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!  

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump