Art is not always pleasant, but neither is society. Art and society have a reflective relationship with one another. During social, religious, and political controversy, artists such as Frida Kahlo incorporated imagery into their portraits of society which are often disturbing to the viewer. The role of an artist often includes acting as a social critic, to show us aspects of our cultural landscape that are unpleasant. In this manner, the art acts as a commentary on the negative aspects of Western civilisation.
During the thirties and forties, Kahlo incorporated the hidden realities of economic and social depression into her works. Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist, most often recognized for her series of self-portraits. These works explore the physical and emotional agony that she endured during her short life. Frida’s works, arranged chronologically, could serve as a pictoral summary of her life, political and social developments, and subsequent resolutions. She endured many tragic events including acquiring Polio, a debilatating accident, an unfaithful marriage, and a slow, painful death.
Her career as an artist was overshadowed by the success of her husband, Diego Rivera, and never given significant attention until the Feminist movement in the sixties, after her death. Stylistically, Frida’s paintings seem to follow the Surrealist movement, however, she was never acknowledged as an official member. Andre Breton, founder of the movement, assisted in the organization of her Exhibition. In the later years of her life, Frida made a living from her work, although most of her accomplishments as an artist were after her death.
Frida was the first Mexican artist to sell a work for more than $1 million and also the first to have work purchased by the Louvre in Paris. Frida’s involvement in Politics began at an early age with her enrollment at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, one of the best schools in Mexico. Frida was one of the first thirty-five women out of two-thousand students to attend. A chance meeting with Diego Rivera introduced Frida to love, art and politics. Their marriage would secure her a role in the Communist party, and further her involvement and awareness of social and political injustices.
Upon visiting the United States in the thirties, Frida was repulsed by Capitalist structure and influence. Her work, My Dress Hangs There (1933) [Fig. 1] explores her perspective on American society as I will elaborate in further discussion. In the analysis of the aforementioned work, I will refer to three different interpretive methods; Semiotics, Psychoanalysis, and Feminist/Gender Studies. These three methods will provide unique perspectives for the study and interpretation of her painting. The first method I have chosen is Semiotics. This perspective generally focuses on symbolic value.
Many artists have mastered the combination of visual imagery with social commentary. The unity of physical elements with spiritual, personal or social issues is what gives art value in the Modern world. In the use of semiotics, we are urged to consider the elements of art that may be signifiers of a deeper meaning (Roland Barthes 47). These signifiers may include the obvious symbolic physical elements incorporated into a work of art, the perspective used by the artist, the subjects and environment of the painting, as well as any other attributes perceived while looking at a work of art.
Rolan Barthes discusses the concept in his article “Rhetoric of the Image”. He compares the imagery of art and language. His intentions are to “…submit the image to a spectral analysis of the messages it may contain” (Pg. 32). Whether a specific symbolic message is intentional by the artist or not is unique for each work. However, it is clear, that in every work of art, there is something to be derived. Analyzing a work of art involves considering all aspects of its content and possible symbolic interpretations. Frida’s painting employs symbols to communicate her opinions.
In My Dress Hangs There she covers the canvas in imagery, making it almost impossible to view each of its intricate details upon first glance. There are three main aspects of this painting, each representing a different aspect of society. The first and lower part of the painting shows the working class, gathered in desperate and impoverished lines. This shows the lack of compassion available in the American economy. The Bourgeois society is represented in the top half of the painting; tall office towers line the city sky which is a dominating reminder to Americans of a chance for prosperity.
The Statue of Liberty sits in the distance; Frida pushes the ideal of Western strength and freedom to the background, which realizes the possibility of American economic failure. The water is a dark grey, reflective of the dreary years of the depression era. A collection of six industrial smoke-pipes reach high from behind the commericialist towers of the city. They seem to acknowledge the defining role of lower class workers and industrial society in the prosperity of America. Emerging from this middle area is a tall brick church.
The dark stoned walls give a European look to the landscape, and seem somewhat reminiscent of the Dark Ages in Medieval society. In the stained glass window rests a cross, symbol of Christian faith, corrupted by a snake-like creature. The combination of the church with a historically recognized sign for evil is quite a strong image. It seems as though Frida is providing a commentary on the intersection between Church and Politics. The relationship between the two institutions in American society remains, to this day, a controversial discussion.
A woman dominates the far left side, clad in a luxurious hat and gown, and flirtatiously posed in a portrait. Her presence clearly indicates a distinct line between classes; she represents the members of American society who possess the security to relax during a time of great financial distress in the country. Directly in the centre of the scene and the immediate focus of a viewer’s attention is Frida’s dress. It hangs on a clothesline between a toilet bowl and a golden trophy which sit atop large classical columns. Her dress is neither part of the lower nor higher class areas of society as represented in her work.
