Frida Kahlo has in recent decades become somewhat of a feminist icon, her life and work providing a focal point for conversations in feminist art criticism. Central to this interest in Kahlo is the open, frank and empowering way in which she has treated female sexuality and the female body in her paintings, at a time in the early 20th century when such treatment can be considered revolutionary.
Her representation of gender necessarily differentiates her from the contemporary Surrealist movement with which she has often been grouped. The surrealists closely linked eroticism with the transgressive and irrational type of behaviour which was at the heart of their creative process, and viewed the sexualized body as a route of access to this “heightened” mental state. Thus they treated female sexuality as a means to an end, in stark contrast to Kahlo for whom it comprised an essential part of her self-identity and self-expression.
Perhaps Kahlo’s most striking and positive representation of the gendered body is in the painting “Roots” (1943). This is a self-portrait like the vast majority of the artist’s work, in which Kahlo depicts herself as a monumentally large figure in a fiery orange dress, the sole occupant of an extensive, earthy landscape. Her face follows the motionless, expressionless model characteristic of her portraits, which conceals the externalization of emotion as if it were a mask and bestows Kahlo with a refined and solemn air of authority. There is no suggestion that she is trying to idealize her portrait, conform to conventional beauty standards, or appear more enticing to the viewer. Although she is reclining she is propped up on her elbow, remaining alert and assertive, confronting our gaze with her own.
Kahlo is, unlike traditional reclining females that are nude, fully covered by her traditional dress in a way that deflects any sense of eroticism. Her sexuality is still apparent but in a different way; it is not related to the outward appearance of her body but originates internally and is coupled to the vitality of her spirit. As Whitney Chadwick has written this sexuality is “a life force, identified with creativity, more emotional and psychological than genital”.
The symbolism or motif of the roots that we see here in fact occurs recurrently in Kahlo’s paintings, and is a part of a wider vocabulary of symbolism the artist employs which refers us back to Mexican folk-art traditions and retablos type images. This symbol of roots does not always take its literal form as a green and leafy plant structure, as Hayden Herrera (the artist’s principal biographer) suggests, the idea of roots is also used metaphorically and is interchangeable with other kinds of connecting pathways or “life-lines” which represent psychological and spiritual bonds.
In “Family tree” (1936) for example, this bond is a red ribbon held by the infant Frida which splits into branches and connects her to the portraits of her parents and grandparents; a scarlet ribbon which shows the “bloodline” of her ancestry and ties her into her family roots. In “Henry Ford Hospital” (1932) red strings issue forth from Frida’s abdomen area as if they were multiple umbilical cords, binding her to symbolic objects (such as a snail, a foetus) which float about her body to signify the various painful experiences that have made up her life. In “Two Frida’s” (1939) there is a snaking artery that connects the hearts of the two self-portraits, one which is broken, exposed and bleeding and the other, still beating, provides its literal life-line. This suggests how – in the darkest of times – Frida drew strength from herself.
In “Roots” this symbol of the life-line is bought to fruition. Kahlo is connected to the ground upon which she lies through the intersecting stems of plants, clumped in her chest cavity and wrapped around her legs, with large flat green leaves sprouting from them and culminating in a network of small red capillaries splaying outwards. It is as if blood were passing in and out of her body to the soil, making it an extension of the earth. In this way Kahlo has not only become a part of the natural cycles but is connected to the mythical powers of her native Mexican landscape. She becomes “rooted” within her ancestral homeland which provides not only a sense of belonging but the nourishment of her body, spirit and soul. As Lucy Lippard described, “Roots” illustrates Kahlo’s “longing for a connection with an anthropomorphised earth mother”.
Whilst the symbolism of roots in Kahlo’s iconography can largely be seen to denote positive, life-affirming connections either by joining living organisms to nourishing soil, or symbolically joining people together and uniting them with the memories and experiences which make up their past, at the same time roots can be read as having a negative connotation, suggesting entrapment and immobility. To Kahlo this must have had particular resonance, for after being involved in a streetcar accident in 1925 she was left bed-ridden for months and incurred severe life-long injuries to her spine, legs and abdomen, a consequence of which was that she could not bear the children she desperately wanted.
This might bring new meaning then to the painting “Roots”, in which Kahlo is lying, tied down, stoic and still, there is no sense of or potential for movement. Kahlo is rather bound to her specific experience of the world and unable to escape both in a physical and emotional sense from her lived reality. Despite this sense of suffering being apparent in all Kahlo’s work due to the trials of her personal life, and although much of this pain was gender specific (caesarean operations, miscarriages and haemorrhages), Kahlo’s femininity – linked as it is with the greater cycles of nature and the primordial, ancestral forces she feels inside her – seems to remain an ongoing source of strength rather than weakness; of will to endure rather than to surrender.
The empowered way Frida Kahlo has presented her body in “Roots” can be contrasted to a painting completed a year later by a male European surrealist artist, Paul Delvaux’s “Sleeping Venus” which also features a reclining female figure in a surreal landscape. Here Venus, the Roman goddess of love – who has throughout the ages appeared in art as the embodiment of eroticism and beauty – is employed as a recognizable focal point for the eye, a gravitational centre for the gaze. Calm, serene and undoubtedly beautiful she provides a moment of visual respite amongst the dark dream vision of obscure and agitated figures. (A landscape which responds to the feelings of anxiety implicit to the Belgian context in when it was painted – during the bombing of Brussels in 1944.)
Venus has been appropriated for the function she serves here. In contrast to Kahlo’s portrait, the face is not looking at us but is turned away, seen in profile. She is asleep, passively and unknowingly inviting us to look at her. The way her arm is raised above her head with her right hip angled towards us and by her positioning upon a formal, luxurious looking couch, the figure is rendered explicitly “on show”. The classical deity has therefore become vulnerable and exposed, submissive within the gendered power exchange of seeing and being seen.The tall figures looming over her, especially the skeleton figure of personified “death”, increase this feeling of Venus’ vulnerability and objectification.
So although Delvaux might intend to glorify beauty and womanhood by giving his surreal figure a classical treatment in the name of Venus, he also perpetuates a long tradition of sexualized and submissive feminine nudes in the history of art. Moreover, Venus conforms to the surrealist notion that the erotic female body was primarily a tool to facilitate irrational, instinctual mental states in the creative male mind. This directly juxtaposes Kahlo’s vision of a female sexuality which originates from within, from the natural order, and operates independently from both the male gaze and the surrealist agenda.
It is also interesting to compare the compositional structure of these two paintings. Delvaux invokes a sense of seclusion; although the couch is placed in an open-air courtyard, it is fenced in by the surrounding temple like buildings, the looming columns of their facades, and the black mountain peaks which tower ominously in the distance. This setting is reminiscent of the eerie atmosphere of De Chirico’s paintings and their sense of oppression and foreboding. Here again, Delvaux’s vision directly contrasts to Kahlo’s, whose figure, despite being bound by roots and perhaps immobile, occupies a landscape that extends to infinity under a clear blue sky.
Delvaux’s strange consciousness of the relationship between exposure and enclosure seems to have a gendered significance, Venus is “on show” to us and the figures encircling her, but also in a secretive, hidden courtyard which is fenced in on all sides and cast in a dark night which bears only a thin slither of a crescent moon. Kahlo meanwhile – even if not physically – can be seen as sexually and spiritually liberated in the open, panoramic and bright landscape of her motherland, the promise and hopefulness of which becomes incorporated into the artists vision of herself.
In summary, Frida Kahlo’s painting “Roots” conveys through the use of symbolism the potency of female sexuality and womanhood by connecting them to the cosmological forces of nature and its regenerative powers. As in all her paintings Kahlo expresses her identity in relation to her personal lived experiences, and despite the suffering that entailed, the Frida that is presented to us remains adamant and strong, filled with an unshakable spirit. Whilst in Delvaux’s “Sleeping Venus” the idea of female form is also given a universal and mythological significance, this is woven into the function of the sleeping nude as a sexualized and erotic vehicle for the male gaze which follows a long tradition of “Venus” models in painting. Placed within this role of Venus, Delvaux’s female is not a real woman in the real world, but an abstract, intangible and sexualized ideal. Consequently the painting makes no attempt to offer, as Kahlo does, any genuine account of the feminine identity or experience.
Kahlo’s representation of the gendered body is only one way that she is fundamentally set apart from the male-orientated Surrealist movement, and after all – as she said many times – how could she be a surrealist when it was the waking truths of her reality, not dreams, that she revealed in her painting.
© 2016, Kat Isaac. All rights to written content reserved.
Chadwick, W. (1991) Women artists and the surrealist movement, London: Thames & Hudson.
Herrera, H. (1991) Frida Kahlo: The Paintings, New York: Harper Collins.
Garber, E. ‘Frida Kahlo: A comparison of feminist and non-feminist voices’ Art Education, Vol. 45, no. 2, (1992), retrieved 27 October 2012, JSTOR database
Friis, R. ‘The fury and the mire of human veins: Frida Kahlo & Rosario Castellanos’, Hispania, vol. 87, no. 1 (2004), retrieved 27 October 2012, JSTOR database