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Exploring Frida: The Sexuality, Gender, and Politics of Frida Kahlo

Exploring Frida: The Sexuality, Gender, and Politics of Frida Kahlo

H. Bradford

5/18/17

Each month, Pandemonium meets up for a discussion and pizza.  Pandemonium is a bi+ group in Duluth/Superior.  Past topics include bisexuality and domestic violence, different bisexual identities, bisexual poets, and other topics related to sexuality and gender such as homophobia and the plight of transgender prisoners.  This month, the topic is Frida Kahlo.  Frida Kahlo is an artist who captures the imagination of many women.  Like many people, I became familiar with her from the 2002 film starring Selma Hayek.  Perhaps she captures the imagination of women and feminists because of her iconic fashion, her relationship struggles, her rebellion against social norms, the personal nature of self-portraits, her physical and emotional pain, etc.  She captures my imagination because she was bisexual and a communist.  Because of my interests, the presentation will focus on her political, gender, and sexual identities.  The presentation itself draws heavily from Hayden Herrera’s (1983) biography “Frida, a Biography of Frida Kahlo.”  The nature of Pandemonium is to educate one another on a topic for the purpose of growing as a bi+ community and in these identities.  These presentations are peer to peer in nature and none of us our experts on the topics that we explore.  Hopefully the following provides some insights, but should be treated as an informal community presentation.  With that said, Frida Kahlo was a very political and sexual person and these two facets of her identity were both deeply intertwined, sometimes inconsistent, and often revolutionary.

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Frida was born and died in the Blue House, a house build by her father in 1904.  Her father was a photographer who was a Jewish Hungarian born in Romania, but who grew up in Germany.  Her mother, Matilde, was a devoutly Catholic Mexican woman from Oaxaca.  Frida was born in 1907, but changed her birth date to 1910 so that she could shared her birth date with the year that the Mexican revolution began (Herrera, 1983).  The fact that she changed her official birth date indicates her nationalism, or love of Mexico, which was evident in her artwork and fashion sense.  Frida wanted to be associated with the Mexican Revolution.  The revolution itself stemmed from various classes who were upset with the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.  Diaz came to power in 1876 after decades of foreign intervention and warfare in Mexico.  He is credited with creating a powerful centralized government in Mexico and ushering in an era of capitalist development.  Mexican exports increased by six times under his rule, the country went from around 600 km of railroad tracks to over 20,000, and the money in circulation in the Mexican economy increased by twelve times.  Mining industries, oil exports, and banking saw explosive expansion during this time period.  At the same time, middle class Mexicans were frustrated by corruption, cronyism, and lack of opportunities.  While Mexico became much more developed under Diaz, 70% of the population was engaged in agricultural work.  The countryside was heavily taxed, denied regional or local autonomy, and often subject to corrupt governance which arbitrarily fined and punished the population, often with forced labor.  In 1883, a law was passed with allowed landed elites to easily buy commonly held lands or lands without official titles.  This denied peasants the ability to support themselves, turning many into renters, servants to landlords, resident laborers, and sharecroppers.  At the same time, the working class grew with the development of the country, but like all workers, suffered harsh conditions.  The workers were often paid in scrip and also suffered the same harsh taxes and arbitrary law enforcement that peasants did (Easterling, 2009).  The full history of the Mexican revolution is too complicated and lengthy to explore in depth, but basically, Portofino Diaz re-election in 1910 but was challenged by Francisco Madero, a reformist candidate from a wealthy landowning family who won the support of the liberal middle class.  Diaz feared Madero would win the election, so he had him arrested and went on to win the election.  Madero was sprung from prison and escaped to San Antonio, where he promoted a more revolutionary message that promised land reform with the hope of inciting an uprising against Diaz.  The call for revolution was taken up by rebels such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who organized peasant farmers to fight the regime.  In May 1911, Diaz resigned and later that year, Madero was elected.  This did not end the revolution, as Madero quickly befriended members of the old regime and expanded the military in the interest in maintaining the status quo and curtailing rebellion for land reform.  Later, he ordered the destruction of land through scorched earth policies and war against the Zapatistas, or followers of Emiliano Zapata.  The U.S. actively supported anyone who rebelled against Madero, hoping to return some semblance of order to the country.  A 1913 coup against Madero thrust General Huerta into power, but his regime was short lived.  He was ousted from power in 1914, while various rebel factions continued to fight each other.  The next six years consisted of fighting between Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Obregon Zapata.  Carranza was elected president in 1917, created a constitution which tried to appeal to peasant demands, but was assassinated by Obregon in 1920.  Pancho Villa agreed to stop fighting after 1920, but fighting continued in various parts of Mexico until 1934.  In short, the world in which Frida spent her childhood was tumultuous and politically charged as various rebels and social classes vied for power.  This would have informed her early political views and shaped the opportunities available to her as a woman and artist.

