Georgia O’Keeffe, The Great 20th Century Painter

For a person who became one of the most celebrated and prolific painters of the 20th century, Georgia O’Keeffe had a humble and quite ordinary start in life.

Red Poppy, 1927

Born in 1887 in the state of Wisconsin in the United States, her life began on the dairy farm of her Irish and Hungarian parents, along with her six siblings. Interestingly, despite her origins, and reflective of her early determination, by the age of 10, O’Keeffe had already declared her path in life would be in the direction of art. She began training in the subject as soon as it was possible.

After a family move to Virginia and graduating from school, the young artist enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago where she was ranked as one of the best students. Studying also in New York, where she first met photographer Alfred Stieglitz her future partner, here O’Keeffe won a scholarship to a summer school in Lake George. It was a significant area which would feature in many of her early artworks.

Charcoal Drawing XIII, 1915

In the years around 1910, O’Keeffe struggled with a period of ill health and the bankruptcy of her family which forced her into a role as a commercial artist. Once recovered, the young artist continued with her training and also took on a teaching post in art in the South Carolina Collage. Continuing to create herself, O’Keeffe utilised charcoal for several semi abstract drawings, work that would eventually end up in hands of an impressed Stieglitz. The work was soon exhibited at his gallery in New York.

Lake George Reflection, 1921

O’Keeffe began a lifelong love affair with nature, drawing inspiration from natural surroundings through which she expressed her emotions. In the same era, a romantic partnership with Stieglitz, who was 24 years older than the young artist, began. Her detailed paintings of plants and natural formations, sunsets and sunrises, in addition to landscapes, began in earnest into the 1920s and beyond. Her work also included cityscapes, particularly of New York where the artist viewed the world from her 30th floor apartment in the Shelton Hotel. Capturing the spirit of the age and promoted with the help of her lover, O’Keeffe’s work began to sell for high prices.

East River from the Sheldon Hotel, 1927

Spending the next years of her life, from 1929 onwards, between the skyscrapers of New York and the mountainous and desert wilderness of New Mexico, became the norm for the artist. While inspired to create many great painting, O’Keeffe’s psychological state was in crisis at times however and she endured a nervous breakdown. She remained in hospital for two months, while later receiving written encouragement from fellow artist Frida Kahlo, among others.

Letter from Frida Kahlo to Georgia after her nervous breakdown

O’Keeffe’s mental state was blamed on learning of her father’s extra marital affair. The artist was also suffering from the infidelity of her own husband and once well enough, she sought the wild landscape of the American South West as a form of refuge.

My Front Yard, 1941

In 1940, she bought a house at the Ghost Ranch, an isolated spot in the picturesque desert near Albuquerque. Fascinated by the ever changing light and mood of the area, O’Keeffe soon made herself at home. In the decade of the 1940s, the artist had two one-woman retrospectives, at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943 and at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1946. The latter occurred in the same year that Stieglitz passed away. O’Keeffe continued to paint and exhibit for the rest of her years at the Ranch.

Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1, 1932

While many critics asserted a belief that O’Keeffe’s work incorporating flowers suggested erotic vulva imagery, the artist always denied the claim. While also acclaimed as a ‘great feminist painter’,  the artist also detached herself from any such labels, stating her sex was irrelevant to her work. She was, nevertheless, much celebrated by feminists, including fellow artists Judy Chicago and also Mary Beth Edelson who reflected O’Keeffe in her Some Living American Women Artists (1972). It was a reworking of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper featuring great women artists of the day, including O’Keeffe in the central position, occupied in the previous work by the Christ figure.

Mary Beth Edelson’s artwork Some Living American Women Artists (1972)
Black Iris, 1926

Becoming frailer in her later years and enduring the loss of her eyesight to a degree, caused the artist to cease her painting work. O’Keeffe died in 1989 at the age of 98. Her legacy as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century has continued to gain momentum, however. Her determination to succeed, her obvious talent and celebrated reception is certainly worthy of such status.

The Beyond, 1972

As the artists herself once stated …..

