A Research Essay by Faustina Sari Setiawan
Student ID: 250648508
VAH 2287F - Sexuality in Modern Visual Culture
Prof. Marielle Aylen
Frida Kahlo: On Deconstructing Femininity and Confronting Maternal Taboos
“I paint flowers so they will not die1” - perfectly encapsulates the Frida Kahlo’s way of coping with the paradoxical hardships of both childbirth and child-loss, in addition to her struggles of being a female artist, by using art as a medium. Many controversies have arisen with regards to Kahlo’s art, with some going as far as to argue that they are merely empty by-products of surreal artistic portrayals of self-serving narcissism. This essay aims to argue that Kahlo served as an integral character in revolutionizing the feminist movement within art history by openly blurring the lines of gender conventions, candidly portraying the then-censored hardships of maternity and the truthful expression of her own bisexuality. During a time whereby representations of feminism or the empowerment of feminine bodies in art were almost unseen or unheard of, as a Mexican female artist living in America in the late 1920s and 30s, Kahlo has successfully defied gender norms and changed the portrayals of femininity within the art world by bringing crucial feminist issues into light, instead of purposefully avoiding them.
Kahlo successfully challenges gender norms by embodying gender ambiguity “in her art, the way she dressed, and also the way she carried herself”2. Taking the way she dresses as an example, Kahlo assimilated conventional ideals of femininity in the beautiful dresses and flowers she often donned herself in with traditionally masculine traits, such as her iconic unibrow and her refusal to shave her upper-lip hair. She breaks old-aged gender conventions further by unabashedly behaving in ways that were considered almost unthinkable for women, as she “liked to drink, smoke, and say countless profanities”3. This harmonious embodiment of male and female dichotomies also translates into her art works, shown in the fact that she proudly portrays herself with a unibrow.
Additionally, Kahlo commonly expressed emotions of homesickness and her desire to move back home to Mexico in her paintings, which opposed the views of her husband, Diego Riviera, who loved pursuing his blooming career in the United States. For instance, in Self Portrait Along the Border line Between Mexico and the United States, Kahlo depicted the conflicting sides of the two countries with “the U.S. which appears to be crowded with buildings and machines’, filling not only the Americans side but also flowing over into the Mexican side. We also see some gadgets in the lower right that appear to be stealing energy from Mexico’s natural resources because they lack their own”4 while she holds a Mexican flag in her hand, thus concisely declaring her political views. Not only does this deviate from the feminine ideals that women then were expected to exhaustively support the decisions of their husbands and that any disseminations that were divergent to such mind-set were largely frowned upon, Kahlo also took a stance on important political and cultural issues - something that was only expected by men and that was to only benefit men. Kahlo again portrays gender ambiguity by representing both ideals of femininity and masculinity in her self-portrait - while she wears a pink dress suggesting graceful femininity, she is within the setting of a masculine ideal: industrialized, mechanized cities that aimed to comment on controversial sociopolitical climates.
Moreover, Kahlo has broken boundaries within the art world by building her own success as an artist, a profession that was associated as a male domain and lacked female influences. Instead of perpetuating the norm that women in art should be the object matter, often inevitably objectified by the male gaze, Kahlo presents herself