Frida Kahlo, Retaliation, Independence and Assertion- A Painting Analysis

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) created the painting “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” in 1940. It was painted in the aftermath of her divorce to her husband Diego Rivera who had been unfaithful to the artist.

Kahlo was already known for her challenges to gender construction. As a younger woman she had posed in family photographic portraits wearing a suit, a shocking act of defiance in an era in which female dress codes were both limited and enforced by convention. Her androgynous appearance was therefore early evidence of a fierce independent and rebellious spirit which would translate to both the artist’s later life and work.

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Frida kahlo, family portrait, age 17, (far left)

Kahlo’s 1940 portrait is an embodiment of such bold defiance. Once again the artist steps outside the boundaries of social norms and also the perceived ‘feminine’ artistic practices expected of the female self-portraitist of her day, by presenting herself dressed in ‘masculine’ attire.

As a response to Rivera’s affairs with other women, the artist represents herself boldly in her ex-husband’s suit, as she seizes for herself the social privileges of her former male partner. Rivera was regarded as a great artist of his time and had gained both wealth and fame. Kahlo’s work, however, received little attention in comparison and her international success was only granted posthumously.

The 1940 portrait portrays a complex act of female retaliation, independence and assertion in reaction to a context of societal and marital female subordination and personal trauma. The out sized suit, as an embodiment of male authority to which the artist lays claim, acts as armour, a statement of both courage and self-protection. The figure’s gaze is defiantly engaging, the expression is one of strength.

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Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” 1940

In addition to wearing a suit, the artist portrays herself in the aftermath of cutting her own hair short. Kahlo subverts existing power structures, defying gendered conventions. In doing so she frees her painted self of the limitations of imposed femininity. Hair is strewn around the scene as if the subject of an act of previous rage and frenzy. The lyric at the top of the painting reads “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore”. The artist portrays herself as empowered by her own actions, her own self imposed loss, estranging herself from her former life.

Kahlo’s symbolic painting works as a personification of a woman’s anger, defiance and independence. The scissors are a tool utilised to reflect that the figure is in charge of her own destiny.

They are also significantly held at a level suggestive of castration.

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Public Art and Ideological Censorship

Women are hugely under represented in public art. Using the UK as an example, research carried out by campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez stated that out of over 900 public statues in Britain, only 158 are of lone women.

Despite exceptions, such as Queen Victoria, the most common representations of women are allegorical figures, for example representing ‘Justice’, or mythical and religious figures, such as near naked mermaids, goddesses and angels. Womanhood is thus publicly presented as abstract or illusion, objects of fantasy and projection, or vessels for announcement. This, in turn, is reflective of enduring practices to utilise women’s bodies in specific ways, including as titillation for the male gaze and as contemporary  commodities for advertisements.

That women are reflected in this way and not in terms of their lives and achievements is therefore not only indicative of their erasure from public life and societal value, but negates the idea of female humanity.

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Conversely, male-centric public representation endorses the idea that men alone have guided both history and culture. In fact such perceptions are so embedded that they have become virtually unquestionable norms.

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For centuries in the West public art has been utilised to communicate certain messages to a vast audience in order to sanction specific values and beliefs. In terms of figurative art, this may be encoded with signs of status, worth and power. A history of mostly male-only representation therefore is itself representative of a shameful gendered hierarchy, utilising visual propaganda and ideological censorship.

The failure to represent women, half the human population, is indicative of a failure of culture.

Campaigners have highlighted such inequality, aiming to raise the public profile of women as integral to a fair and just society. Taxes from women equally fund public art, yet public representation remains inexcusably male.

Womanhood, and indeed culture itself, can only benefit from the removal of such binding perimeters.