“The men liked to put me down as one of the best women painters. I think I’m one of the best painters”

– Georgia O’Keeffe

Art and PROUD

Depictions of lesbian love created by women artists themselves were rare in the 19th century Western art world. Male painters such as Gustav Courbet (1818-1877), however, were creating work such as The Sleepers 1866, depicting two naked and entwined women in a bedroom setting. These erotic works were intended for private collectors and to titillate the heterosexual male gaze.

Lesbian artists, like their gay male counterparts, did exist in the age, nevertheless.

Courbet, The Sleepers 1866

While her subject matter concentrated on the animal world, French painter Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) lived remarkably and bravely openly with female lovers Nathalie Mica and later US painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke. She also defied dress conventions of her era by obtaining a licence to wear trousers, easing her ability to work for long hours in the studio. Welsh sculptor Mary Charlotte Lloyd (1819 – 1896) who also lived with a woman partner, had studied with Bonheur, in addition to US sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830 -1908).

Rosa Bonheur
The work of Hosmer

Hosmer, who spent a time of her life in a Bohemian colony of artists in Rome, has more recently had her work described as encompassing a ‘lesbian gaze’, reflecting a form of female desire that was rarely allowed to be explored by women themselves (though it certainly would not have been highlighted as such at the time). In turn, fellow pioneer in the genre, African/Native-American sculptor Edmonia ‘Wilfire’ Lewis (1844-1907), who joined Hosmer in the Rome retreat to escape the rampant racism of the US, is also thought to have had relationships with women.


As  the 20th century began, it was Paris which became home to those who wished to push the boundaries of both art and society. Painters such as Romaine Brooks (1874-1970), partner of writer Natalie Barney, were portraying strong women in their work, while exploring androgynous dress and forming a world of gay and bohemian artistic subcultures.

Barney & Brooks
Painting by Brooks

In the light of the theories of the time emanating from Freud and Lacan as well as the Surrealist movement, artists such as Claude Cahun and romantic and artistic partner Marcel Moore were exploring the boundaries of gender, among other ideas.

Cahun, 1927

Over in Mexico, bisexual Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), despite her marriage to Diego, had serious affairs with women. Her relationship with singer Chavela Vargas, who was 12 years younger than the painter, was clearly evident in love letters exchanged between the two and in Frida’s statements to others. In a letter to poet Carlos Pellicer, Frida wrote about her instant attraction to Vargas, describing the singer as both ‘erotic’ and a ‘heavenly gift’.

Kahlo & Vargas

Meanwhile, Indian-Hungarian painter Amrita Sher-Gil (1913 –1941) who was also bisexual, had been upset that her family members had burned her letters describing her relationships with fellow women, while she had been quite open regarding her life. In turn, Argentina-born, European painter Leonor Fini (1907-1996), explored her own bisexuality within her work, often depicting sexually charged, surreal and dream-like depictions of women.

Sher-Gil (left)
Painting by Sher-Gil
The artwork of Fini

While later gay male artists such as Richmond Barthé, David Hockney or Andy Warhol were themselves breaking taboos, women were also at the forefront of societal change-often for the benefit of themselves and others.

Painting by Hockney

During the mid to latter part of the century, movements for both gay and women’s liberation collided and pioneers like US artist and activist Harmony Hammond (1944- ) became among the first to create exhibition art spaces specifically designed for the much marginalised gay community and women artists generally. Her exhibition focusing on lesbian artists, held in the early 1970s, helped to pave the way for an expansion in acceptance in the art world.


While US photographer Alice Austen’s (1866-1952) photography including lesbian lives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely suppressed, artists in the latter 20th century such as Tee A. Corinne (1943 –2006) challenged the idea that women could not portray their own sexual orientation, with her powerful photographic portrayals of lesbian sexuality.

By photographer Austin
Ato Malinda

Under today’s ‘Queer’ or ‘LGBTQ’ banner, the diversity of art mirrors the diversity of artists it may represent. Kenyan born artist Ato Malinda, for instance , has created challenging work on her lesbianism in a cultural context. US born artist performer Wu Tsang, and Indian artist and writer Kalki Subramaniam within the Trans community or South African non-binary identified artist-activist Zanele Muholi, whose photographs have often focused on portraits of LGBT people in the country, are yet more examples. Artists in many areas of the globe and in a range of expressions and practices, are able to create prolific and interesting works on subjects from individual expression, personal identity, sexuality, collective pride or indeed any other subject of choice.


