A visitor takes a look at 'Self-Portrait with Monkeys' (1938) Photo: Getty
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What Frida Kahlo can teach us about the art of the selfie

Her self-portraits have never felt so relevant.

“I hope the exit is joyful- and I hope never to return.” So read Frida Kahlo’s diary only days before her death, which ended years punctuated  both by immense physical illness and unique creative output.  

Kahlo's legacy resonates strongly with modern life. The self-portraits that she so obsessively created bring to light the many conflicting motives of self-documentation that we see nowadays; motives that metamorphose between exposure, and mask-making.

James Hall begins his work Self-Portrait: A Cultural History with the following statement: “Self-portraiture has become the defining visual genre of our confessional age.” Undoubtedly, the selfie phenomenon springs to mind – but can this really be defined as self-portraiture?

Kahlo's work is revealing in many ways when answering this question. What largely makes her work so striking is her unchanging facial expressions: she stares dead-pan from the canvas and reveals very little in terms of her emotions from piece to piece. Tate's description of her face as “impassive as a mask”, then, seems fitting.

This sense of a mask-like face feels altogether too familiar for anyone used to a Facebook newsfeed filled with unsmiling “duck-faces”.

The psychologist Dr Andrew Przybylski describes in a BBC #trending investigation that “selfies allow you...to connect with objects or to connect with other people”. Smiles or no smiles, selfies echo largely what Kahlo was doing with her self-portraiture.

  “Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird” (1940) Photo: Playing Features: Applied Nomadology/Flickr

The emphasis in so much of Kahlo's work is contextualShe invites us to look past the impassive, mask-like stare, and focus our attention at the objects that frame her gaze. In “Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird” (1940), for instance, she is accompanied by a cat, monkey, and the all-important thorn necklace with hummingbird. It is the symbolism of these objects that tell us more than the face itself: the light freedom and playfulness that the hummingbird evokes is underpinned by the death it meets, pinned by thorns around the artists’ neck.

It is these props that create Kahlo's very deliberate identity, or “performance”, as Germaine Greer calls it. “Fashioning herself also involved the creation of an appropriate setting with intriguing props," writers Greer, “animals, flowers, a plaster skeleton atop her bed”. Kahlo forges an identity with the same “control” of  selfies by connecting and contextualising herself with these objects.

Kahlo's work is emtionally revealing, but it also has its roots firmly in the social context too. “Me and My Parrot” (1941), for example, is a twentieth century selfie of sorts. The bright parrots fasten Kahlo to her Mexican heritage, which is an indispensable part of her sense of identity.  

“Me and My Parrot” (1941) Photo: libby rosof / Flickr

The same goes for “Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States” (1932). This was painted in the middle of a four year period living in the US, during which time Kahlo yearned to be back in Mexico. Her unchanging expression reveals little as usual. Yet Kahlo stands torn between two worlds, marking the dramatic intersection between the industrial capitalism of the US and earthy spirituality of her homeland.

Kahlo’s self presentation is not a Dorian Grey-esque invitation to see the soul of the artist through her face; rather she invites us to look not at her face, but at what lies beyond and around it. It is these “props”, Kahlo’s animals, clothes, foliage, that are so strongly indicative of the artist, showing emotional and social connections that manifest themselves in her identity as a whole.

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Of course, the differences between Kahlo’s portraits and our selfies outweigh the similarities. We mustn't undermine her work by reducing it to a level with our own shoddy selfies.I want to suggest that we use these similarities as inspiration for our own self-fashioning. Kahlo demonstrates the possibility of identity formation in a way that is highly creative. So, in the spirit of Frida, let’s do away with dullness and strive to be more imaginative, and illuminating, in our own self-portraits. Bring on the monkeys!  

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder