This article features in issue 37: Oppression and Resistance

Despite selling few paintings during her lifetime, feminist icon Frida Kahlo continues to be widely celebrated for her boundary-pushing work. Through her art, most notably her self-portraits, Kahlo created images of female beauty which diverged from early twentieth century ideals. Her work afforded her an outlet to share personal trauma, exploring  taboo themes from a raw, feminist perspective. Kahlo’s depictions of herself are an empowering example of a woman publicly expressing her own image, independent of patriarchal constructions. Her brand of activism drew on concepts popularised during emergence of second-wave feminism, highlighting Kahlo as a true progressive.

Physical trauma punctuated Kahlo’s life. She endured operations, numerous miscarriages, and abortions due to complications of spina bifida, and permanent injuries sustained in a life-threatening bus accident. It was during the long initial recovery from this accident that Kahlo began to focus on painting. Much of her work centred on these experiences of physical and emotional pain, prominently her inability to have children, which plagued her until her death in 1954. Her piece The Broken Column particularly highlights some of these themes. In this painting Kahlo depicts herself in barren terrain, her semi-nude figure stands crying in the foreground, penetrated by a Romanesque column. This self-portrait is frequently interpreted as representing Kahlo’s experiences of pain. Many of her other works, for example My Birth, highlight exclusively female experiences of pain. This foregrounding of both pain and the physical form may suggest a belief that feminine identity is largely shaped by gender specific experiences of trauma. 

Art was a medium through which Kahlo was able to celebrate her idea of feminine beauty, highlighting characteristics that patriarchal society deemed undesirable. Heavily involved in politics from her youth, she was uncomfortable with Mexico’s traditional cultural conceptions of gender, and transgressed from them in her personal life and art. Sexual ambiguity was a central theme in Kahlo’s work, most famously expressed through the exaggeration of her monobrow and facial hair in self-portraits. Gender subversion is especially clear within her 1940 Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, which shows her in a man’s suit holding scissors, her freshly cut hair on the floor. This painting is perhaps the clearest expression of Kahlo’s rejection of patriarchal beauty standards; contemporary Mexican culture placed huge value upon long hair. It seems apparent that Kahlo felt constrained by strict social constructs of gender, using her work to openly challenge them.

Frida Kahlo channelled unfiltered emotion through her work, drawing from deeply personal experience to create pieces that women can relate to generations after her lifetime. She boldly strayed from gendered norms, depicting her own body on her own terms. Arguably, it is the progressiveness and continued relevance of her work that is key to Kahlo’s iconic status. Her unapologetic self-expression certainly proves a persistent inspiration for modern feminists. 

By Catherine Cunningham