There are,of course, many more creative people who may – or may not- wish to regard their work as relevant to the current LGBTQ movement.

Despite a world still coming to terms with many related issues, however, art will remain OUT and PROUD. 

Photograph by Muholi

Book Review- Laura Knight: A Panoramic View

‘Even today, a female artist is considered more or less a freak.’ (Laura Knight, 1965)…

The introductory line for this new book on artist Laura Knight (1877 – 1970), reveals imperative understanding on the position of women in the arts over the years. However, Laura Knight: A Panoramic View within its overview of her life and work, clearly sets out to give this artist, undoubtedly one of the greatest British painters of the 20th century, the absolute recognition she deserves.

Lamorna Cove, 1917

Created to accompany a major exhibition at the MK Gallery, UK , (open until-20th February, 2022) the book is indeed positively ‘panoramic’, encompassing a body of eclectically themed work spanning almost a century. Perhaps best known for her remarkably framed peaceful paintings of subjects on Cornish cliffs during her early years living amongst artists known as the Newlyn School, Knight produced so much more. In turn, this book allows a chronological insight into the artist’s huge portfolio. In a timeline expressed via text and pictures, from capturing the frivolity of circus performers to her enduring images of the Nuremberg Trials, Knight is presented as she was and should be forever acknowledged, as an artistic force to be reckoned with.

The ballet girl and the dressmaker, c.1930

Knight significantly played an important role in foregrounding women as workers, performers and artists particularly in her work. Highlights captured here range from images of back stage ballerinas to wartime women working in non-traditional areas. She portrayed fellow females in non idealized and real settings. The Royal Academy’s retrospective exhibition of her work during 1965 was also the first held for a female artist. In addition, Knight created the painting Self Portrait with Nude long before this momentous event, in 1913 in fact, a work which scandalised the art world and beyond. By portraying herself, brush in hand, next to a naked female model in an era in which the art schools Knight attended forbid female students to paint live models, the painter was certainly making a pointed statement on self-representation and for all women as artists.

Portrait of Pearl Johnson, 1926

As well as the authors here enabling such insights into both an extraordinary life and varied works, the voices of those intrigued by or critical of Knight are also given room for expression in this new book. This includes UK artists such as Barbara Walker and Lubaina Himid. Of Knight’s subjects Himid states a viewer’s feelings of intrigue and intimacy concerning Knight’s realist style “I feel the heat of their bodies and can hear their conversations and silences”. Walker however explores the complexity of an artist who platformed marginalised people in her work, from the Romani community to portraits of African-American people. It is noted, for instance, that Pearl Johnson, one of Knight’s US sitters took the artist to a civil rights meeting. Walker, however, recognises Knight also uncomfortably conforming to and benefiting from her racial privilege within the era she worked, as a necessary contemporary review.

Self Portrait with Nude, 1913

This book nevertheless foregrounds Knight as an artist who created an extensive and hugely significant body of work in practices from oils to etchings, over a dedicated and long career. Whether in her roles as official war artist, landscape painter or portraitist, here we find an artist who not only promoted diverse people and aspects of 20th century life but also aided in carving out recognition for women generally in the arts.

Ruby Loftus screwing a Breech-ring, 1943

Beautifully relayed and interestingly formatted, Laura Knight: A Panaramic View is not only timely but imperative to our understanding of the artist it documents and is well worth the attention of us all….

Laura Knight: A Panoramic View

by Anthony Spira (Author), Fay Blanchard (Author), Sophie Hatchwell (Contributor), Sacha Llewellyn (Contributor), Pamela Gerrish Nunn (Contributor)

Leonor Fini, a Life Less than Ordinary

Leonor Fini (1907 –1996) was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, although her heritage was European and she spent her formative years in Trieste, Italy with her mother. The turbulent marriage of her parents aided in creating the young Fini as a rebellious and independent character who would later become an internationally recognised painter, designer and author.

Moving first to Milan then later to Paris in the early 1930s enabled her youthful talent to blossom and she was soon mingling with the Avant Garde elite of the Western art world. As a self-taught artist her early painting work began to explore an intriguing world of symbolism, mythology and sexuality, often focusing on the female form. Whether sphinxes, queens or demons, Fini’s expression would fast become entangled with the Surrealist movement and she began to exhibit both at home and abroad to great acclaim.

