The Cosmology of Frida Kahlo: A Hybrid Identity
(C) Fashion Fanzine ISSN 2397 2580 – August 2020
The oeuvre of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) emerges from her conscious sense of belonging to Mexico and the self-awareness of her own mestizaje, the union of different cultures: White man and indigenous. Contrary to her fellow Mexican Muralists, her paintings are small but provocative, and she places herself in the protagonist role. Throughout her artwork she expands the thematic of her depictions, providing equal space to Western religious symbols, Eastern elements and Aztec deities. Her personal experiences and the knowledge she acquired play an important role in her imagination which results in an apparent lack of structure. Yet, the artist provides a surprising link that conjugates the elements of the paintings.
Although Frida was passionate about Mexican culture, and pointed out indigenous aesthetic, she was also intrigued by her European heritage. This was perhaps a common feeling among Mexicans who carry on a diverse material culture from Europe and different Mesoamerican indigenous groups, which result in a constant exploration of cultural history. Her paintings represent a detailed, complex mestizaje in which reality takes an oneiric form. Through the analysis of the hybrid composition in Frida’s work, I would like to point out cosmological reflections on the hide and seek metaphorical games of the artist.
Frida Kahlo: A Woman Artist
Frida was born in Coyoacan, Mexico, daughter of a German-Jewish father, Guillermo Kahlo, and a Mexican-Catholic mother, Matilde Calderón, and grew up during the decade-long Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). This crucial historical moment transformed every domain of Mexican society: economic, cultural and political. A physical disability in her right leg and foot, a consequence of contracting polio as a child, generated in young Frida a precocious self-awareness; from childhood she was aware of the attention her disability attracted. Later in her teenage years she was in a bus accident that broke her spine and pelvis. Although the accident was a terrible shock for mother and child, Matilde motivated Frida to paint by setting up an easel on her bed and mounting a mirror on the ceiling that allowed Frida to look at herself and paint self-portraits. Despite the tragic events of her early life and a resulting persistent depression, Frida found in painting the courage to live. Her artistic production is a vivid representation of the modern, post-revolutionary spirit in Mexico which inspired her to explore her own art beyond dogmas and social structures.
Guillermo Kahlo, Matilde Calderon, cyrca 1897 Leo Matiz, Frida Kahlo, 1944
Frida worked with her father, who influenced her revolutionary ideas and her interest in art. Although Matilde Calderón played a decisive role in her daughter’s development as a woman artist, their relationship was quite special due in part to religious tensions between the two women. Her mother was a devout catholic and Frida an open atheist. Matilde had an immense influence in the Kahlo family; Frida owed both her strength and her sensitivity to her mother. Likewise did self-awareness of her own image and ability to control and manipulate her image come from Matilde. “[My] mother was the one who thought of making a top to my bed in the Renaissance style, a canopy with a mirror I could look in to use my image as a model”, said Frida in conversation with art historian Raquel Tibol.
Frida Painting in Her Bed, Anonymous, 1949
Matilde’s father, Antonio Calderón had been a photographer; Frida explained to Tibol that it was Matilde who convinced her husband to become a photographer. “The father-in-law loaned him a camera, and the first thing [Guillermo and Matilde] did was take a tour around the republic. They obtained a collection of photos of indigenous and colonial architecture, and after their return, they opened their first studio on Sixteenth of September Avenue.” For the Centenary of Mexican Independence, Guillermo Kahlo “became the first official photographer of Mexico’s cultural patrimony”. He was commissioned to travel around the country from 1904 to 1908 photographing colonial monuments. Later, young Frida visited colonial architecture with her father, with whom she developed a special appreciation for the Baroque ornamentation of colonial cathedrals.
In adulthood Frida’s interest in intellectual conversations was unusual for a woman of her social status. This interest, coupled with her active participation in the art scene, lead her to create a personal and political artistic language. She painted with passion and suffering, representing her emotions through symbols and metaphors. Her lifelong struggle with illness and disability afforded her the chance to explore and ultimately to create herself. The time she spent in bed, recovering from surgeries and health problems, gave her the opportunity to cultivate a profound consciousness of herself. A passionate woman, she had many romances with culturally significant male and female figures of the era. Of course, the most influential relationship in her life was her marriage (twice) to Diego Rivera, who is widely considered the most famous Mexican artist of the time. Frida and Rivera married for the first time in 1929, divorced in 1939, and had their second marriage in 1940.
