A visitor takes a look at 'Self-Portrait with Monkeys' (1938) Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

***

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!  

Getty
Show Hide image

The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times