La fête secrète , 1964

As the artist gained a reputation for her work, the subject matter would often include erotic scenes of lesbianism, though Fini declared she herself was bisexual. Having had affairs with women, the artist drifted mostly between two male lovers and refused to settle for any form of traditional or typical lifestyle. Her work, in its frequent presentation of matriarchs and androgynous women seemed to mirror her own unique strength and individual style.

Le lecon de botanique, 1974.

Fini granted her viewers fascinating, sensual and bold female subjects extracted from the imagination of a female painter, in contrast to projections of male desire, fantasy and fear shaped by her surrealist contemporaries, such as Dali and Man Ray.

Sphinx Ariene, 1973

In her eccentricity, the painter also acquired twenty three cats who would sometimes share her dining table.

After a lifetime of exceptional creativity, Fini died in Paris in 1996 and her work is today an integral part of the finest art collections in the city, as well as in New York and London.

Leonor Fini (1907 –1996)

Ever true to her early nonconformity, the painter once stated,  “I always imagined I would have a life very different from the one that was imagined for me, but I understood from a very early time that I would have to revolt in order to make that life.” …And indeed she did.

Alma Thomas, Abstract Pioneer

Alma Thomas was born in the state of Georgia in the United States in 1892. At school she was a model student who shone in many subjects. The family later settled in Washington D.C in order for the gifted young Alma to live in a region which created more educational opportunities for African American youngsters.

The Eclipse, 1970

After leaving school, the future artist went into teaching and this was an area which would stay close to her heart for the rest of her life. Given the chance to attend Howard University, a historically black centre of learning, it was here Thomas met influential tutor and artist Loïs Mailou Jones. Urged to study art and experiment in painting, Thomas began an early exploration of the area of abstraction. After graduation with a degree in the subject, Thomas went back to teaching.

Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968

It was not until her retirement in 1960 that Thomas became a full-time artist. Inspired by the abstract expressionism and colour-field painters of the age, she began to direct her work in a similar area. Exhibiting her work in 1966 at Howard University, she began to develop the brightly coloured mosaic style for which she became famous. Taking inspiration from the moon landings at the end of the decade, her abstract style continued. It was nature however which motivated Thomas to paint many of her works. Remembering the rural landscape of her home state, she captured impressions of the seasons, flowers and the elements among other aspects of the natural world in her following work. Her resulting paintings received much praise from critics.

Springtime in Washington, 1971

It was aged 81 that Thomas became the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The artist continued to work and exhibit her work for the following seven years until her death in 1978. While not overtly political in an age of civil rights activism, Alma Thomas, nevertheless made huge inroads for African American artists into an art world run by the exclusively white and male art establishment.

Eunice Golden & The Erotic Male Nude

A painter of Russian American heritage, Eunice Golden has become synonymous with work on the male nude in a feminist exploration of sexuality and heterosexual/bisexual female desire. In doing so her work broke many boundaries. The artist was part of was a part of the Ad Hoc Women Artists’ Committee in 1970 and joined the Fight Censorship group, a collective who aimed to challenge laws on what couldn’t be depicted in art during the 1970s. Also involved were artists such as Louise Bourgeois, who was likewise known to create explicit depictions of nudes in her work.

Golden, in turn, sought to define ideas of desire from a female perspective in a world where female bodies had been constantly created and posed for the male gaze. The female nude had become an age old object of fetish onto which male artists and male viewers alike could project their every whim and fantasy. The artist’s work sought to challenge and subvert masculinised ideologies by providing a female voyeuristic viewpoint. In doing so her work was considered quite radically feminist during the era, by reversing gendered power relations and notions about the artist and their muse.

Cronus #1” by Eunice Golden.

Part of a generation of artists who sought to express aspects of sexuality, along with Carolee Schneemann, Nancy Spero and Louise Bourgeois, from a female perspective, Golden has secured a place in feminist art history in a prolific career, spanning fifty years. Her progressive and challenging ideas have also helped to raise the visibility of female artists generally, while her explorations of sexuality have pushed the boundaries, specifically for female expression.  