Art, Politics and Mexico in the Work of Frida Kahlo
At the age of thirteen Frida joined a leftist student organization, called Cachuchas (“cloth caps”) as an act of rebellion against the rigid dress code of the period, where she was the only female member. With time her interest in socialist ideas intensified. The Centenary of Mexican Independence necessitated a mass propagation of Mexican mestizaje through arts and culture. José Vasconcelos, whom the contemporary historian Enrique Krauze called the “Cultural Caudillo,” supported the movement to create a modern Mexico. His purpose was to spread nationalistic ideas through all artistic expressions, especially with his literary work La raza cósmica. The book is a metaphysical and anthropological essay that elevates the value of mestizaje among cultures. To him, indigenismo is crucial for the assimilation and evolution of human race. His statement provoked controversy but is also a major contribution and inspiration to modern artists in Latin America. During his tenure at the Secretariat of Public Education in 1921, his main purpose was to make culture and education available to all social classes. Vasconcelos implemented a program of state-sponsored art patronage in an attempt to stimulate national cohesion in the country. This was the origin of muralismo, in which Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros developed a technique based on Italian Renaissance frescoes to transmit political messages with a quasi-messianic tone.
According to Tibol’s chronicles: “The violent years of the revolution were often portrayed [in murals] as a necessary step towards a fairer society.” Muralism covered large walls of public spaces so people could appreciate the paintings and appropriate them. The nationalist sentiment at that time was embraced by Frida since she was active in politics and intellectual circles. Diego Rivera even painted her image in his murals. However, like other artists, Frida continued painting on canvas. Frida’s fight for indigenous justice was implicit in the use of everyday elements. She had the talent to engage the public by portraying a different reality that belonged to the common city markets. She wore and painted with pride indigenous and pre-Hispanic ornaments that enchanted the middle class. Frida was speaking to all social classes, challenging the national politics and proclaiming liberation and self-empowerment. The performance of her singular image and highly-personal-yet-mysterious work captivated the international bourgeoise the moment she visited the United States and Paris for the first time. Through her self-portraits one can see how much she appreciated study of Mexico’s ethnic and artistic heritage. One could think her time spent in bed gave her the wisdom to understand the outside world.
From her position as an artist she was an activist for social justice and a vigorous participant in politics with influential characters like Leon Trotsky, with whom she maintained an affair. Due to Rivera’s intercession she hosted Trotsky and his wife at Casa Azul, Frida’s home in Coyoacan, after the Russian revolutionary was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1936. During that time, she actively participated in writing social manifestos along with Rivera. She believed in free education, following José Vasconcelos, stating famously: “Por mi raza hablará el espíritu” (The Spirit shall speak through my race.”) The revolutionary art that she promoted was directed at indigenous minorities. As a promoter of indigenous symbols and methods she created her artworks with cosmovision, the creative process that indigenous cultures follow as a ritual for artistic creation. According to Hayden Herrera, Frida’s symbolism was autobiographical and simple. Inspired by her ex-votos collection, she explored surprise and the enigma of immediate experience as much as real emotions.
Frida Kahlo de Rivera: A Mystical Image
When Frida married Rivera for the first time in 1929, she played a protagonist role in the intellectual and cultural production of Mexico. The creation of an appealing image merged pre-Columbian symbols, history and the future of Mexico. Beyond demonstrating a communion with indigenous groups from all over the country, this was an act of conciliation in two levels: between castas and social classes as a consequence of colonization, and between the bourgeoisie and the working class. Frida illuminated the flourishing modern Mexican era by capturing the enchantment of Mexican culture with joy–but also disgrace.
There was a convenient negotiation between the couple that enriched their art production. To an extent Frida allowed Rivera to create the first drafts of her personal image, which she later developed and performed with her unique personality. In her youth Frida had presented a performative character, often wearing men’s clothes and exploring her own identity. However, it was Rivera who created her iconic style: a Mixteca woman that would attract eyes. She recognized his support and influence to refine her painting style. Both artists expressed the importance of their relationship and the changing roles they played in different stages of their life.
The synergy between Frida and Rivera was strengthened by their belief in Mexican identity: mestizaje. The Mixtec image of Frida was an influence of Rivera. Frida Kahlo de Rivera, as she was called in print by Vogue magazine in New York, wore ostentatious jewelry including pre-Hispanic stones such as obsidian, jade, quincunxes, turquoise. Braided hair crowned her head. She captivated eyes, replicating and changing her image through a kind of total art practice. Her image and her paintings were an accumulation of objects and symbols that even today are part of Mexican life: vegetation, braided hair, attractive and elaborate jewelry and art crafts, objects that are commonly found in popular markets, or with street vendors. This was a metaphorical conciliation of multiple elements.