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Painting of Zapata by Diego Rivera


Frida Kahlo grew up in a very political world, but had the privilege of growing up in a middle class family which encouraged her personal growth.  According to Herrera (1983) Frida enjoyed a close relationship with her father, who lent her books, taught her painting and photography, and encouraged her to learn about nature and archaeology.  Frida contracted polio at age six, so her father encouraged her to play sports such as boxing and soccer to strengthen her leg.  Her father had no sons, so it is possible that he looked to Frida to fulfill the role of a son.  Thus, she benefited from her father’s non-traditional expectations regarding gender, which allowed her to express herself through education and art.  Perhaps because of he lacked a son, Frida’s father encouraged her to attend the National Preparatory School.  At the same time, Frida benefited from opportunities in art and education that arose after the Mexican revolution.  Under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, Mexican intellectuals and leaders looked to Europe for cultural and economic inspiration and disdained indigenous Mexican culture.  The Mexican revolution sought to return Mexico to Mexicans through land reforms, nationalization of natural resources, and embracing native culture.  Frida attended the National Preparatory School just a few years after girls were first admitted.  While studying there, she was a member of The Cachuchas, a very loosely Marxist organization (Haynes, 2006).  This was her first introduction to socialism.  Interestingly, it was not art that she pursued as a student.  Rather, she studied natural sciences with the intention of becoming a doctor (Mataev, n.d).  While at school, she was described by her friends at the school as tomboyish.  Her closest friends were members of the Cachuchas, seven boys and two girls, who were interested in socialism.  However, they were better known for causing pranks at the school, such as bringing a donkey into a classroom and setting off firecrackers during a lecture.  The students were also voracious readers who discussed Hegel, Kant, Russian literature, and Mexican fiction.  This indicates that at a young age, she expressed her gender in non-traditional ways and was politically minded.  Her love life as a student also indicates the political nature of her early life.  While she was in school, she dated Alejandro Gomez Arias, the leader of the Cachuchas.  At the same time, according to her mythology, she was immediately smitten with Diego Rivera when he came to paint the amphitheater of her school.  Although she was a young teen, she told her friends that she would have his child and reportedly tried to trip him by putting soap on the stairs and stole a sandwich from his lunchbox (Herrera, 1983).  Rivera himself was a product of the time, a muralist who created political scenes of Mexican history, social movements, and workers.  If the mythology is true, Frida became infatuated with Diego Rivera when she was 15 years old and he was 36 (Collins, 2013).


In Herrera’s (1983) account Frida’s first relationship was with Alejandro Gomez Arias, but this biography offered scant details about her bisexuality.  Collin’s (2013) posited that Frida’s first sexual relationship was when she was 13 years old and unable to participate in phy-ed due to her earlier bout with polio.  Her health teacher, Sara Zenil, initiated a relationship with her, which was ended when Frida’s mother found her letters and transferred her to a different school (Collins, 2013).  This affair may have been true, as indeed Frida was suddenly transferred from a teacher preparation school to the National Preparatory School.  The letters indicate that Frida believed she loved the teacher and she was exited from the school.   Originally, her mother wanted her to attend the school as she wanted Frida to become a teacher, as it was a traditional job for women (Ankori, 2013).  According to an account from Alejandro, Frida was later seduced by a woman who worked at a library for the Ministry of Education.  Frida was looking for a library job to support her family, who had fallen onto harder times due to her father’s inability to find photography work.  Her parents found out about this and Frida reportedly told a friend that the experience was traumatic (Herrera, 1983).  It is possible that she was involved with two older women, both of which were discovered by her parents.  In both cases, her introduction to same sex relationships was embarrassing, traumatic, and unequal in power.  This history therefore isn’t a positive example of bisexuality, but an example of older women taking advantage of a financially and physically disadvantaged youth.


Trauma and suffering are prevailing themes in Frida’s life.  On September 17th, 1925, Frida was involved in a bus accident.  She was impaled in the pelvis with an iron rod and her spinal column was broken in three places.  She also broke her pelvis, some ribs, and fractured her foot and hand (Herrera, 1983).  She took up painting after the accident and said that she chose self-portraits because she felt so alone during that time period and because it was a subject she knew best (Haynes, 2016).  In reference to the trauma of the accident, she said she lost her virginity to the handrail.  She spent a month in the hospital and several months at home recovering.  During this time, she continued her relationship with Alejandro, but it grew strained as he accused her of being “loose.” In her letters, she admitted to kissing and dating others (Herrera, 1983).  This is an early indication of her flexibility concerning traditional monogamy.  During this time she dropped out of school due to her health and medical costs.  She began painting after the accident and her first painting was a gift for Alejandro entitled Self Portrait.  The two parted ways when Alejandro continued school and traveled to Europe.  Frida was briefly involved in a relationship with German de Campo, who was an anti-militarism and anti-imperialist student organizer.  He was president of the National Student Confederation and fought for academic freedom, a new exam system, but was killed while giving a speech in support of presidential candidate Jose Vasconcelos.  Germain de Campo introduced Frida to some of his friends, including Julio Antonio Mella, an exiled Cuban communist.  She became friends with Tina Modotti, a photographer, model, and communist friend of Mella’s, who later introduced her to Diego Rivera.  Once again, Frida’s love interests were often deeply political individuals.