Michaelina Wautier (1604-1689), a painter from the Southern Netherlands, is thought to be the first female artist to depict a male nude. She perhaps ‘got away with it’ because most presumed her paintings were created by a male artist anyway. U.S. artist Sylvia Sleigh, another painter who worked with Golden in the 70s setting up initiatives for women in the arts, is also well known for her depictions of male nudes. Sleigh famously created a male ‘Harem’ artwork, utilising white men instead of the Orientalist female stereotypes created by European male painters during the 19th century. Turning both the tables and power dynamics, in turn, has quite amusing results.

Sylvia Sleight, The Turkish Bath, 1973.
Eunice Golden, Study for Gardens of Delight #1, 1980, mixed media on paper, 18×24″

Eunice Golden (born 1927) is now 93 years old. Her practice expanded over the years to encompass performances in which she arranged and covered a real male body with food. Her later work focused on other subjects, such as mothers. However, it is perhaps her painted Male Landscapes series which began in the 1970s which is best known and received the most notoriety as well as praise.

Golden’s figurative depictions of the erotic male nude are indeed powerful expressions of the female gaze, and a pioneering exploration by a great artist.

Eunice Golden’s work is part of a current exhibition Eunice Golden: Metamorphosis at SAPAR Contemporary [Oct. 22 – Nov. 28] New York.

Book Review: Photographer Tish Murtha’s ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’

The third instalment of a book trilogy via Bluecoat Press reflecting the work of UK social documentary photographer Tish Murtha (1956-2013) is entitled ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’. For those unsure as to what the title and subject matter refers, the jazz bands were marching troupes mainly involving young and adolescent girls, a particular phenomenon in 20th century working class British communities.

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Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

Mainly focused in the mining towns of Wales, the Midlands and Tish’s own stomping ground of North East England, each band was representative of a particular neighbourhood. Trained to parade with military style precision, clad in colourful uniforms while playing instruments, including drums, kazoos and glockenspiels, the troupes would compete against each other in local and national competitions. The capturing of such a unique facet of cultural expression, would, in turn, become Tish Murtha’s first exhibition, a photographer destined to create a fascinating catalogue of work on the lives and experiences of often forgotten communities surviving on the margins of British life.


Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

The book itself is once again organised by Tish’s daughter Ella, who has for the last years dedicated her time to posthumously promote the Tish Murtha Archive. Her introduction in this publication reflects not only the passion for her mission and the pain of her loss (her mother died suddenly in 2013), but also reflects a humanity central to Tish’s own much celebrated work. The photographer portrayed a depth of socio-political awareness involving the sort of sensitivity, humour, stoicism and endurance that only comes from someone who, as both an uncompromising artist and working-class woman and mother, lived in the very heart of the community she reflected.

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Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

The photographic work collected here is a perfect insight into the world of the juvenile jazz band, from children practising on the waste grounds and in parks, to the formal training of the troupes and final competitions. The images, featuring a world mainly inhabited by girls, give a rare platform to young working class, female experience therefore. The dedication and also bonding of the girls is clearly revealed in Tish’s work. That young women were encouraged to work together and were celebrated for their loud and proud processions, while recognised/rewarded for their skills, was an unusual outlet for youthful female energy.

tish 4 joy

Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

Interestingly however, Tish was not a huge fan of this form of leisure activity herself. The photographer’s own views on the subject matter are reflected in her own words in the book and also perhaps, in the black and white images she conveyed. Tish viewed the bands as too militaristic in nature, reflecting a culture of ‘not stepping out of line’ in areas  in need of working class rebellion against policies of enforced economic and social deprivation. The photographer’s perception of the suppression of children’s individualism and imagination naturally also totally conflicted with her ideas of free expression, indicative of the artist’s own outlook.

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Image from ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved

There is much joy and interest in Tish’s work here, nevertheless, found particularly in the children’s game playing in mock jazz bands, in contrast to the more serious and adult constructed world of training, travelling and judging. In play the children themselves are the creators of the narrative, often with anarchic humour, in opposition to the more sombre world of contrived troupe rivalry in competitions. The photographer cleverly offers us two worlds here, one that is liberated and funny and another that is more restrained and organised. As a reader and viewer, however, we can take so much from both thanks to Tish’s artistic talents.

