A Ribbon Around a Bomb: On Some of Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portraits

Helena Chávez Mac Gregor

I.

Writing about Frida Kahlo is difficult. So much has been said. Her work has been examined in the light of her letters, her house, her clothes, her personal belongings, her relationships, her suffering. What else can be said?

I am part of a generation that watched her become a celebrity, a condition in which she stopped being Frida Kahlo and simply became Frida. The movement, which emerged in the 1980s and gained unprecedented force in the 1990s, not only aimed to make visible the work of a female artist who was already dead – as was the case of María Izquierdo or Leonora Carrington – but also to transform her into a kind of symbol. A symbol of what, I am still not sure. A symbol of a country, an identity, an economy. We saw how, while the country’s dreams of social justice collapsed, she became an icon. Her material work and the rights to it are safeguarded by Mexico’s central bank, Banco de México, by a trust created by Diego Rivera before his death. Her image, the image of her own self, her persona or anything resembling it, is safeguarded by the Frida Kahlo Corporation, managed and monetised by some members of what is left of her family.

My mother lives on the street where the Casa Azul Museum is located, in the traditional neighbourhood of Coyoacán, south of Mexico City. Every day I see hundreds of people lining up to get in. Many, in fact, are satisfied with taking selfies at the door of the house where the painter lived from her birth in 1907 until her death in 1954. The only artist recognised by my daughter – who is now five and has grown up in museums in which I have curated exhibitions and her father has exhibited his work – is “Frida”. She recognises her on T-shirts, dolls, TV commercials. She identifies her face; the artwork slips from her. She can’t tell whether she likes it or not.

There is so much in sight that, I realise, it slips from me too. I wonder why it is that in order to value Frida Kahlo’s work, her life has to have been so scrutinised? Why has it been interpreted from her biography? What is behind the psychological yearning to find, in each shape, stroke and colour, the key not only to her work but to herself, as if there were a secret that we have to decipher in order to grant dignity to a work and a life? Has any male artist been subjected to this treatment?

Undoubtedly, the fact that her body of work is mostly self-portraits has “authorised” the idea that her work is a way of introducing her, and therefore we can and must reveal her, find what she represents, as the other part of the symbol that she sustains and signifies. Under the dynamics of celebrity, commodity and complete transparency, some of her work’s political potentiality has disappeared. I confess that I too, in the face of saturation, could see nothing. There was the obvious, and I wasn’t interested in looking at it to find something else. It was the invitation to deliver this text as a lecture at the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation that forced me to look, and I found a world.

As Roland Barthes decreed long ago, my generation was formed by the death of the author. This does not mean that the contexts of production and life do not matter; on the contrary, as Foucault would later propose, there is no way of understanding either words or things without the historical conditions that open them up. However, this principle does mean that seeking the meaning of an action or production from the intention of a founding consciousness is a false problem. What Frida Kahlo was – what she wanted, thought, desired – is, fortunately, beyond my reach. What I have at hand is the work, the texts, the critical possibilities existing in her work. The work is not an absolute category either, but rather a device open to different interpretations and readings, hence the importance of not fixing it in the author. What I am interested in doing here is to explore an aspect of her work to analyse what it opens, from where, and towards what it is directed. What I can do is try to interpret the work in the light of my own interests, which in recent years have revolved around feminism and motherhood, and from there, try to see beyond Frida, the art of Frida Kahlo.

II. Politics and the Invention of an Identity for an Emerging Nation

Frida Kahlo’s production, both of her work and of herself as a public figure, was part of a period of upheaval and national transformation. Born in 1907 – although she liked to say that she had been born with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 – she was part of a project, never unified and rather ambivalent, contradictory and in dispute, of shaping the modern nation emerging from the turbulent revolutionary process, which some historians mark from 1910 to 1938, when the presidential programme was consolidated with the government of Lázaro Cárdenas.

In this long period, art, and especially muralism, played a leading role. It gave shape and support to the dreams of several revolutionary processes, and was sedimented as a national project under different governments. It was a way of making visible: an aesthetic form for entering modernity and pointing out where progress should lead.