In the 2002 film Frida, Tina Modotti was portrayed by Ashley Judd.  Frida and Tina shared a dance in the film.  According to DeMirjynn (2011), the audience, along with Diego Rivera’s character, watch the dance in approval, locating her sexuality within the male gaze.  The dance followed a drinking contest, which could be seen as a way to dismiss the legitimacy of her sexuality, as it was alcohol fueled.  The film highlighted her affairs with men, with little attention to her female attraction.  Diego Rivera actually played a larger role in the 2002 film compared to the 1983 Mexican film, Frida, Naturaleza Viva.  In the 2002 film, Rivera reacted negatively to Frida’s affair with Trotsky, but not at all to her affairs with women, rendering her queerness invisible or unimportant according to DeMirjyn (2011).   Herrera’s (1983) biography of Frida supports that Rivera indeed acted either indifferently or supportive of Frida’s affairs with women, but the book gives little attention to these relationships, also rendering that history invisible.  Rivera himself was amused by Frida’s lesbianism, as he called it.  Diego believed in free love and had many affairs, but he did not tolerate Frida’s affairs with men.  He encouraged or was open about her affairs with women.   Nevertheless, Frida did sneak men into her home, warning them that Diego might kill them.  For instance, Frida had an affair with the sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, but it ended when they plotted to get an apartment together for their rendezvous, but the bill for the furniture was accidentally delivered to Frida’s residence with Diego.  In Noguchi’s account, Diego threatened him twice with a gun and on one occasion he had to jump out of a window to avoid getting caught with Frida (Herrera, 1983).  Diego’s reaction Frida’s sexuality as well as how it is framed by some historians shows the trouble with how bisexuality is understood and treated in society.  Garner (2000) argued that men may not be threatened by female relationships because female sexuality is framed to exist for them or because women are inferior in society, they are not viewed as threats.  The relationships between women can therefore more easily be dismissed.

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The dance scene from the film, Frida


There is no denying the importance of Diego Rivera in Frida’s life.  Diego Rivera was a well known artist and communist when she met him.  Frida was a communist in her own right as well.  She was a member of the Young Communist League and while she is remembered for her feminine dresses, ribbons, flowers, ruffles, and indigenous styles, she actually had periods in her life when she wore more militant clothing.   After joining the Communist Party in the 1920s, she started wearing black or red shirts with hammer and sickle pins as well as blue jeans.  She also gave speeches, attended secret meetings, and attended rallies.  Diego actually depicted Frida as a communist militant in a panel of his mural Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution.  He portrayed her as a tomboy, with a man’s shirt with a red star on the pocket and short hair, handing out rifles and bayonets (Herrera, 1983).  This more masculine version of Frida demonstrates her flexibility in expressing her gender and openness about her political beliefs.  Her views of marriage were also less traditional.  Rather than a traditional ceremony, Frida married Diego in 1929 in a small civil ceremony in which she wore street clothes.  Her mother opposed the marriage, since Diego was an atheist communist and she was Catholic.  Her father supported the marriage, perhaps because Frida was his only single daughter, had massive medical bills, and the family could no longer afford their mortgage.  After the wedding. Frida moved into Diego’s mansion where two other communists lived.  Around this time, Diego had a strained relationship with the Communist Party over taking commissions for his artwork, relationship to government officials, his critique of communist trade unions, and his skepticism that countries would attack Russia.  His friend, Tina Modotti, who introduced the couple, remained a member of the Communist Party but denounced their friendship and called him a traitor (Herrera, 1983).   In a theatrical protest of his expulsion, Rivera attended the 1929 Communist Party convention, gave a dramatic speech, and smashed a clay pistol in a dramatic exit from the party (Morrison and Pietras, 2010).   Frida also left the party when Rivera was expelled.

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1929, the year that Diego and Frida married and left the Communist Party, was the same year that Stalin exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union.  Diego sided with Trotsky and pressured Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas into accepting Trotsky into the country after the revolutionary had been forced out of Norway and no other country would accept him (Tuck, 2008).   Rivera presented Mexican president Cardenas a petition for Trotsky to have sanctuary in Mexico, provided that he did not meddle with Mexican political affairs.  However, due to Rivera’s poor health at the time, it was Frida who met the Trotskys along with Max Shachtman and George Novak on November 21, 1936.  Trotsky reportedly refused to leave the boat until he saw friendly faces.  Trotsky and company took a secret train to Mexico City to avoid the GPU.  The arrival was complete with a fake welcome party at Rivera’s home.  Trotsky did not speak Spanish, nor did his wife, so Frida served as an advisor and escort.  Cristina, Frida’s sister, acted as a chauffeur.  Frida also had several of her trusted servants serve her guests.  Frida’s father had the impression that she esteemed Trotsky, as she described him as a companion of Lenin and a man who made the Russian revolution.  Time magazine reported that Natalia had malaria in January 1937 and Rivera had a kidney ailment (Herrera, 1983).  Perhaps these illnesses provided the opportunity for an affair to grow between Frida and Trotsky.  Revenge against Rivera for his affair with Frida’s sister may also have been a catalyst for the affair.

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Trotsky’s secretary Jean van Heijenoort noted that Frida and Trotsky’s relationship was obvious to many around them.  They would meet at Frida’s sister’s home and Trotsky exchanged letters to her through the books he loaned her.  They spoke in English to one another, excluding Trotsky’s wife from the conversation (Zamora, 1991).  Frida attended the Dewey Commission and sat closely with Trotsky as he defended himself against the accusations of the Moscow Trials.  Aside from this, the Riveras and Trotskys spent a lot of time together, doing picnics and excursions.  Trotsky began collecting cacti and horse riding.  Trotsky trusted Rivera, who was one of few people he saw without the company of another.  Trotsky and Frida likely began their affair after the Dewey Commission.  During this time, Frida was reportedly left out of theoretical discussions between Trotsky, Rivera, and the surrealist, Andre Breton.  This may indicate that she was not taken seriously as a socialist or dismissed as a woman.  She said that she didn’t care much for theory and that Trotsky didn’t like it when she smoked.  The affair ended in July 1937 and Trotsky moved out of the house.  He may have felt that the affair might discredit him and it certainly depressed his wife of 35 years.  Frida visited him at the new residents, which again hurt his wife, but Trotsky underplayed the visit in his letter to Natalia (Herrera, 1983).


Trotsky moved outside the city for a time in July 1937.   In recognition of the twenty year anniversary of the Russian revolution and Trotsky’s birthday, Frida gave Trotsky a portrait on November 7, 1937.  The title was Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky- Between the Curtains.  (Zamora, 1991).   Herrera (1983) believed that this portrait was a gift to Trotsky after the affair and represented a shift in Frida’s vision of herself.  The painting is seductive, mature, and confident.  In it, she is depicted in a butterfly printed robe.  She also completed a painting called I belong to my owner which depicts a rose and dry prickly flowers.  Herrera (1983) suggested that this painting may also represent the affair and how despite her flings, Diego owned her sexuality.  The affair with Trotsky marked a new period in her life, wherein she became more independent as an artist.  In 1938, coincidentally the year that the 4th International was founded, Frida came into her own as an artist.  She made her first significant art sales, selling four paintings for $200 each.  Upon making the sale, she said that she was happy that she could travel without Diego’s support.  In 1939, she traveled alone to New York for her first exhibition and began an affair with the photographer Nickolas Muray.  She also traveled to France, where she stayed with Andre Breton and became involved in the surrealist art community.  Despite the fact that she and Trotsky were no longer a couple and she never officially joined the 4th International, Frida attended Trotskyist meetings in Paris as a representative from Mexico.   She also had an affair with an unknown French Trotskyist.  It is also during her time in Paris that she met Trotsky’s future assassin, Raul Mercador (Herrera, 1983).

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Frida’s aversion to Trotskyism may have been more practical than political.  Herrera (1983) suggested that this is because the Trotskyist movement in Mexico was small, poor, and active in trade unions.  No one joined it unless committed to working for it full time.  Rivera joined the movement, but this may have actually strained his relationship with Trotsky.  There are several accounts of how Trotsky and Rivera had a falling out.  According to an account from Alfred Bildner, who stayed with Frida when she was hosting Trotsky and did some translation work for him, Diego and Frida had violent arguments with Trotsky in 1939, as they had adopted Stalinism.  Trotsky left their residence and moved a few blocks away (Bildner, 2004).   In another account, Rivera worked with Trotsky and in February 1938 signed a manifesto for the creation of an International Federation of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, for the purpose of resisting Stalinist domination of the arts.  In this version of the history, the political disagreements between Rivera and Trotsky were over the 1940 presidential election in Mexico.  Rivera supported Juan Almazon, a right wing candidate backed by Mexican fascists.  Rivera denounced Cardenas as an accomplice to Stalinists, which upset Trotsky, who did not want to antagonize the president who had offered him asylum.  The argument caused Trotsky to move out.  Yet, Trotsky described Rivera as fair minded and artistically genius, despite his political shortcomings (Tuck, 2008).  In Herrera’s (1983) version of their falling out, Trotsky sent a private letter to Frida asking for her help.  He said that Rivera was upset with him because he had suggested that he focus on his art rather than politics.  Trotsky had suggested this because Rivera wanted more responsibilities as an organizer, but did not answer letters or other mundane responsibilities needed in party life.  In the letter to Frida, he asked her for help in mending the relationship as he felt that Diego was an important part of the movement.  It is plausible that Rivera, who had a big personality and ego was personally offended by Trotsky’s lack of faith in his political abilities.  Whatever the case, Rivera’s relationship with Trotsky deteriorated.  He even gave Trotsky a sugar skull with Stalin’s name on it.

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Rivera and Frida’s marriage deteriorated not long after.  In November 1939, the two of them divorced.  This may have been due to Frida’s affair with Muray or any number of their affairs.  Frida returned to Mexico, painted prolifically, but also suffered from bad health.  In May 1940, Trotsky was attacked in an attempted assassination.  Following the attack, Rivera fled the country with the help of some friends, moving to San Fransisco.  On August 21, 1940, Trotsky was assassinated and Frida spent two days in jail with her sister Cristina.  They were believed to be suspects in his assassination.  Indeed, Frida had met Raul Mercader twice, but police did not find evidence of her involvement in the assassination (Herrera, 1983).  Following the assassination, she phoned Diego and said, “They killed old Trotsky this morning,” she cried. “Estupido! It’s your fault that they killed him. Why did you bring him?”  (Rogers, 2014)   A month later, Frida traveled to San Fransisco for medical treatment.  She later moved to New York and began an affair with a twenty five year old art dealer named Heinz Berggruen.  The two spent two months living together in a hotel.  Meanwhile, Diego Rivera proposed to Frida several times, wanting to remarry her.  In December 1940, she married him and returned to Mexico, as both of them had been cleared as suspects in the assassination of Leon Trotsky (Herrera, 1983).