This book is simply another fantastic opportunity to contemplate the work of one of the best UK social documentary photographers of the 20th century and her crucial reflections of working class life – feel free to see for yourselves.

‘Marxism will heal the sick’: Frida Kahlo and Karl Marx

Marxism will give health to the sick, Frida Kahlo, 1954 

One of the last paintings Frida Kahlo ever created was entitled ´Marxism will heal the sick` (1954).  Analysis of the painting, however, necessitates an understand of the artist herself, her motivation and personal context within an intriguing life and artistic career, culminating in this work which would be one of her final messages to the world.

Frida Kahlo was born in 1907, into an early 20th century global era of political upheaval, bloody revolutionary uprisings and world war. In turn, the artist´s native country did not escape such instability and in 1910 Mexico was plunged into revolution. Kahlo´s childhood progressed therefore, amid a backdrop of armed rebellion against the suppression of the peasant classes, calls for land reforms and nationalization of resources. The rebels also rejected a European-style cultural template as the ideal, in favour of promoting indigenous Mexican culture. The political fervour and reclaiming of a more authentic national identity not only informed Kahlo´s own political perspective but, in turn, would have a major influence on her later artworks.


Marxism will give health to the sick, Frida Kahlo, 1954

By the time Frida was twenty years old she had already joined the Mexican Communist Party and here her relationship with Diego Rivera, a painter of revolutionary murals and fellow member of the Party (later expelled), intensified. To describe Rivera as the more politically influential partner, citing the difference in age and experience, is to do Kahlo an intellectual disservice however. Kahlo was from a middle-class family and therefore benefited from an education including a wide range of resources and reading. The artist´s father also encouraged his daughter in gaining full advantage of an education only made possible by the recent admittance of girls to preparatory schools during the revolution. Here the teenage artist was heavily involved with a group of socialists known as the Cachuchas. This small society of young intellectuals were known not only for their adolescent pranks, but also for their sharing of ideas on history, philosophy and the political theorizing of Marx.


Above: Tina Modotti’s photograph of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, with members of the Artists’ Union, on the May Day March, Mexico City, 1929 to protest for workers rights and to show working class unity.

While the revolutionary events of the era, an informed education, in addition to politically motivated associates, all aided the formation of Kahlo’s Marxist ideals, it was perhaps her personal circumstances that created an extra dimension to her perspectives. As a child Kahlo had suffered from polio, contracting the disease at the age of six and as a result was forced to spend nine months in bed. As part of her recuperation, Kahlo fought back against both her disability and gendered expectations of the era by taking part in sports such as boxing, to strengthen the weakness created by her illness. The artist´s later only partial recovery from a catastrophic tram accident not only heavily impacted on her physically, but also aiding in forming her character and beliefs. Her ability to survive the tortuous aftermath of multiple devastating injuries emphasized her resilience in the face of extreme personal adversity. Both her pain and endurance were also often themes and motifs within many of her artworks, forming an empathetic link between Kahlo and all those who struggle and yet must fight to survive.


A metaphorical relationship between Kahlo´s own disability and her politics is clearly evident in her painting ´Marxism will heal the sick´. The artist presents a self-portrait in orthopaedic leather corset, as an embodiment of the suffering of the masses under the oppression of US capitalist forces. As the artist portrays herself as gently embraced by the reassuring, god-like hands of Marx however, she is reflected as able to throw away her crutches, promoting an evangelic-like message regarding the healing properties of Marxism for society. Kahlo´s use of symbolism and iconography communicate as if a political poster with rather simplistic reading. The divided ´good and evil´ composition of the canvas with use of opposing and familiar icons of war and peace, in addition to the saintly Marx and the strangling of the US eagle, are clearly illustrating a specific political agenda.  Even Kahlo´s dress and commonly adopted naïve, brightly coloured folk style of painting, reflect the promotion of indigenous arts embraced by the Mexican Renaissance movement, and is symbolic of a cultural identity freed by revolution.


