The Mirror They Made: The Painter and The Photographer

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Two of the most influential artists of the 20th century are Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman These artists are iconic for their extensive work in the area of self-portraiture as they redefined the female role. Self-portraiture is the most intimate form of art as it forces its the maker to hold a metaphorical and sometimes literal mirror to their identity. “The artists themselves dictate the terms on which we are invited to judge them,” comments Liz Rideal. By examining the details of a self-portrait, a viewer can find insight into the artist’s sense of identity.

Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman challenged the concept of identity in the form of self-portraiture through the exploration, representation, and negotiation of themselves in their practice. A greater understanding of the concept of identity can be gained by juxtaposing these artists and the self-portraits they created.

A portrait is a representation of an individual through an artistic medium such as drawing, painting, sculpture, and photography.

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Portraits often attempt to capture an individual’s identity with the most likeness and accuracy. They also attempt to preserve the sitters’ identity at that specific time. Throughout the ages, portraiture has served a variety of purposes. “They were not just displayed, they were exchanged, circulated, worn to show loyalty, to remember family members, affirm bonds and relationships and were also used in diplomacy to provide information or a gift.” This has resulted in its varied nature of the genre.

In the 16th century, portraiture took a turn as the rebirth of the Renaissance gave life to the self-portrait.

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This change was described by Foucault as the “invention of man as a knowing subject and the object of his knowledge. Since then, artists like Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman have made self-portraiture a central theme of their work. A self-portrait is a portrait that the artist constructs of themself. While portraiture relies on representation, Ludmilla Jordanova suggests, self-portraiture isn’t about accurately representing the sitter but is really about how the artist and how identities are formed.

Self-portraiture can be interpreted in the context of two categories: self-awareness and self-presentation. Self-portraits with the motivation of self-awareness is an internal observation that strives to understand oneself. Self-portraits with the motivation of self-presentation deal with manipulating how their identity is perceived by the viewer.

Self-portraiture is the most intimate form of art for it involves an opening up of oneself to be publicly seen. They allow the artist to turn their gaze inward to understand both themselves but also the society that shaped them. “These works allow artists to take a long look inside themselves at core issues as well as understand contemporary culture.” It forces it’s a maker to hold a metaphorical and sometimes literal mirror to their identity. The self-portrait are reflective of the many levels of identity and communicates many differing selves. What they choose to see, distort, or miss is incredibly revealing. The artist must make many choices in how they represent themselves: their stance, demeanor, scene, clothing, and expression. Artist Liz Rideal states “The artists themselves dictate the terms on which we are invited to judge them.” By examining the details of a self-portrait, a viewer can find insight into the artist’s sense of identity.

Frida Kahlo was a 20th-century Mexican artist who became one of the most famous painters of her time. He works consisted primarily of portraits and self-portraits. Out of the 143 pairings she created, 55 were self-portraits. The fascination with the self was a constant theme throughout her life and her work.

The self-portrait gives a face to an identity; however, contemporary self-portraits are not as direct as those of the renaissance era. In Frida’s self-portraits, there are many faces that represent her multiple selfs. She questions identity, what it is, and what it can be for she believed that one’s identity cannot easily be defined. She uses her art to document her dynamic relationship with her identity almost as a way to discover it herself. She was trying to understand herself and herself as an artist. She experiments with self-representation in her paintings.

Her art is self-reflection. Her work strives to define her identity and capture it in a truthful way even though she was unsure of it was. But it also is a way that she could give her identity and solid form if not in herself, then in her work. She confronts her identity and the mirror that she creates for herself to better understand her own identity. “Since my subjects have always been my sensations, my mental states, and the deep reactions triggered in me by life, i have frequently objectified all this in images of meld, which was the most sincere and real thing I could do to express what I felt inside and outside myself”

Her autobiographical self-portraits use her body as the narrative. Fridas identity was deeply connected to her disability and her ethnicity. She communicated her suffering by juxtaposing her emotional and physical pain with beauty. Her art investigates her personal identity in addition to her national identity. At the beginning of Frida’s career, she represented her identity and strived to capture its multiplicity; however, later in her career, she begins to question her identity. Frida addresses the duality of her identity and the internal conflict it brings. She wrestles with the dichotomy between her Mexican identity and her European identity.