Despite her initial upset over Trotsky’s death, Frida became increasingly pro-Soviet as World War II progressed.  At the same time, Stalinists shunned Rivera for his previous association with Trotsky.  Rivera tried numerous times to rejoin the Communist Party.  He applied again with Frida in 1948.  Frida was accepted and Rivera was rejected.  Rivera remained embittered against Trotsky and even asked Frida to sign her membership paperwork with a pen she had given Trotsky.  Frida refused to do this.  In her diary, she said that denouncing Trotsky was unthinkable, but she denounced him publicly anyway.  She called him a coward and a thief.  Diego even boasted that he only invited Trotsky to Mexico so he could be assassinated (Herrera, 1983).   Rivera’s connection to the assassination as been a matter of some controversy.  Rivera was friends with David Siqueiros, a fellow muralist who attempted to kill Trotksy in 1940.  It is also suspicious that Diego Rivera went into hiding following the attack.  He framed it as though he feared for his own life.  Rivera may have been a collaborator with the United States, according to research by Professor William Chase of Pittsburgh University.  According to FBI and State Department documents, while identifying as a Trotskyist, Rivera provided the United States with lists of communists and communist activities.   It is unknown if Diego actually collaborated with the FBI, but it is known that he was wire tapped by them while he was staying in San Francisco (Davidson, 1993).   In any event, the shadow of suspicion hangs over Diego Rivera, though Frida has not been identified with historians as complicit in Trotsky’s murder.


The remaining years of Frida’s life were marked with profound illness and a stronger association with communism.  Frida began teaching art and leftist theory to students of the Ministry of Public Education’s School of Painting and Sculpture.  She was said to treat her students as equal and recommend Marxist texts to them.  Some of her students were called Fridos and went on to found the Young Revolutionary Artists.  In 1944, her health continued to erode and she was diagnosed with syphilis.  In 1945, she wore a variety of medical corsets and could not sit down or lay down in them.  In 1950, she spent a year in the hospital.  As she grew more closely connected to the Communist Party, her art style changed.  She began painting still lifes and adopting realism.  She said she wanted her art to be useful and even boasted that she was a better communist than Diego, as she had been in the party longer and always paid her dues (Herrera, 1983).   In 1953, Frida had her first solo exhibition in Mexico, but was so sick that she had to be taken there in her bed.  Her leg was amputated later that year, which brought her tremendous despair.  She attempted suicide numerous times after her amputation.  Diego continued to have affairs with other women, including Raquel Tibol, whom Frida tried to kiss when she visited her bed.  Tibol was shocked enough to push Frida away.  At the same time, she developed a very close relationship with her nurse, Judith Ferreto.  Judith would sleep in her room, lay beside her in bed, hold her cigarettes for her, and sing her to sleep.  While the relationship may not have been sexual, it was one of her closest relationships during the time period, since her mental health, suicide attempts, pain, anger, and abuse of others alienated her loved ones (Herrera, 1983).   Frida created a painting called Marxism will give health to the sick, which was one of her last paintings and never fully completed.  The painting depicts her in her leather corset, near two large hands, an image of Karl Marx, a dove, and a hand around the neck of Uncle Sam.  Towards the end of her life, she tried to be more overt in the political content of her paintings.  The painting is meant to represent the healing power of Marxism, as she is holding a red book instead of crutches and healed by two large hands.  The original title of the painting was Peace on Earth so the Marxist Science may Save the Sick and Those Oppressed by Criminal Yankee Capitalism.   (Marxism will give health to the sick, n.d.).  Frida also painted a portrait of Joseph Stalin and became distraught when he died in 1953.  On July 2nd 1954, Frida attended a protest of 10,000 people against the U.S. supported coup against Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala.  Diego pushed her in her wheelchair through the crowd, where for four hours, she shouted “Yankee assassins, get out!”  She said that she wanted three things in life: Diego, to be a communist, and to paint.  The demonstration taxed her health and she died on July 13th (Herrera, 1983).

