Frida Kahlo is a name synonymous with the emergence of gendered art in the twentieth century. The Mexican artist was renowned for her self-portraits and the embedded symbolism in her work that revolved around the themes of identity and death and celebrated indigenous Mexican culture and the female form. The artist’s turbulent relationship with Diego Rivera, whom she married twice, was also a recurrent theme in her work and is reflected in one of her famous portraits shortly after their divorce – ‘Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair’.
Kahlo is celebrated as a feminist icon because of the manner in which she depicts herself in her self-portraits. Challenging the stereotypical norms of beauty laid out for women, she proudly sports a unibrow and moustache, not conforming to the patriarchal standards for women’s grooming. While many of her earlier portraits showed her in classic feminine attire, adorned with a necklace or headgear, they were deep-rooted in traditional Mexican culture and enabled her to defy the norm in her own way. She wore bright ribbons and jewellery, defying the existing expectations of how a cultured Mexican woman should dress.
‘Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair’ displays Kahlo in a large black suit, sitting on a chair with a pair of scissors in her right hand and long strands of hair strewn around her. Her hair is cut short and atop her are lyrics of a popular Mexican song that read – “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.” This particular portrait is believed to be a declaration of her independence – not just from Diego, but from men in general.
The contrast between Kahlo’s clothing in this portrait compared to her earlier ones is striking. Her attire consists of an oversized man’s suit and red shirt, sharply veering away from her typical feminine dresses and high-heeled shoes. While many interpret the portrait as her mourning her husband’s infidelity, her denouncement of the “appropriate” apparel can be viewed as a strong symbol of independence and autarky. The locks of hair strewn around her are thought to symbolise her femininity that she has sacrificed but can be interpreted merely as a challenge to gender conforming notions of beauty today. Long tresses are not necessarily representative of being feminine and instead of viewing her cropped hair as an act of martyrdom, one can interpret it as a bold message, in the same way that her choice of clothing defies existing norms.
In some ways, if we were to read Kahlo’s portraits as something that escapes the heterosexual matrix of intelligibility, we might be able to gain some insight into why it seems so profound. Judith Butler, in her seminal work Gender Trouble, posits the idea that gender and sex may not have a linear relationship – in that, that gender is symbolic of cultural meanings that the sexed body takes on, so in some ways, bodies that conform to the larger heterosexual culture have a better chance of surviving the violence than those that don’t. In fact, this matrix becomes the filter through which we perceive the normative and, hence, anything outside the filter seems to be a subversion of the institutions that are creating and perpetuating the matrix. Kahlo is unapologetically weaving a very different story of her own self, and while that may simply be a take on her own agency – of her being in control of her own appearance, it can also be read as a deeper argument on the idea of its perception as well.
Why was it that not conforming to these set boxes was seen as something that was not normative? Is there something to be said about the subversion itself? It attempts to traverse the boundaries between the feminine and masculine, but does the manner in which it does so complicate the reading of the larger idea of the self itself? If we begin to view this self-portrait as made by Frida Kahlo herself – what does that say about women’s agency in painting their own selves – because the act of painting your own image, and in some ways controlling your own perception, speaks on a rather deeper and subversive level.
Whether Frida Kahlo painted this particular portrait in mourning for her unfaithful husband, or as a metaphor for her emancipation, or even a combination of the two, it is emblematic of female empowerment and can be seen as a confrontation to existing patriarchal norms. “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best,” said Kahlo. A constant theme across Kahlo’s portraits is her unashamed depiction of herself – each one exuding confidence and independence, and along with that, a clear message to all women.
Sanjana Hira is a third year undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Economics and Psychology from Ashoka University.