This clear division between her two selves can be seen in her painting “The Two Fridas.” Her two selves are being separated from each other. The painting is composed of the Mexican Frida and the European Frida have exposed hearts that are connected by only one artery and the other has been severed. She expresses this divide in herself by also diving her paintings into dark and light, day and night, sun and moon, male and female.

Frida Kahlo revolutionized the role of women in portraiture and challenged the concept of the self-portrait. Frida Kahlo was the first female artist to “turn her body into a manifesto.” She challenged gender roles and societal expectations with her appearance and art. Her iconic unibrow and subtle mustache are a constant feature in her self portraits. She consciously chose not to pluck them to question the concept of femininity. She rejects femininity and the image that was expected of her. She continues to challenges gender themes in her Self Portrait with Cropped Hair” where she depicts her fluid identity as masculine. She changed the role that she presented herself in. Her typical feminine dress has been replaced by an oversized men’s suit and her long hair has been shorn. This act of defiance stemmed from the separation in her marriage.

Frida Kahlo represented her identity in all its many forms weaving in metaphors and allusions. She is known for mixing realism with fantasy while always trying to capture herself in the most honest form through abstraction. Her work is often contextualized within the Surrealist art movement. Kahlo addresses this in her own words when she says: “They thought I was a Surrealist but I wasn’t. I have never painted dreams. I have always painted my reality”

Cindy Sherman is an American artist known for her photography. Her hugely influential work blurs the line between portraiture and self-portraiture. Sherman’s photographs are dominated by the artist’s face, yet none of her works are, in truth, self-portraits. Rather, “Sherman uses her body as a vessel or a canvas, bringing hundreds of characters to life in photographs for which she plays both artist and subject, working in front of and behind the lens.” She worked in series, typically photographing herself in a range of costumed self-portraits. Her self portraits dawned on the fictional identities of others. She finds her disguises liberating.

Shermans photographs of herself explore identity, emotion, and the human condition all without revealing herself. For an artist who’s career is about capturing the self she is strangely elusive. She has been described as the “mistress of self-effacement” for while she is her own model she is not her own muse. While she appears in all of her photographs we never see Cindy Sherman. She says that she aims “to star in her pictures without giving anything away”

One is never quite sure where the artist stands in relation to her characters, and they in turn are often difficult to define. Her work isn’t autobiographical and yet her dressing up and endless reinvention is about her sense of self. She believes that her photographs come from her childhood anxiety and confusion. Sherman began playing dress-up when she was young. It originally was a form of play and later came from a place of pain. Sherman thinks that her dressing up as a means of escape. She thought “if you don’t like me like this maybe you will like me like this? With curly hair? Or like this?”

This act of dressing up and becoming a character became a constant theme throughout her life and eventually her work. Through the use of extensive makeup, prosthetics, and costumes she transforms into alternate selves. By tying on these materials she is also trying on someone else life. It is argued that her self portrait captures her fluid identity. “I think it took me a very long time to figure out who I am, what my needs were” “For a long time the characters were to ask those same questions: maybe this is who I want to be?”

Through this she disappears into these characters it leads to identifying her as an artist. In her own words, Sherman describes her relationship with her identity and her work. “I see myself as a blank canvas, and it changes from day to day depending on whom I’m around or my mood or how well I slept. I’m so aware of other people’s expectations that I have to be careful to not try to be who someone wants me to be. instead of myself. In that sense, I’m still learning who I am. I’m a product of everyone around me, and that goes back to being a blank canvas. People don’t see me the same way I do, but identity is always as much of a construct as what you want people to think you are. I absorb things from everyone else, shake it up in a bottle and throw it out, and that’s what comes out in my photographs. That comes from living and watching how people present themselves.”