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When Kahlo died, her coffin was covered with a red flag with a hammer and sickle imposed on a star (Helland, 1992).  The International was sung at her funeral along with The Young Guard, the song played at Lenin’s funeral (Herrera, 1983).   Her life and death leave many questions.  She is remembered for her femininity, but she also wore her hair short and dressed up in suits and the clothes of workers.  After her divorce with Rivera and after he cheated on her with her sister, she cropped her hair (Herrera, 1983).  At the same time, her masculinity should not be attributed simply to the emotional states caused by Rivera.  After all, she had been remembered as a tomboyish child.  She was a girl who wanted to be a doctor and who enjoyed politics and her father’s company.  She wore men’s clothes in a 1926 family photo.  Thus, her gender expression was more than shadow puppetry in the darkness Diego created in her life.  While she is more well known for her affairs with men, she also loved women.   In her diary she wrote a love letter to the painter Jacqueline Lambda (Haynes, 2006).   Frida also had relationships with actresses Dolores del Rio and Paulette Goddard.  Frida flirted with Georgia O’Keefe at Stieglitz’s gallery.  Diego Rivera reportedly supported Frida’s affairs with women, but felt threatened by those with men.  Garber (2000) suggests that this may have been because he was turned on by the idea of two women together or because he was insecure that he was twenty years older than her and could not satisfy her sexual appetite.  Whatever the case, her sexuality is always understood in the context of men.  In her own words she said, “Men are kings.  They direct the world (Herrera, 1983, p. 250).”  Trotsky and Rivera were certainly give more attention in this research.  They were masters of the world of politics and art.  Further, Frida’s relationships with women are less known.  They are left out of the narrative of her life for lack of information.  After Frida died, her friends edited and destroyed parts of her diaries.  It is possible that this aspect of her life was destroyed or edited out of history or because of biphobia and homophobia, for decades it was underplayed and under researched.  Beyond sexuality and gender, is her troublesome association with Stalinism and her affair with Trotsky.  She denounced a man who she both slept with and offered safety to.  While it seems that her political decisions were certainly connected to Diego, she was a communist before she met him and it insults her intelligence to suppose that she blindly followed him politically.  Surely he influenced her political life, but she had enough agency to declare herself a better communist and paint Stalin from her deathbed.

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Haynes (2016) noted that one theme from Frida’s life was duality, which is seen in both her art and her life.  An example in her art is the painting, The Two Fridas wherein she depicts two versions of herself, each sharing a heart.  They are dressed differently and in different poses to represent her European identity and the other her Mexican identity, as she was the daughter of a German/Hungarian Jew and a part Native American catholic mother.  The image also represents her emotional side and rational side.  Frida’s gender expression and sexuality may also be described as “in between.”  While her clothes are often feminine dresses, her unibrow, facial hair, and stern expression may be seen as masculine.  As a young adult, she wore suits and after a split with Rivera, she cropped her hair and resumed wearing suits (Haynes, 2016).  Frida actually depicted herself as more masculine during the 1940s, darkening her mustache in portraits of that era (Garber, 2000).  Another duality is her bisexuality, or betweenness in regard to her attraction to men and women.  Bisexual themes have been interpreted in Frida’s art.  For instance, Two Nudes in the Forest, depicts two naked women in the forest.  A darker skinned woman has her hand on the neck of a lighter skinned woman, as a monkey watches from the forest.   The painting was created for Dolores Del Rio, a Mexican actress, around the time she was going through a divorce with Rivera (Collins, 2013).  Delores Del Rio, like many of the women in Frida’s life, was powerful, beautiful, non-conventional, and pioneering.  She was the first Latina actress to become famous in Hollywood, though less political than many of Frida’s other love interests.  Josephine Baker was another love interest, and again, a pioneering woman.  She was the first Black woman to become a world famous entertainer.  She had communist sympathies and performed in Cuba on the 7th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and later in Albania and Yugoslavia.  She also was a leader in the NAACP and an organizer in the Civil Rights movement.  Certainly, Baker more politically interesting and historically important than Diego Rivera.  But, specific details regarding their relationship is harder to find, likely owing to the fact that they lived in a world that was hostile to same sex relationships.  Finally, in a way, Frida’s relationship to Diego might be seen as a relationship between two gender non-conforming individuals. Diego Rivera was woman-like in Frida’s eyes.  He was a large man and Frida said that he would have been welcome on the island of Lesbos.  She said she loved his large breasts and pink, oversized underwear, which he wore due to his enormous girth (Herrera, 1983).

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Politically, Frida’s life was full of duality.  Not only was she at varying times pulled between Trotskyism and Stalinism, according to Helland (1992) she was pulled between Marxism and nationalism.  Frida lived in a time where Marxism and Mexican nationalism were both popular.  Mexican nationalism consisted of an idealization of Aztec culture, an interest in Mexican history, mixed with anti-Spanish and anti-imperialism.   Kahlo used Aztec inspired images in her artwork, such as hearts and skeletons.  Unlike Rivera, she did not identify with the internationalism of Trotskyism and did not create as many traditionally socialist styled pieces of art.  Nationalism may have been why she identified with Stalinism.  Many of her paintings critique the United States, such as her Self-Portrait on the Border Between Mexico and the United States, wherein the United States is depicted as highly industrial and robotic, and Mexico is depicted as agricultural and and pre-industrial.  Frida died with an unfinished portrait of Stalin on her easel and near her bed were pictures of Marx, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, and Engels (Helland, 1992).  While she did not overtly call herself a feminist, feminists admire Kahlo because of the themes of female experience in her paintings, such as birth, miscarriage, and unhappiness in love.  Frida might be looked upon as a feminist for her experiences with abortion.  While she later described the incident as a miscarriage, in 1932, she wrote in her diary of a self-induced abortion using quinine.  She also sought a medical abortion due to concerns for her reproductive health after her accident and experienced a miscarriage.  She was denied an abortion, so she sought to self-perform one.  Dr. Pratt informed her that she could have a child and deliver it through c-section.  Interestingly, her abortions have been reframed by historians as miscarriages.  While she is believed to have regret not having children, she may have cultivated this belief in order to conform to social norms of the day and because motherhood was central to Mexican woman identity at the time.  Her poor health may have been used to legitimize this decision.  Abortion was illegal in the United States and Mexico at the time (Zetterman, 2006).  A duality was her longing for reproduction, her love of children, but her inability to have them.  Finally, she is quoted as saying that she detested surrealism as bourgeoisie art, but she also rejected the socialist realism sanctioned by the Soviet Union  (Helland, 1992).  Thus, her art is another duality.  She was embraced by surrealists, but also had elements of realism.  Finally, her art itself contrasts with her politics, as she was a socialist who was deeply interested in herself or own individuality.