Artists do Eat, San Francisco Life, March 1941
Frida Kahlo’s Garments
Matilde Calderón was an excellent garment maker, often experimenting with textures and colors in her pieces. Her experience and her good taste with fine textiles were part of Frida’s tutelage. Frida used this knowledge later in life, designing and including patterns in her clothes, which are considered a splendid contribution to Mexican textiles. She created her unique character wearing traditional garments that represented different indigenous groups, mostly from Oaxaca. She situated herself at the same level of indigenous people who belonged to the working class–people who worked exhaustive hours in service, or in factories, or for agriculture companies for a low salary. The Mexican upper class was disdainful of the working class, but Frida showed a profound respect by dressing herself in Mexican traditions.
Flowers were often motifs in Frida’s depictions and in her image. Flowersare a symbol of femininity and elegance. This was also a link to her mother, to whom she referred as a “dark-skinned Oaxacan bellflower.” Dressing in traditional Mexican costumes was a spectacle of fine garments, a combination of patterns with colorful laces and embroidered floral designs. Each garment was itself a performance. A simple fact is that Frida needed to hide her physical disabilities and cover the painful corsets she had to wear in order to walk, so that she discovered in popular garments the ability to create an attractive and significant image. By using simple ornaments and combining everyday elements, she was able to transform her appearance into an exotic image that makes her recognizable around the world. She has become a myth of the contemporary global world and her artwork is attached to a mythical figure.
Frida Kahlo Catalogue, Frida Rivera and Picture, Elinor Mayer, 1938
Julien Levy Gallery NYC, 1938
Frida Through Self-Portrait
Frida made of herself a composition of symbols and significances: full of cultural atavisms. In her work she presented women’s problems: birth labor, abortion, infidelity. There were also ideological and political messages, the “[s]ymbolic, lyrical or burlesque”: she merged quotidianity with ancestral symbols, traditions with modernity. Her own appropriation of western symbol with Mexican culture. The artist not only celebrated traditions but lived them and made them part of her personal lifestyle. Although in her early life she saw herself as an atheist, she blended together two main religious ideologies: catholicism, and indigenous deities were adherent to her Mexicanism. Politically, she changed from socialist to communist.
Although every pictorial composition was apparently premeditated as a resemblance of pre-Columbian art, catholic-baroque elements are inherent in her creative process, which later shifted to demonstrate her interest in Buddhism and more mystical beliefs.A blend of myth and reality is implicit in her work, her image the vivid representation of a woman in pain and pleasure who was keenly aware of her weaknesses and strengths. Frida herself was a microcosmos that can be a tool to interpret Mexico.
Hybrid Cosmology in Frida’s Paintings
Speaking of hybridization from Homi Bhabha’s concept of “‘cross-breeding’ or ‘mixed blood’ encountered in colonial circumstances,” Frida Kahlo’s mestizaje is the result of a German-Hungarian father and an indigenous mother. Moreover, the complex hybridization is shaped by socio-cultural circumstances happening in Mexico during the early 20th century together with the anxiety of the collective imaginary to be re-empowered as a nation. Nevertheless, her cultural hybridization relies on the cultural identification with Mexican popular traditions as much as the empirical appropriation of European knowledge and Eastern ideologies. This phenomenon corresponds to Bhabha’s “Third Space of Enunciation,” where both cultures confront each other, find similarities and attractions. The recognition of mutual attributes empowers the colonized culture. Frida developed a pictorial language that exoticized Mexico and influenced a cross-cultural “exchange” that nowadays has been popularized. Her paintings demonstrate the insertion of Buddhism and metaphysical philosophies related to the afterlife; she incorporates cosmology from a self-introspection where she allows herself to transcend terrenial restrictions.
Frida’s unpredictable personal interests and practices result in the assemblage of compositions that are appealing and easy to acclaim at first glaze. The codependency of her dramatic biography with her work leads not only to misinterpretations but also traps her artistic production in a superficial level. A critical interpretation reveals certain incoherence in her polymorphous identity. As part of her hybridization, Frida’s work oscillates between the melodrama of her life and suffering and the accomplishments that she set up with the support of Diego Rivera. However, her work is indeed a reflection of Mexican Modernism, pride and exoticism of “indigenismo” and their impact on the presence of Mexican artists internationally.