Having spent decades producing many groundbreaking and what may be described as feminist self-portraits examining the physiological and often painful areas of her own life, from the disintegration of her marriage to her miscarriage, Kahlo`s move to a more overtly political stance was a form of resolution for the artist. As Kahlo´s commitment to the Communist Party grew, so did her wish to create a greater connection between her art and her political beliefs. The artist´s home had been an open house to many radical thinkers and her involvement with Trotsky, who sought refuge there, has been well documented. In the last days of her life she continued to be politically active, demonstrating against US imperialism in her wheelchair, despite the recent amputation of her leg and a deterioration in her general health. Kahlo died in 1954, leaving her painting unfinished. A rousing chorus of The International was sung at the painter´s funeral and her coffin was shrouded in the red flag with the Communist emblem of hammer and sickle.

Frida Kahlo


Kahlo, as a woman who defied expectations of sex and sexual orientation, as a Mexican, as a survivor of great personal trauma and disability, knew only too well the meaning of the struggle to be free, an ideal she perceived was embedded in Marxism. Her political beliefs in fact, in addition to her art, her country and her lifelong endurance, defined the artist. Kahlo apparently finally found her own inner peace within the message of her last painting, in which a lifetime of personal pain and political struggle are united. Kahlo’s paintings are famous for their tears, but as her life ebbed away, the painter reportedly said of this work “For the first time, I am not crying any more”.

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First published in Culture Matters, 2018


Kara Walker, Black Lives & White Lies

Kara Walker is a U.S contemporary painter, silhouettist, installation artist, print-maker, and film-maker, known for her exploration of themes on race, gender role, violence and cultural identity.

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She was born in 1969 in California, however her family moved to the state of Georgia when she was 13 years old due to her artist father’s work commitments. Her new home was an area that still held rallies by the white supremacist Klu Klux Klan, a shock to Walker after the more relaxed atmosphere of her early years. It was here that she faced regular racial abuse during her education. The young artist, therefore, was often afraid to address issues of race during this period in her artworks, however her youthful experiences would fortify her expression in later life, on a journey leading to international artistic acclaim.

Walker states of her early years;

“I was really trying to explore the problematics of making art as a young black woman, when constantly barraged and faced with a host of stereotypes about what it even means to be a young black woman.”

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After later gaining a Masters In Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994, one of her first works to capture world attention was her 15 meter long panoramic frieze entitled ‘Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart’ (1994). The work sought to rewrite a ‘Gone with the Wind’ style, mythological past on slavery and power relations by exploring, as the artist herself said “a sadomasochistic construct that underlies the American history narrative”.

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Walker sought to lay bare the injustices of racism and abuses of white cultural and economic power by using the medium of the black silhouette on a white background. The information for the viewer is literally in black and white, a metaphor for race, created as a powerful, stark and confrontational message. However, the medium of the silhouette also bypasses details, so is paradoxically unclear and potentially misleading. Walker states of her work;

“I really liked that association, there’s a similarity between the silhouette and other types of stereotyping, racial stereotyping in particular”.

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Continuing to create a huge body of work, Walker has reimagined, subverted and challenged ideas embedded in historical art and genre painting by exposing the rotten underbelly of a dark past.  She pays particular attention to the plight of African American women and the combined attacks of racism plus misogynistic abuse and in doing so, does not shy away from images such as rape.

Walker created a huge sculptural work using materials such as sugar during 2014 of a naked black woman in the form of the Sphinx entitled ‘A Subtlety’. It is a work that has layers of meaning. The story of Western sugar consumption is entwined with slavery, but the artwork not only reminds the viewer of the interactive relationship between capitalism, power and gross oppression. The positioning of the sculpture links to the abuse of women, a not so sweet consequence of white male power.


Walker also does not hide from images of lynching or mutilation and many other horrors inflicted on those othered as subhuman. The artist’s work, however, was never intended to simply address a bygone age, but how historical attitudes and events relate to our present. Walker, herself, recognises the Black Lives Matters campaign as “the current incarnation of a civil rights movement” under the shadow of racist figures such as Trump. Her latest works explore not only the history of black oppression but also efforts to create change, which the artist reflects without sentiment and often in terms of nightmarish violence and grotesque suppression.

kara blog afrika.  The Republic of New Afrika at a Crossroads, 2016. Kara Walker

Whether in the fields of Southern states U.S. plantations or on the streets of Minneapolis, Walker captures a centuries long struggle. Her work is a shocking kick to the guts, created to express an absence of humanity, coupled with a vital and ever needed reminder of it. In doing so, Kara Walker is one of the most significant artists of our age.

kara blog last

“As soon as you start telling the story of racism, you start reliving the story,” Walker states “You keep creating a monster that swallows you”.