From a middle-class family, Frida, unlike many other women of the time, studied at the National Preparatory School, with the intention of later starting a career in medicine. There she not only had an education in the progressive “spirit” of the time, but she also had very close relationships with people like Alejandro Gómez Arias, a writer who, after their relationship, played an important role as a leader of the student movement of 1929. She also met Aurora Reyes, a communist muralist with whom she had a deep friendship for the rest of her life.

Her encounter with Diego Rivera in 1928 marked her entry into a political programme, one that reflected movements and ideologies of the time but also had elements of its own, which Rivera and Kahlo not only shared but, I think it is fair to say, invented and nurtured together.

Rivera was one of the most important aesthetic and political organisers of the modern process in Mexico. Part of the project was to create a platform for propagandistic indoctrination that, through art, would generate a common representation, which gives a perspective on the importance of this movement, or series of movements.

In 1966, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan visited Mexico after a trip in the USA. Explaining his stay, he spoke about different forms of the past. The past of repetition, the past in its perfect form that was to be found in America and a specific time in Mexico that was represented in muralism.1 Manifested in Rivera and O’Gorman’s murals there was a past that never really existed. For Lacan, this was both enigmatic and amazing: the murals represent for him “an invisible bond through an irreparable tear that subsists across generations that rise up and those of those students who populate a university in Mexico City.”2

Muralism was the process by which a future time was shaped through the recognition of denied and broken pasts. The conquest and the colony were articulated in a series of revolts that turned into the triumph and consolidation of a nation reborn from a revolution that promised social justice. This nation was an invention, a vehicle for a time to come.

Rivera’s muralism, which is very different from that of Orozco or Siqueiros, was the creation of a Mexican artistic avant-garde that united European pictorial forms – fresco techniques and Renaissance perspectives – with local figurations and inventions that had their own idea of modernity. All this emerged, as suggested by the historian Luis Vargas, under the ideology of a resolved history. At the core of Rivera’s aesthetic-political programme was a revolutionary project that would give way to a socialist policy of agrarian and workers’ integration. The murals in the National High School amphitheatre, where Frida studied, and those in the Ministry of Public Education (1923–1928), in which Frida herself is depicted, are central to this project. Commissioned during Obregón’s government (1920–1924) by the first minister of education, José Vasconcelos, the murals – as Renato Gonzáles Mello asserts – show, how painting is part of the political invention of identities:

Mural painting was crucial in developing this emerging social and political identity, at a time that was far from becoming the rhetorical category of the Revolution. Therefore, […] it is not that painting has taken its categories from politics, but it contributed to articulate political categories and identities.3

The Ministry of Public Education murals were important for, among other things, figuring the category of the peasant as a political identity. As González Mello points out, Rivera had previously painted a rural and indigenous population that had no legal name, “no precise title in politics,”4 a population that was not “exactly” the working class and that needed an identity in order to enter the revolutionary project. This figuration, as a political-aesthetic category, emerges in these murals. This agrarian-worker alliance may have been one of the causes of Rivera’s expulsion from the Mexican Communist Party, but it was undoubtedly one of the great political interventions of the time, its revolutionary proposals not found in so compelling a way in any other work by the painter.

This is also the first work by Rivera in which Kahlo is portrayed. In the 1928 panel, known as The Arsenal, she is presented as a communist militant handing out weapons to the workers – intellectuals would be part of the avant-garde alliance in a rare and original Saint Simonian update. Frida is portrayed in several murals, always as an agent of the coming revolution. Perhaps in them we can see the role that Rivera envisioned for her but, as we shall see, it is not the role she took on nor how she presented herself in her work.

