“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 contextual. She 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!