlo’s Mexican and American side, cross again but some see this as an indication of her sexual trauma. Evelyn Torton Beck, in “Kahlo’s World Split Open”, believes that “the water is filled with sexual symbolism: water pours from the holes of a conch shell….; a phallic Empire State Building is stuck into the crater of an erupting volcano that is also streaming blood…” (Beck, 2016).
This might be indicative of her accident early in her life or her tormented relationship that she had with Rivera. There is also imagery that represent her sexual orientation might be the reference of the two women who are lying naked together. Her relationships with other women could have been escape from emotional distress and loneliness.
Beck cites “She interprets the positioning of Kahlo’s parents above the portrait of the two nude women embracing as symbolic of their disapproval” (Beck, 2016). Grimberg, states “Kahlo gradually took lovers of both genders in order to avoid feelings of emptiness” (Grimberg, 2008) indicating that Kahlo depicted this image to represent her sexual orientation. Frida Kahlo’s painting, “What the Water Gave Me”, is a perfect construction of the events that shaped her life, no matter how damaging it might have been. She depicted it in such a way where the viewer could look at it and see that her Mexican roots were conflicted with the American society, but also that the damages done to her by her toxic love life can been seen through the chaos. One could take from her painting, that it refers to her sexual orientation and the violation of her body by a man but there is also evidence that damage had been done to her cultural background. The disapproval from her parents, or disapproval from Diego Rivera, caused her be at war with who she was and who she was trying to be for everyone else. Does Frida Kahlo’s artwork express her conflict with choosing nationality?Kahlo is revered as a successful artist for her bold approaches to her views and personal experiences.
As an artist, she uses a metaphorical interpretation by expressing the separations between both countries. She represents severed ties with her mestizo culture with literal representations of cutting the vein to her heart. Furthermore, Kahlo often depicts herself divided either seated on either side of her painting, seemingly choosing sides, or painted directly in the middle, eluding to her difficulties in choosing who to be. Her last painting shares these similarities is “Self-portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States” (1932), in which Kahlo depicts herself standing in the middle of both countries. In this piece, you see Frida standing on a box with the saying “Carmen Rivera painted her portrait the year of 1932” in the middle of these two boundaries. To her left is imagery of the ancient Mayan pyramid ruins, which in the sky above, there the sun and the moon using a force to create the monuments. At the base of the left side seems to be figurines that look like those of ancient civilizations of the indigenous people and several wild flowers blooming.
To the right of the painting, there is an industrial factory that is producing smog that projects the American Flag among its clouds. The factory is labeled Ford and underneath at the bottom of the image is what looks to be like a speaker, and an old-fashioned camera flash or light. There are many similarities in the piece as there are with the previous two paintings. From first glance, you can gather that Kahlo is personifying her stance on the two countries. By showing the creation of the birth of the country of Mexico from mother- nature with the sun and the moon she is alluding to the fact that the United States was built off of monetary purpose and personal gain. Author, Lucy Ann Havard cites “…the painting’s political message which is based on the juxtaposition of an untainted, earthy Mexico and the robotic, Fordist technology of gringo capitalism” (Havard, 2006).
This indicates how Frida viewed America in comparison to her home country but her future tore at her very core, attempting to remove her from her past. As the past and the future collide in the imagery, there also seems to be a hint of masculinity and femininity. The Mexican side has more of a symbolic representation of a woman where there is nature such as flowers and the figurines bare similarities to those seen in ancient Mayan cultures of fertility statues. The American side showed the harsh Industrialism that is considered a “man’s world” with machinery and technology.
This could be a take on the side that Rivera wanted her to be a part of or the part that he was in love with. Havard, supports this idea of a male and female side by stating “The painting looks not only to the literal geographic border between different cultures, but it also juxtaposes the past and the future, female nature versus masculine technology, growth versus exploitation” (Harvard, 2006). The idea of a man’s control of a woman seems to play a major role in this painting. Along with the symbolism of her difficulties in her relationships, and her identity as a Mexican-American, are strongly represented in “Self-Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States” (Harvard, 2006).
(Helland, 1990)Frida Kahlo is notorious for her self-portraits and her revolutionist mentality. Her art is iconoclastic and morbid for her time but an honest representation of her life. Kahlo was a Mexican-American painter who created dozens of paintings that shaped the way we view Hispanic Art. Although she has many iconic pieces, the paintings “The Two Fridas”, “What the Water Gave Me”, and “Self-Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States”, all prove to support the theme of culture and emotional distress. Kahlo’s ties to her Mexican roots grew heavy in her heart while trying to become the woman that Rivera wanted her to be. In her three artworks, she used vivid imagery and symbolism of the Mexican culture by Tehuana dresses, landmarks, and geography. In both the “The Two Fridas” and “Self Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States”, Frida Kahlo is separated by both countries wearing traditional clothing that suit both ethnicities.
Her newly formed American ties can also be seen in all three paintings by imagery of buildings, Anglo clothing, and industrialism. Her painting shows indication of her inner self at war with both cultures. One in which was her past, everything she knew, and the other what her husband wanted her to pretend to be. Kahlo’s works highlight key issues in her life that caused irreparable damage. The reoccurring theme of pain both physical and emotional is consistant in her works, most predominately in “The Two Fridas” and “What the Water Gave Me”. These pieces allowed Frida to openly represents the abusive ties in her relationships by using imagery of sexual orientations and the control over her by Diego Rivera.
Frida Kahlo biggest hardship was choosing sides between her familiar roots and the roots of her future. Her artistic success can be credited to her gruesome and harsh representation of what her life entailed and her transparency in political issues placed her in the shoes of a revolutionist. BibliographyBeck, Evelyn Torton. 2006. “Kahlo’s World Split Open.” Feminist Studies 32, no. 1: 54-81.
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