I am not referring to Rivera’s work in order to subordinate Kahlo’s place and her representation to his accomplishments, but to point out the rising of the “Mexican” for this revolutionary project, for it is configured with elements that are present in Rivera’s work but also in Kahlo’s. They share a political programme that requires a sensible mobilisation, that needs to make other objects, subjects and sensibilities appear. Some of them take shape in the use of popular objects – something not often seen at the time, when there was still a rigid separation between high and low culture – and which they radically promote in order to characterise a Mexican plasticity, materiality and originality. The centrality of craftsmanship and popular objects had already been established by artists such as Dr Atl and was a constant in the artists and intellectuals of the time, but Rivera and Kahlo were undoubtedly the ones who took it to another level in their work and in themselves (in their characters, their costumes, their collections, their houses).

Also fundamental here is the incorporation of indigenous ethnicity. This was not the vindication of the political rights of original people – we must be very clear about that in the light of contemporary demands – but rather their integration into the socio-political order so as to create a mix, mestizaje, that would allow the emergence of a unified identity of the “people”– the Mexican – with a common “destiny”.

The exoticisation of Frida Kahlo – her character and her work – is based on removing these elements from their context of politicisation. For example, there is a clear attempt to characterise her by her use of indigenous dress, as if this were the only way of claiming identity. Indeed, Kahlo wore traditional costumes, such as the Tehuana dress, like many artists of the time, since the Juchitecas represented a force of female social and political organisation that had been consolidated in the national imaginary since the 1920s. But what is left out is that she also wore dresses associated with the rural world, as well as Chinese garments and men’s clothing.

“The pictorial work of Frida Kahlo is a bomb aimed in another direction. It is no longer the construction of an historical time but of a world in which the self – her self – becomes a space of representation, affects and intensities waiting to explode.”

The Mexican identity is also emphasised in her collection and the incorporation in both her work and her house in Coyoacán – which is undoubtedly a work of art reformed by O’Gorman – of handcrafted and historical objects belonging to pre-Hispanic cultures. All of this is part of the invention of something that did not yet exist as such, but under a specific political prism helped to create an aesthetic “Mexicanity”, embodying and giving shape to a political subject still absent from the field of representation and historical struggle. Beyond exoticising her in order to define her, we might think that there is nothing fortuitous in her use of these elements. They are not, however, symbols of innocence or exoticism, but rather part of the creation of a political programme in alliance with art and, in some way, with life.

What I am interested in opening, with this framework in mind, is the specificity of Frida Kahlo’s political operation in her work. Although she takes up imaginaries, fabulations, figurations and representations that are part of an aesthetic repertoire that she shares with Rivera, her battlefield will be elsewhere. It will not be played out in the same cultural, artistic or political space. The pictorial work of Frida Kahlo is a bomb aimed in another direction. It is no longer the construction of an historical time but of a world in which the self – her self – becomes a space of representation, affects and intensities waiting to explode.

III. A Place of Her Own

The place that Frida Kahlo’s work made appear is a liminal space of the intimate that has political consequences for the present. Her work distances itself from the propagandistic and public operations of Rivera’s muralism. She does not try to represent the people or history, but herself, without, however, abandoning the aesthetic-political elements of her programme for the future.

This intervention has some surprising peculiarities. On the one hand, it is separated from the artistic operations of contemporary artists, such as Remedios Varo or Aurora Reyes, who promoted a body of work as a space for a local career. Although Frida regarded herself as a painter – an activity severely affected by her accident in 1925 in which the bus she was travelling in with Alejandro Gómez Arias crashed and broke her into a thousand pieces – she did not have as prominent a career as other female artists of the time in the country. She certainly had a presence and success abroad (a solo exhibition in New York in 1938 and a group exhibition curated by André Breton in Paris in 1939) but her only solo exhibition in Mexico was curated by her friend, the photographer Lola Álvarez Bravo in 1953, a year before Kahlo died.

On the other hand, she was not an exceptionally militant activist either. She was an important figure on the cultural and public scene but was not eager to express her politics in a militant way. She had a relationship with Leon Trotsky, whose exile in Mexico from 1937 until his death in 1940, she had helped to facilitate through a personal negotiation with President Cardenas. These were not easy times for women’s militancy. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, although women’s participation in the Mexican Communist Party was significant, it was clear that the priority of the agenda was the class struggle and thus suffrage and women’s rights struggles would be relegated to second place. This generated annoyance and disappointment among many collaborators, which, according to historians such as Dina Comisarenco and Deborah Dorotinsky, led to the discussion of these issues on other fronts, such as the cultural and artistic ones. Artists like Tina Modotti, Aurora Reyes and Concha Michel – all three of them very close friends of Kahlo – were active both in the political and the artistic field, while maintaining a distance from the Communist Party. This was not the case for Kahlo.