Tove Jansson, Moomins Creator, Artist & Author.

Tove Jansson was born in the capital of Finland, Helsinki, the eldest of her siblings. Both her parents were artists and from a young age Tove aided her mother, illustrator Signe Hammarsten-Jansson, with her commissions. As an adolescent she began creating books with her own illustrations. It would be the start of a lifelong love affair with creativity for the future artist, illustrator and author.


Signe Hammarsten-Jansson’s self portrait.

Tove’s enrolment at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1938, after studying art in her homeland, would eventually lead to exhibitions of her work. During the pre World War 2 era, Tove would regularly have illustrations published in magazines. It was at this time, the artist began to be involved with Garm, an anti-fascist Finnish-Swedish satirical magazine for whom she created many illustrations.


Tove’s illustrations for ‘Garm‘ magazine (c.1939)

Although she was once briefly engaged, Tove met her life partner Tuulikki Pietilä, a US born, Finnish graphic artist who was also a professor in Seattle, during the 1950s. The two began working on projects together, a circumstance that would later lead to a deep romantic connection. Same-sex relationships were illegal in Finland at the time and would remain so until as late as 1971. Their early love affair had to be hidden and at first demonstrated through coded messages and discreet meetings.


Tuulikki and Tove (c.1960)

Tove’s first Moomins book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was created in 1945 at the end of a very grim period of European and global history involving two world wars and the unleashing of atomic bombs on Japan. Her early books often metaphorically reflected such times as a result. In her first work Tove invented a forested world beset with hidden dangers for her Moomin characters to navigate, while her second, Comet in Moominland (1946), contemplated a world of catastrophes and natural disasters. Highlighting the darkness often found in traditional folk and fairytales, the books however, would also reflect the relationships of family members and the values of kinship. In this way Tove explored themes for children and adults without simple sentimentality, but an honest awareness of life as consisting of both light and shade… and the world in-between.

“I love borders….Twilight is the border between day and night, and the shore is the border between sea and land. The border is longing: when both have fallen in love but still haven’t said anything. The border is to be on the way. It is the way that is the most important thing.”― Tove Jansson

The Moomin characters related to Tove’s own family. The wise and practical Too-Ticky, however, who was introduced in Moominland Midwinter (1957), was based on her lover who had inspired and motivated her to write the book. It was a work which incorporated a theme of the dread of winter corresponding with Tove’s own depression, only to end with the eventual and inevitable light of spring. In turn, Tove saw herself as a combination of Moomintroll, a character portrayed as a dreamer and a thinker and the fiery and irritable Little My.


Moomintroll and Too-Ticky 

Tove’s female characters were often far from stereotypical. The mischievous Little My, for example, represented a girlhood that could be bold and defiant. Meanwhile Too-Ticky, reflected a gender non-conformity and skilful practicality far from common in the era the character was created. Both, in turn, highlighting Tove’s own perceptive insights and progressive ideas.

In the 1960s, the partners created their own house on a small uninhabited island in the Gulf of Finland. Klovharu would became their summer home for almost 30 years. Tove and Tuulikki captured many of their experiences there on 8 mm film, documentation of romantic lives entwined in nature and creativity.


Klovharu Island

Their alternating urban life was spent in the city of Helsinki, in adjoining apartments with connecting studios.


Tove Jansson in her Helsinki home and studio,1956

In addition to her continuing Moomin books, Tove was a painter who worked in both impressionist and abstract styles and had a number of exhibitions. She was also a serious writer and, in addition collaborated in many theatrical works, including creating set designs for the Finnish National Ballet.

Jansson died in 2001 aged 86 years old, leaving a heart broken Tuulikki who survived her for eight more years.


Tove’s legacy includes leaving the world with a lifetime of successful creative endeavours which have continued to fascinate and enthral people without barriers of age. The artist, author and illustrator herself once stated wisely …

“It is simply this: do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent—lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It’s as simple as that.”

Tove Jansson (1914-2001)


Little My