Through her evasion of subjectification, she provides insights into the concept of identity. Cindy Sherman investigates how identity is constructed and how to represent identity and gender in contemporary culture. She has surrendered herself as the canvas in order to explore the female role in portraiture and the representation of women in visual culture. She does this in her first notable series “untitled film stills.” When she dresses up she constructed characters. She captures these alternate personas and characters of female archetypes. “I think my work has often been about how women are portrayed in the media,” Sherman says, “I want there to be hints of narrative everywhere in the image so that people can make up their own stories about them” Each photo contains a full narrative brought to life by Sherman and her costumes. There is an imposed narrative on her work; however, she doesn’t want to be given a fixed identity. “It is not like adding wrinkles to look older; it is using the wrinkles I already have to say something else”

Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman share many similarities in their life and their examination of identity and gender through self-portraiture. Both artists embrace their contradictions and the many faces of their identity. Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman resist interpretation and disagree with the art movements they have been contextualized in. Frida was categorized as a surrealist while Cindy Sherman was seen as a postmodernist.

Both of these artists were heavily influenced by the male figures in their lives. Diego Rivera, who later became Frida Kahlo’s husband discovered her paintings and helped to launch her into the art world. Cindy Sherman’s lover, Robert Longo, encouraged her to photograph the characters that she dressed up as. Not only did these men push Kahlo and Sherman to become the artists that they are, but their role also influenced the work that they created. These men “hover in the background of her conversation like ghosts. At times, they seem to have been virtually collaborators; silent partners in the work.”

Both artists use costumes in their life and in their art. Kahlo’s consumes consist of traditional American, European, and Mexican dress. She changed her appearance before she started painting herself sometimes feminine, androgynous, or masculine but she was always Frida. She used her traditional costumes to get closer to her roots and as a way of representing her identity. Cindy Sherman was famous for her use of costumes to radically change her appearance along with makeup and prosthetics. When she put on a costume she also put on someone else’s identity. She actively tried to hide and disguise herself “I was pretty distanced from it. I never thought of these characters as being flattering to me maybe because I just didn’t think it was me.” Her costumes brought her further away from her identity and turned her into a character.

When we juxtapose these artists we find many comparisons between them and yet they greatly contrast in the work that they produce. Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman’s greatest difference is their contrasting motivations. While Frida Kahlo is motivated by self-awareness Cindy Sherman is motivated my self-presentation. While Frida Kahlo strives to understand and accurately represent her identity Cindy Sherman’s motivation is the performance of identity, to constantly hide her own and make the viewer see her as something that she is not.

This artist also differs in their choice of medium. It’s interesting that Frida Kahlo was a painter when she was trying to capture the true identity while nos matter the skill of the artist it is impossible to represent soothing exactly as it is. While Cindy Sherman takes photographs of her manipulating her identity and hiding the truth from the viewer. The nature of photography is that it captures something exactly how it exists. The writer Tim Adams observes that while the camera never lies, Cindy Sherman’s camera always lies. They contract the nature of their medium with the motivation behind their work.

Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman rely on mirrors in their practice to reflect on the self.
They confront their identities and the mirror they create to better understand themselves. They used mirrors to examine and construct their identities. Frida Kahlo would use a mirror as a reference when she painted. Cindy Sherman uses a mirror as she paints her face and takes her self portraits. She uses mirrors to create her compositions. Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman metaphorically and literally held up a mirror to their identity.

By creating their self-portraits, Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman made a mirror of their own that represents what they see in themselves or want us to see in them. They challenged the concept of identity in the form of self-portraiture through the exploration, representation, and negotiation of themselves in their practice. Through juxtaposing these artist’s self-portraits we can better understand the identity of ourselves and those around us.

Cite this page

The Mirror They Made: The Painter and The Photographer. (2020, Oct 30). Retrieved from

The Mirror They Made: The Painter and The Photographer

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