She took another direction, perhaps because of possibilities close at hand. Although today we need to explain in what sense her work shows political engagement, in the 1930s and 1940s, given the shadow of muralism, it would have been difficult to regard her production as political. She was Rivera’s wife, a woman who, her talent notwithstanding, had no formal training, and whose painting was considered naive and intuitive. Despite these readings, some contemporaries besides Rivera himself, saw the radical nature of her work. Breton categorically announced: “The art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon around a bomb.” Perhaps her artistic project had a dimension that could only have been opened in the future, once the bomb had exploded.

Her work tends to be read as an obsessive presentation of herself and her life, her feelings and her suffering. However, it seems to me that the operation she presents has much more complex dimensions. During an interview with Parker Lesley in the early 1930s, Kahlo declared that she wanted to make self-portraits for every year of her life. These form the central body of her work, and appear to be a research project that goes beyond presenting herself out of obsession or vanity. It is, as Gannit Ankori points out,5 the creation of a life through different selves, which are her but also something else, an identity that, besides its fixed points, is fluid, mutable, contradictory and ambiguous.

IV. Self-Portraits

Self-portraits are a strange device. They are undoubtedly a way of representing oneself, but that presentation does very different things throughout history. In Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits, Frances Borzello argues that due to its importance in the history of art, the self-portrait could be considered as a genre itself, and that women’s self-portraits specifically, because of the historical conditions of women’s representation, are a vital space for the artistic work and agency of female artists.

The self-portraits of women are not exempt from a prejudice that attempts to relegate this genre to a mere personification of the vice of vanity. The prejudice does not consider the different operations the genre has served: from the development of techniques and skills to the need to make oneself appear either as a personal gift or a public act. The self-portrait occupies a substantial place in art not only because it is about being seen, but because it is a demonstration of how we see, feel and represent ourselves. It is a double not only embodying an externalised interiority, but also reflecting historical conditions, ruptures and desires. Although the self-portrait of women has a long history, dating back to the 13th century, it was in the 20th century that it became a substantial tool for social exploration and political critique, through which ambiguities, tensions and possible futures of the representation of women emerged from new subjectivities that lay outside the capitalist and patriarchal mandate. This is where Kahlo’s operation and research are relevant: she exteriorises while she also projects. Her portrait is a complaint as well as a demand.

In her analysis of the history of the female self-portrait, Borzello states about Kahlo: “No artist, male or female, has produced a body of autobiographical work to match its originality.”6 While the statement is undoubtedly true, it seems to me that radicality here lies not only in the originality of Kahlo’s work but in what the conceptual operation of portraying herself throughout her life sustains.

What these paintings do, beyond establishing an autobiography, is to open the personal and self-representation to the complex social and historical construction of being a woman – being a woman in Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century who wishes to participate as an emerging political subject while nonetheless being subject to the gender and romantic mandates of the time. At the same time, the form gives expression to one who is free or wishes to be free in order to become what they are, or perhaps what they are not yet, but that by representing it, are already on the way to being.

In this regard, I would like to explore a series of self-portraits. Kahlo created around one hundred and fifty paintings but I will dwell on only three, not because they are the most interesting or the best, but because I hope they will allow me to unravel some of the operations that Kahlo’s work performs, on the one hand and, on the other, to show what her work opens up in my present, what its outburst makes me think about. The three portraits are: My Birth, (1932), Henry Ford Hospital (1932) and Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).

V. My Birth

Kahlo began to paint after the accident that left her bedridden for months and with painful sequels for the rest of her life. Her father was a German photographer who photographed monuments during the Porfirio Díaz presidency. After the Revolution and without the prominent job he had had before, he began to make portraits and self-portraits, the latter seemingly of a personal nature. With these resources at hand and in precarious health, Kahlo began to paint herself.