Frida Kahlo was a complicated and fascinating person.  The magnetism and mystery that drew people to her in her own time continues to attract audiences to her art and history.  There are so many facets of her life and personality to uncover.  This piece barely explores her political life, faintly reviews her sexual life, and only hints at her gender.  Like others, this research makes the mistake of focusing too heavily on her relationships with men.   Of course, bisexuality does not necessarily mean equal attraction to men and women.  The emphasis on her male relationships is not a problem with Frida’s sexuality or does not in anyway diminish her bisexuality.  Rather, it is a problem with the male focus of society and by extension, historians.  As a bisexual Trotskyist, I was certainly interested in that aspect of her life.   But, this focus runs the risk of creating a narrative that relationships with women or women themselves are unimportant.  Despite these shortcomings, it is my hope that it offers a few tidbits of insight to those who attended our monthly meeting and raises new questions about her.


Sources:

Ankori, G., & A. (2013). Frida Kahlo. London: Reaktion Books.

Bildner, A. (2004). Diego, Frida, and Trotsky. Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies.

 

Collins, A. F. (2013, September 17). Frida Kahlo’s Diary: A Glimpse Inside Her Tortured, Scribble-Happy World. Retrieved April 06, 2017, from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/1995/09/frida-kahlo-diego-rivera-art-diary

 

Davison, Phil. “Diego Rivera’s Dirty Little Secret.” Independent 25 Nov. 1993

 

DeMirjyn, M. (2011). “The Queer Filming of Frida”: Creating a Cinematic Latina Lesbian Icon. Praxis, 23(1).

 

Easterling, S. (2013, March). Mexico’s revolution 1910–1920. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://isreview.org/issue/74/mexicos-revolution-1910-1920

 

Haynes, A. (2006). Frida Kahlo: An Artist’In Between’. In Conference Proceedings–Thinking Gender–The NEXT generation.

 

Helland, J. (1992). Culture, politics, and identity in the paintings of Frida Kahlo. The expanding discourse: Feminism and art history, 397-408.

 

Herrera, H. (1983). Frida, a biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: Perennial.

 

Garber, M. B. (2000). Bisexuality and the eroticism of everyday life. New York: Routledge.

 

Mataev, O. (n.d.). Frida Kahlo Biography. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://www.abcgallery.com/K/kahlo/kahlobio.html

 

“Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick – by Frida Kahlo.” Frida Kahlo.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. <http://www.fridakahlo.org/marxism-will-give-health-to-the-sick.jsp&gt;

 

Morrison, J., & Pietras, J. (2010). Frida Kahlo. New York: Chelsea House.

 

Motian-Meadows, M. (n.d.). Kahlo As Artist, Woman, Rebel. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/2782

 

Rogers, L. (2014, April 30). Frida’s Red Hot Lover. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from https://lisawallerrogers.com/2009/06/10/fridas-red-hot-lover/

 

Tuck, J. (2008, October). Rebel without a pause: the tempestuous life of Diego Rivera. Retrieved April 08, 2017, from http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/306-rebel-without-a-pause-the-tempestuous-life-of-diego-rivera

 

Two Nudes in the Forest. (n.d.). Retrieved May 18, 2017, from http://www.fridakahlo.org/two-nudes-in-the-forest.jsp

 

Zamora, M. (1991). Frida Kahlo: the brush of anguish. Tokyo: Libroport.

 

Zetterman, E. (2006). Frida Kahlo’s abortions: With reflections from a gender perspective on sexual education in Mexico. Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, 75(4), 230-243.

 

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Guerrilla Girls Review

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(Image from Feminist Art Project at Rutgers University)

Today I went to check out the Guerrilla Girls at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Founded in 1985, the group consists of anonymous feminists who wear guerilla masks while trying to raise awareness about racial, gender, class, sexuality, etc. inequalities within art. The members of the group are named after dead female artists and have chosen to wear masks so the audience can focus on their message, rather than their individual identities. The group has promoted awareness of inequalities in art (and the media) through posters, stickers, lectures, interviews, and artwork. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the event. I am all for trying to be creative and using costumes to make protest more interesting and vibrant. After all, at one time I wanted to start up radical cheerleading and clowning groups. Really, I had a fun time for the short while I did radical cheerleading. However, I was cautious that perhaps the event would be more artsy, silly, and performative than factual and substantive. I also know very little about art, so I was uncertain if the event would speak to me or my experiences. Finally, because the group was founded upon post-structural ideas, I thought that there might be aspects of the event that I didn’t agree with. My misgivings were entirely unfounded and I found the event to be excellent.