The dress, symbolic of her experience during a brief visit to America, hangs in the air. Although Frida’s criticism of the nation is greatly influenced by her role in the Communist community, she gives a fresh perspective on the downsides of American society and Capitalism. The visual discussion Frida provokes in her work seems to emphasize the idea that they are other potential options for society. Frida may not offer a specific resolution to the depression, but she attempts to open the eyes of her viewers to the injustices and ignorance of American society.
The idea that all art contains interpretive possibilities is expanded upon by the Historical method of Psychoanalysis. One aspect of psychoanalysis, as described by Briony Fer in “Surrealism, Myth and Psychoanalysis” is the unavoidable effects of the unconscious mind. This idea suggests that each of our dreams, creations and actions we are guided by our innermost desires often of which we are unaware. They are hidden beneath the surface of our thoughts. In the Surrealist movement, artists were encouraged to experiment with these inner yearnings.
Paintings often had a dream-like quality. Images were seemingly non-sensical, however they explored the liberated minds of artists. Objects were warped, distorted or misplaced, giving them new value. The Freudian concept of psychoanalysis often focused on sexuality, which eventually became a major concept for artists, and a catalyst for the feminist movement. In Frida Kahlo’s My Dress Hangs There, her liberation of mind and brush allow her to speak freely of her negative emotions towards American culture.
She gives deliberate attention to the flaws of Capitalist society. Her painting seems to provide a discussion on social issues. It is a possibility that Frida felt giving light to the misfortunes of America may further support the idea of Communist rule in Mexico. According to Carl Jung, an artist’s creation is first initiated by an image of the unconscious mind, it is next related to the values of the conscious mind, and eventually conformed to the requirements of contemporary society (Hernandez 1). Frida’s work is often overlooked because of her political criticisms.
Therefore, Carl Jungs final step in the creation of art seems unapplicable to her process. If Kahlo, or any other contemporary artist for that matter, had attempted to conform their ideas to the contemporarily acceptable, they would not be the social critics as I have suggested and know them to be. Frida’s boldness is what has made her a legend to both the Mexican and feminist population. She has been an influential artist in the twentieth century because of her ability to paint without hesitation. Her deepest desires and hatred are clearly evident in her works.
If it is possible to open the unconscious mind and pour its ‘inner yearnings’ onto a canvas, I can confidently say that Frida Kahlo has done it. The third method of interpretation that I have chosen for my discussion is feminism and gender studies. This perspective comparatively looks at male and female members of society. It was a movement begun in the mid-twentieth century, which has spawned thousands of inspired artists. Feminist discussions allow us to look at the past, present and future in a new light. The movement provides a fresh perspective for interpretation.
Frida was acknowledged as a Feminist icon in the sixties and seventies because of her strength despite being ignored by peers. For years Frida was overlooked because of her husbands success in painting. Although she was clearly successful in the Surrealist style of work, she was never recognized officially as a member of the movement. She maintained personal strength throughout extensive physical and emotional pain. Feminists admired her inspired spirit through the course of these events, and looked to her as their own source of inspiration through their troubles. Frida recognized the injustices in American society.
She gave specific attention to these ideas in her work My Dress Hangs There in 1933. This work was not acknowledged until much later, after her death. Throughout depression, pain and great emotional distress Frida would never let herself be the focus of pity. She maintained personal strength throughout relationship problems with her husband, and never submitted her own happiness for his greed. Her husband Diego Rivera was unfaithful to her during their marriage, and as a result, Frida moved into her own apartment, supporting herself through art sales and refusing to be a dependent wife.
Through the tragedy and horrific pain that she endured, Frida maintained an attitude of courage and intellectual pride. For this, Frida has gained respect from not only members of the feminist community, but all over the world. Using distinct historical methods as guidelines for interpretation creates an interesting and challenging strategy for art criticism. As each of these movements has had a lasting impact on the twentieth century, it is inevitable that we reflect on their concepts when looking at the work of the same time period.
The work of Frida Kahlo was greatly impacted by the Surrealist movement. It therefore is completely relevant to use a psychoanalytical approach to interpret her collection of paintings. With a Freudian mindset, it is challenging to interpret the work of an artist based on what one may assume to be their inner desires. This approach often uses a diagnostic-style system to classify the inner yearnings one may have sexually, however the work of Frida Kahlo does not possess much provocativity.
Since Frida Kahlo was greatly involved in politics, using a Marxist approach to interpret her work would seem too applicable. The selected painting My Dress Hangs There is condensed with political satire and criticism. To interpret these American failures with a Marxist strategy could have swayed this paper into an unnecessary political debate. The Semiotic approach requires searching for an artists voice through their art. Frida Kahlo was greatly interested in politics and society, which led to many intriguing analogies and metaphors in her work.
Her paintings are easily recognizable by their language of symbolism. Although the painting I chose was less personal than most of her other works, the artists ability to represent pain and misfortune was very evident. Frida mastered the skill of portraying emotional pain through physical violence, perhaps because the tragedies of her life caused her to become a master of them. Finding meaning in Frida’s work is always more than possible. Her works allow us to appreciate the unpredictability of life, and the fragility of our lives.