One of her first paintings was Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress (1926), a work, reminiscent of Modigliani, in which she is portrayed half-length, in a three-quarter pose wearing a red velvet dress. She looks thin, serious, sober. The background is sea waves. It is a stylised, conventional painting in which she presents herself as beautiful and yearning to give herself so as not to be forgotten, as she says in her letters7 to her then lover Alejandro Gómez Arias. She paints and presents herself to be loved, as many women have done.

After this, her work would be radically transformed, not only in terms of the elements that would figure in it, but also in terms of its pictorial motifs and structures. In the latter sense, her pictorical reference was no longer easel painting but votive offerings known as ex-votos. These are popular paintings in Mexico that are offered when a favour is granted or received. According to Clara Bargellini, the practice of placing these pieces in religious precincts spread throughout Europe and reached New Spain. The production of these altarpieces continued into the 19th century, and by the 20th they had begun to attract the attention of artists and collectors as popular artistic expressions outside the academy and the dominant techniques. They are still usually made in oil on canvas or wood, their images are simple, and what they try to do is to tell a story.

“Beyond these facts, what the work forcefully does is to thread and knot these two concepts – life and death – into the relationship between mother and daughter.”

Kahlo collected ex-votos, but took them up in a secular manner in order to narrate scenes. She emulated the simplicity of the brushstrokes and the dynamics of the perspective in these paintings, using them not as a recognition of a divine favour but to create narrative structure and to show situations that marked crucial events in her life.

Frida Kahlo, My Birth (1932). Private collection. © 2023 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico

A painting that draws on the ex-voto is My Birth, a complex self-portrait constructed as a scene of estrangement. Although self-portraits of pregnant women already existed in the history of art at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries – such as those made in Germany by Käthe Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker – this work by Kahlo marks a milestone in the representation of maternity and is the first frontal painting of a childbirth. It shows a woman in a bed giving birth vaginally. The mother’s face is covered with a white cloth, and from between her legs emerges a baby with Kahlo’s features. The image is crowned by a Madonna with a suffering gaze who seems oblivious to this nativity scene. This painting of unequalled rawness, on the one hand, marks the possibility of talking about the experience of childbirth without shame or romanticisation and, on the other, links birth, life and death.

I emphasise the latter aspect. One of the great taboos that those of us who have been mothers know is the close relationship between life and death. In Kahlo’s self-portrait, the cloth over the mother’s face suggests that she is dead. The mother dies and she is being born. Some suggest that this reference to the dead mother has to do with the fact that at the time Kahlo painted this picture, she had had her first abortion, and her mother was dying. Beyond these facts, what the work forcefully does is to thread and knot these two concepts – life and death – into the relationship between mother and daughter. In her book On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, Maggie Nelson quotes a Buddhist priest who says about this relationship that: “Either you are going to witness your child’s death or the child is going to witness your death. Perhaps it is a very grim way of looking at life, but still it is true.”8

This is a condition that one prefers not to talk about, especially when death marks the child before it marks the mother. As Joan Didion sharply asserts in her book Blue Nights:

It is horrible to see oneself die without children.

Napoleon Bonaparte said that.

What a greater grief can there be for mortals than to see their children dead. Euripides said that.

When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.

I said that.9

I will return to this point.

VI. Henry Ford Hospital

Tracing the motif of maternity, I now turn to Henry Ford Hospital, also from 1932. It depicts a miscarriage. In the centre of the picture, Kahlo lies naked on a blood-stained bed, a tear falling from her left eye. Several orange threads come out of her left hand, connecting her (from left to right at the top) with a mannequin or a replica of a female body, a baby and a snail. Under the bed, the threads connect her with a mechanical contraption, a flower – an orchid or a jacaranda flower – and the bones of a pelvis. The background is an industrial landscape, the River Rouge Plant in Detroit, the city where she was living at the time.