Throughout the work of Frida Kahlo, we have identified metaphors in her creations: paintings and her own image. Although the duality of the God Ometéotlis in the majority of her pictorial work, the matureness of the artist shows overlapped Aztec and Eastern symbols such as the Yin Yang. Mayan Cosmovision follows the ideology of coexistence in a harmonious world where nature is integrated, ordered and interrelated. According to Audelino Sac Coyoy: “For the Mayan people, la cosmovisión is a system of principles that interprets and relates the world, life, things and time; moreover, it is the explanation for things, a way of analyzing the universe and the natural world.” “La cosmovisión del Pueblo Maya es un sistema de valores que interpreta y relaciona, el mundo, la vida, las cosas y el tiempo, es además, la explicación y forma de dimensionar el universo y la naturaleza.” There are three particular paintings that demonstrate Frida’s inspiration by indigenous cosmology and her shift to a hybridization of cultural elements: Fulang Chang y yo (Fulang Chang and I), 1937, La venadita herida (The Wounded Deer), 1946 and El abrazo de amor de El universo, la tierra (México) Yo, Diego y el señor Xólotl (The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me and Señor Xolotl), 1949.
Frida discovered her own “race”, her mestizaje, or the Mexican cultural concept of post-conquest genetic and cultural hybridization. As a nationalist, she opted to emphasize Aztec culture as the heart of Mexico, in order to claim a unified country. She borrowed from Rivera’s pre-Hispanic collection figures to use them as models for her pictorial compositions. Utilizing “indigenous cosmology” was a nostalgic statement for a romantic, folkloric image of Mexico. Her paintings gave attention to the social segregation of most indigenous people, whom liberal artists considered to be the root and essence of all “true” Mexicans. For Frida the Mesoamerican imagery was a tool to “situate herself within conflicting worlds: ancient and modern, Mexican and Euro-American.”
El abrazo de amor de El universo, la tierra (México) Yo, Diego y el señor Xólotl
Frida Kahlo, El abrazo de amor de el universo, la tierraCoatlicue, c.1500, Museo Nacional
(México) Yo, Diego y el Señor Xólotl, 1949de Antropología e Historia, Mexico
Mayan Cosmovision follows an ideology of coexistence in a harmonious world where nature is in balance.Every element in the universe is alive and every being is complemented and consequently complements the other. The Love Embrace the Universe, the Earth, Diego and Me is a vivid amalgam of indigenous cosmology mixed with certain elements from Eastern spiritual ideologies such as Rivera’s third eye. Nevertheless, Frida declares dualities she embraced and lived as a woman and as an artist. The presence of three women orchestrate the rhythm of the composition. The central figure is a representation of Coatlicue, the Aztec Mother Nature, the female deity that maintains order in the universe and the coexistence of the four elements (fire, water, earth and air). As the portrayal of mestizaje, in the background we see a biracial woman embracing the main figures, while her forearm and hands are surrounded by roots. The force of balance is given by Huitzilopochtle the God of Sun, and Coyolxauhqui the Moon Goddess, positioned on each side in the composition. The sun, as a representation of a man, shines until the moon, the woman, with her mutable phases appears radiantly to illuminate the night. This could be a narration of Frida and Diego’s never-ending love story. The second female figure is a look back to Frida’s origins. Frida was not breastfed by her mother, who became immediately pregnant with her sister Cristina after Frida’s birth. She was instead breastfed by her wet-nurse, Frida praises it as an act of life by “showing the milk running out of the woman’s breast was a representation of heaven.” Frida at the center is holding Diego Rivera as if he was her child; his third eye and Buddha-like appearance reveals the multiple roles that he played in her life; at times Rivera was her son, her father, her instructor, or her lover. His wisdom and creativity clearly gave her strength to confront difficulties ––but also became a battle to fight. Frida painted herself as a Tehuana, the Oaxaca garment that honors empowered women from Istmo de Tehuantepec. The emphasis of her dark skin shows up her own mestizaje. Through the tears on her eyes we can perceive her suffering as a consequence of her tragic life. Yet the green cactuses nevertheless celebrate life, especially the nopal as a reminder of the thriving Aztec empire, which was founded where an eagle was devouring a nopal standing on a nopal. A lone white cactus stands out from the rest, this is the representation of Rivera as the “old man.” To conclude, Señor Xolotl sums up the importance of life and death; the Aztec dog is curled up on the Goddess’s right forearm. According to Aztec mythology, a Xoloitzcuintle guides the dead through the nine-layered Mictlan, the Aztec underworld. Señor Xolotl is a protective hero who would accompany Frida while crossing the nine floors of Mictlan. The green tonality of the painting is a promise of regeneration, protecting its shamanic power for healing love. Mictlan is for Frida the heaven where she hopes to be reunited with her husband.
Fulang Chang y yo, 1937