 

The event consisted of a slideshow and lecture about inequalities and art. The presentation was conducted by two women in gorilla masks. As silly as this sounds, it was engaging, and the masks were not at all distracting after the first slide or two. The masks and dark colored clothes indeed helped me to focus on the content rather than the speakers. I did not take notes during the event, but to summarize some of the main ideas the speakers were upset with the treatment of gender (and race) in art. Most artists featured in museums around the world (above 90% in all museums surveyed) are male. The museums themselves are named after men. And, among the human bodies depicted in modern art, 85% are female. Furthermore, the pay gap between male and female artists is many times that of the regular pay gap. For instance, the highest selling piece of art by a female was sold for 12% of the price of the highest male artists. The lecture also had information about race and class. I was impressed that the Guerrilla Girls made mention of how enslaved guest workers were being used to build the new Guggenheim museum in Abu Dhabi. The exploited labor used in the construction of a museum seems like something that could easily be missed by an art historian.  Class was also mentioned in their discussion of wealthy art collectors, auction house owners, and museum directors, who help to shape the prices and unequal value assigned to art. In terms of race, the presentation mentioned how the Minneapolis Institute of Art only features one piece of work by a Hmong artist and Somali artist, even though Minneapolis has the largest Hmong and Somali population in the U.S. Overall, the lecture was focused more on gender than race and class, though the intersectionality between them was mentioned. A plethora of other statistics were presented during the lecture, but the general idea was that within our already sexist society, there is a particularly strong gender bias in art. While I had some awareness of this, I had really never stopped to consider it nor did I realize just how big this problem was.

 

Beyond discussing the history of women in art and various inequalities therein, the larger media was also explored. The Guerrilla Girls also discussed their own history and gave us a sneak peek at their newest installation at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. They said that they wrestled with their new-found acceptance by the art community and invitation to show their work around the world. They have decided to use these opportunities as a platform for spreading their message and critiquing the very museums they are shown in. The Guerilla Girls also discussed some of the main ideas from a book they wrote on the history of hysteria. In all, the presentation lasted about an hour, but was engaging the entire time. The use of images, costume, humor, questions to the audience, singing, etc. made the lecture lively and engaging. I think that young audiences, people with ADHD, and people who dislike lectures would benefit from this kind of educational event, since it is attention grabbing and stimulating. In this sense, I feel that their ability to present history, sociology, art history, activism, and politics appealed to many learning styles. I feel that I personally learned from the presentation. The presenters certainly met the educational mission of the Fabian motto, “educate, agitate, organize!”

 

Just as the Guerrilla Girls educated the audience, they also met the slogan’s mission of agitation. This agitation was in the form of their subversive art, poster and sticker campaigns, research, and critique of artistic institutions and norms. The art often consisted of appropriating famous works of art, replacing the head with a gorilla, and pairing this was a statistics. Another interesting piece of art was a movie poster from La Dolce Vita, used to critique putting women’s art in the basement of an Italian museum. Beyond this, their research interested me. For example, they went to museums to conduct a weenie count, counting how many male and female nudes were on display. They also counted the number of female artists compared to male artists. I appreciated this do-it-yourself research. I felt that if I visited a museum, I would want to conduct a count. So, I imagined myself revisiting art museums, such as the ones I visited in Ukraine and Belarus, to do a count. I like the idea of using research in non-conventional ways or the idea that anyone can do research.

 

I think that the only area where the Guerrilla Girls failed was the organize aspect. They critiqued art, drew attention to their findings, and were excellent educators. However, they had no message how others might organize. Their organizational tactic seemed focused on their own group and activities. However, they did not say that anyone could start up a Guerrilla Girl group or that they welcomed new members. In fact, they skirted a direct answer about hierarchy within their group and their group’s organization. Based upon Wikipedia information, the group is by invitation and there has been lawsuits against unauthorized use of their image when the group split in 2003. And while they promoted feminist ideas, they did not provide suggestions of how to build a mass feminist movement or their relationship to mass movements. In fact, they said that their group is really about critique rather than answers. I feel that this is a bit of a cop out. It is the kind of things that teachers may say to their students to uphold some ideal of neutrality or avoid indoctrination. However, this answer can make people feel rather directionless or that there are no solutions, only questions and critiques.  There are certainly ways that artists could organize, beyond donning masks. Although the art economy is not as stereotypically wage oriented as other sectors of the economy, artists might benefit by joining or creating unions. Other demands could be more public funding for underrepresented artists, expansion of art programs in public schools (to create jobs and show a value of art), free tuition for art school as part of a demand for universal education, worker/artist control over museums, etc. Thus, this is my main critique of the presentation. Otherwise, I found it educational, important, and entertaining.

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