This painting mixes images that resemble scientific illustrations with others of a more poetic nature. It shows different elements to represent her miscarriage, and it juxtaposes the harshness of medical objects with the softness, viscosity and fragility of a body gestating inside the woman, but which is suddenly no longer there. Once again, this painting marks a milestone in art history: it is the first miscarriage painted, in all its crudeness, by a woman.

In Kahlo’s biography, her miscarriages have been assumed to determine a deep sadness in her because of the impossibility of being a mother and the terrible frustration of not being able to give children to Rivera. This reading sees her as carrying the social burden of pity and compassion, as the woman who wants to have children but cannot have them, as a failed, incomplete, infertile woman.

There is, however, information in her work and in her letters that offers a more complex, tense and ambivalent reading. In May 1932, Kahlo wrote a letter to her friend and doctor Leo Eloesser in which she expresses her desire to interrupt her pregnancy. Having had a miscarriage years earlier, she expresses doubts about her physical ability to bear the pregnancy but also about whether a child will be compatible with the kind of life and relationship she has with Rivera. One clear point she makes in the letters is how little attention Rivera has paid to his children and their mothers. She declares that she wants something different. Thus she took medication to induce an abortion, but it had no effect and she decided to continue with the pregnancy. Let us not forget that not only was abortion illegal in the United States at the time but her health was also precarious. Finally, a few months later, Kahlo lost the baby naturally.

I dwell on this because it opens up important questions regarding the mandate of motherhood, and it signals ambivalence on her part that unleashes critical possibilities. On the one hand, it seems that she does not want a child, and this lack of desire generates a tremendous guilt when she loses the baby, as has happened to many women (as if our own desire had caused the failure of the pregnancy). On the other hand, she begins to refer to herself as “La Llorona”, the weeping woman. This characterisation replicates the legend, popular in Latin America, of a woman who grieves in pain and regrets having killed her children by drowning them in a river. The legend is said to have its origins in the folk tales of different indigenous groups prior to the conquest and is related to different pre-Hispanic deities. In the case of Mexico, it has been related to Tenpecutli who kills her children in a river. This goddess, who is very beautiful, has the ability to change her face to that of an animal, like the nahuales, when she is looked in the eye. Another character with whom she has been related is the goddess of the underworld, Mictlancihuatl, who seduces and drives men crazy. It has also been proposed that La Llorona is a hybrid of three Mexican goddesses: Cihuacoátl (the mother goddess and serpent woman), Teoyaominiqui (the watcher of the dead) and Quilaztli (goddess of childbirth and twins).

These various origins open up different relationships, but in all of them women as deities break the mandate of motherhood and subjugation. They do so with violence and fury. In pre-Hispanic worlds they are deities worshipped, respected and feared in many ways. The transformation of this narrative in the colony and under the bias of Catholic morality turns her into a suffering woman, punished to suffer for eternity precisely for not having fulfilled the mandate of obedience. La Llorona, it seems to me, embodies the patriarchal fantasy of the bad woman and the bad mother in the form of punishment.

The place of Kahlo’s work in this construction seems to me to be the manifestation of this tension. In this regard, in her analysis of the maternal self in Kahlo’s work, Ankori notes that:

Henry Ford Hospital‘ is about Kahlo’s triple failure: the failure of her body to produce a child; her failure to fulfill the social role as a mother; her failure to fully accept and live in peace with her choices. Kahlo’s tragedy was not simply that she was unable – whether for physical or psychological reasons or by choice – to have a child. Her deeper tragedy was that she was unable to fully accept her childless Self.10

In the paintings about her miscarriage and in one in which she is depicted as Rivera’s mother (The Love Embrace, 1949), we see the tensions of a mandate that imposes itself on the construction of self. Kahlo’s work opens the way to all the tensions that this construction manages and demonstrates: on one hand, the desire to embody powerful deities who deny motherhood, and on the other, how women suffer for having failed the mandate itself.

I am not suggesting that Kahlo’s work offers a solution, but it does present the tension in this construction. In this sense, it is more interesting to read her as an artist struggling with ambivalence than as one submitting to the pain of not being a mother. Her body of work seems to me to express frustration, sadness and loss but also the freedom to be, beyond motherhood or the lack of it. Her wound enables conversations still constrained by the weight of this construction. Her work allows us to address the profound darkness of loss, which is completely compatible with the ambiguity of not wanting, or not knowing if one wants, to be a mother.

Henry Ford Hospital is undoubtedly a painting of grief and mourning. It produces a grief that is not often talked about, referencing both the physical and the emotional pain of a spontaneous miscarriage or an induced abortion that are not often discussed. It is about a death that generates a particular dislocation that remains inscribed in the body of the one who gestated. There is no social or public space for such mourning.

In her essay “Killing Time”, Caitlín Doherty explains this through her own experience of abortion:

Perhaps what’s specific is this: that with the death of your child, your own experience of time may be especially prone to disturbance because the lost life had, so to speak, previously unfurled itself inside your own life. You had once sensed the time of your child as quietly uncoiling inside your own, then when that child is cut away by its death, your doubled inner time is also ‘untimely ripped’. Yours, and the child’s. The severance of the child’s life makes a cut through your own.11

Kahlo’s self-portrait explores the specific mourning of miscarriage and perhaps even of abortion. It is still a bomb to talk about maternity, about the pain of loss in the ambiguity of desire itself.

VII. Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair

A self-portrait that it is important to analyse in order to shed light on these tensions in Kahlo’s own identity and on how the device of self-presentation serves as a tool to produce ruptures and imaginaries of new subjectivities is Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940). In it Kahlo presents her most feminine image in a completely disruptive way. She is shown sitting on a chair wearing a man’s suit and a shirt. In one hand she holds a pair of scissors that rests on her thigh, and remnants of hair cut by those scissors are scattered on the floor and the chair. Her face, now seen without the long hair she used to braid or leave loose with beautiful arrangements of ribbons and flowers, is serious – perhaps even haughty – but serene. The ribbon at the top, in resonance with the votive paintings, reads: “Look, if I loved you, it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.”

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940). Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. Acc. No. 3.1943. © 2023 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico

This painting was executed the year she divorced Rivera and is one of the few portraits of that period. Beyond its context of their complex relationship and the dramatic nature of the break-up, which was largely due to Rivera’s long affair with Frida’s sister Cristina, I would like to emphasise the strength of this work. In it she abandons the adornments and elements of the feminine to present herself as another incarnation of herself, one that leaves out the political project of Mexicanity, that renounces the ethnic and class elements of her clothing as well as the characterisation of the beautiful and fearsome woman. In this portrait she presents herself beyond all that, she assumes herself from the strength of a she who becomes more herself by also being him.

We do not know to whom the text on the ribbon is addressed. It may be taken from a popular song, although some researchers point out that it is a verse from a 15th-century romance. It may be a provocation to Rivera himself and a questioning of the elements he loved about her, or the elements she believed he loved her for. Or it may also be addressed to herself, to one of her selves. In any case, it represents a confrontation with the female subjectivity of the time, a positioning before the ambivalence through which it is constituted. On the one hand, in her letters we read of a feminine devotion to men, an infinite desire to be loved, to be enough for them. Over and over she expresses, sometimes pitifully and sometimes with the sharp sense of humour that characterised her, her need to be loved, her desire to be everything for them, to be whatever they want her to be: the wife, the lover, the mother. On the other hand, the desire for freedom is also present, a deep need to do what she wants, to be unaccountable and to freely seek pleasure and sexual adventure. To enjoy herself, to love and generate herself as a woman beyond the roles and determinations of the time.

“What interests me in these works, beyond the anecdotes that I am not interested in repeating, is how Kahlo turns to experimentation, to multiplicity, to fluidity, to being herself in many selves, to changing and transforming herself.”

In Mexico, being a woman and being free has always been a danger. Nevertheless, within the limitations of her subjective configurations of romantic love and the conditions and constraints of her relationship, she found the freedom to move about, to experience an unconventional existence. To have different lovers, both women and men. To be alone and also under new agreements, perhaps more favorable to her, to remarry the man who had hurt her so much.

I am not interested in judging Diego and Frida’s relationship, although it is difficult not to mention it because as we have seen, there are shared central aesthetic and political elements, and, also because they themselves made their relationship a blueprint for the power couple. Their house is filled with hearts with their names intertwined, dedicated photographs, portraits of him made by her, portraits of her made by him. It was undoubtedly a creative and destructive relationship, as many are.

What interests me in these works, beyond the anecdotes that I am not interested in repeating, is how Kahlo turns to experimentation, to multiplicity, to fluidity, to being herself in many selves, to changing and transforming herself. She becomes multiple, sometimes under feminine figurations, sometimes in masculine ones, sometimes from a fusion with the Mexican political subject, sometimes as an animal becoming. She is vulnerable and strong, subject and free at the same time.

Kahlo’s ambivalence does not make her less interesting. On the contrary, it shows her in the complexity of the battles and creations that all women have to engage in, in order to navigate the historical constructions imposing a subjectivity on us and from which we must make our identity. Falling results in ruptures and inventions. Her work, not her life, is the gravitational centre from which intensities and affections, temporalities to come, are disseminated. They are revolutions. Not like those imagined and projected by Rivera – which, it must be said, never materialised – but instead transformations in the field of the subjective. From the intimate comes the force inhabiting her work , which unleashes and multiplies struggles that are happening right now, through which we confront our vulnerability and our desire for freedom.

It is perhaps this power that has pushed her through time, this intensity, beyond the character and the merchandise, that keeps connecting her with a fierce, queer, sick, desiring audience. Breton was right: Kahlo’s work is the ribbon on a bomb. The bomb exploded and the ribbon is what allows us to continue linking, tightening, exploring.

Biography

Helena Chávez Mac Gregor is a researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). She has a PhD in Philosophy from UNAM. From 2009 to 2013 she was academic curator at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC), where she developed the programme in Critical Theory Campus Expandido. She teaches in the postgraduate programme in Art History at UNAM. Her latest curatorial project, with Alejandra Labastida, was Mothering: Between Stockholm Syndrome and Acts of Production (MUAC, 2021–2022). Her book, Insist in Politics: Rancière and the Revolt of Aesthetics, was published by the IIE in 2018. Her current research interests are focused on motherhood, feminism and ecology.


References

  1. Lacan, J. (1966). “L’objet de La psychanalyse”, https://ecole-lacanienne.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/1966.03.23.pdf. Accessed 22 May 2023. A complete analysis of the implication of what is said by Lacan can be found in Hernández, M. (2016). Lacan en México. México en Lacan. Mexico City: Ediciones Navarra.
  2. Ibid.
  3. González Mello, R. (2018). “Razas, clases y castas. La invención pictórica del campesino”, in Memorias del simposio nuevas: miradas a los murales de la Secretaría de Educación Pública. Mexico City: SEP, p. 11.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ankori, G. (2002). Imaging Her Selves: Frida Kahlo’s Poetics of Identity and Fragmentation. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Ankori’s book is one of the most important works from a contemporary and critical perspective.
  6. Borzello, F. (2016). Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, p. 161.
  7. Kahlo, F. (2001). Escrituras. Edited by Raquel Tibol. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
  8. Nelson, M. (2021). On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, p. 173.
  9. Didion, J. (2012). Blue Nights. London: Fourth Estate, p. 13.
  10. Ankori, op. cit., p. 158.
  11. Doherty, C. “Tenancy Part 6: Killing Time”, https://mapmagazine.co.uk/killing-time-1?fbclid=IwAR3yi19ln9stfBcR7xtNJYcaE1_oo207zZoA2kmlOR6z-X2DdopNmqNjkMQ. Accessed 17 May 2022.


How to cite this article:
Helena Chávez Mac Gregor (2024), "A Ribbon Around a Bomb: On Some of Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portraits" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. https://jcafjournal.org.za/a-ribbon-around-a-bomb-on-some-of-frida-kahlos-self-portraits/. Accessed 26 April 2024.