Womaness as Madness: Frida Kahlo

May 16, 2023

Collage created by Sadie. Cropped and cut-out Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait (centre) from Libby Rosof at Flickr © 2007 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. Av. Cinco de Mayo No. 2, Col. Centro, Del. Cuauhtémoc, 06059, México D.F. Photo by Jezael Melgoza at Unsplash

Sadie Souter explores how female individuality and expression are so often confused with madness

In this series of three articles, I’m going to be taking a closer look at Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Plath and Amy Winehouse, who inspire me with their unashamed femininity and creative power.

Madness itself is simply a shattering of convention, so when female existence is interpreted through a male lens, anything can seem abnormal.

Throughout history, from Medieval witches to prostitutes, Victorian ‘fallen women’, abused wives, the poor, suffragettes, politicians, women have persistently been silenced. Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s words ring out with a certain painful poignancy: Frailty, thy name is woman.

Female genius is too often conflated with insanity. But, from the madwoman in the attic in ‘Jane Eyre’ to Virginia’s Woolf’s gender-bending ‘Orlando’ to Bernadine Evaristo’s cross-examination of black British women in ‘Girl, Woman, Other’, female representation is shifting.

Powerful women and powerful art continue to reveal this unspoken legacy of female experience, empowerment and enlightenment, transcending our stifling androcentric culture.

Chapter One: Frida, Viva la Vida
I took my tears and turned them into paintings

A body sparkling with powdered gold. Blood trickled to the floor of the tram, scarlet flecked with starlight. Her mangled torso speckled with flickers of lightning, her soul floating just out of reach. A sigh of relief as her chest crackles with life.

La Bailarina! A dancer! They called out into the dying night. The pole that struck her, slicing through her as the sword pierces the bull, shimmered in the half light. Frida Kahlo lay there in the wreckage knowing her life could never be the same. Something woke deep in the pit of her stomach and a butterfly streaked with silver and gold fluttered from her lips. The air that day tasted of promise and pain.

Born amid a brutal Mexican revolution, Frida Kahlo had rebellion and innovation in her bones. While her life was marked by tragedy and pain, her battles with physical injury and addiction, as an artist she transformed it into haunting creations that defined a generation.

Frida fought off a slow disintegration by immortalising pieces of her body and mind in oil paint

On September 17th, 1925, a horrific tram accident changed Frida’s life irrevocably. The metal handrail of the tram impaled her abdomen. Her doctors couldn’t say whether she would live, they put her back together in sections as if they were making a photomontage an old friend recalled.

Confined to her bed, Frida was haunted by the accident, replaying her near death with brutal clarity; the fragmented image of a woman escaping from the wreckage with her intestines in her hands. From then on she lived dying, wrote a close friend, and Frida fought off a slow disintegration by immortalising pieces of her body and mind in oil paint.

While her body lay in ruin, her spinal column snapped in three places, a broken collarbone, pelvis and two ribs, her right foot crushed and her leg crumbling with eleven fractures, her mind danced and wandered on the canvas. Read more here in the Guardian about how Frida transformed her bedroom into a sanctuary.

The Broken Column‘ (1944) from Flickr

‘The Broken Column’ (1944) reverberates with her desperate suffering, perhaps the most of all her work, painted after she was reduced to wearing a steel corset to hold her disintegrating pieces together. Her skin shrouded with nails, her chest ripped through, a yawning chasm decomposes to reveal a broken column in place of her spine.

She captures the perfect balance of vulnerability and strength, stoicism and suffering, as her determined expression, streaked with iridescent tears, crumbles into the barren landscape. Her nakedness is absolute in its unwavering strength, her vulnerable beauty makes her pain all the more heart-wrenching.

Frida Kahlo painted 55 self-portraits in her life, saying I’ll paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best. Each one has its own particular brand of magic, a window to a closer truth. The art becomes not just a reflection of the artist but of the truth. It’s about how they perceive themselves, how they want to appear and how they chose – as we all do – to present themselves.

A pioneer of femininity: bisexual, androgynous and communist, Frida was the embodiment of non-conformity

Frida despised the term ‘surrealist’, preferring to see the fantasy of her art as stemming from Mexican tradition instead.

The intrigue of Frida’s art is not to squeeze meaning from ambiguity; her paintings tell clear and striking tales. Her power comes from the perfect encapsulation of a feeling, the release of pain into picture, frozen in paint, to be held and felt by the viewer and then returned to the canvas.

When looking at Frida’s work, it’s impossible to escape the woman who painted it. She explores what it is to be a woman, from miscarriage to gender expression, unashamedly and with blazing confidence. A pioneer of femininity: bisexual, androgynous and communist, Frida was the embodiment
of non-conformity.

Her unique visual language came well before the feminist movement was in full swing, articulating female experience in a way that is so coherent yet so enchanting. Madonna named her an eternal muse”; the singer’s iconic cone bustier was inspired heavily by Kahlo. Read more in The Cut magazine.

To brave the darkness of the gloomy depression of the 1930s, Frida danced and drank and flaunted the slang she had picked up on the streets of Mexico. Her sharp humour and wild effervescence carried a nihilistic edge, an awareness of her own mortality and isolation. She wrote to a friend, I drank because I wanted to drown my sorrows, but now the damned things have learned to swim.

Frida Kahlo met her husband Diego Rivera in 1928, when, as a student, she stumbled into his shimmering world of passion and art. ‘The Elephant’ and ‘The Dove’, as her parents would call them when they married, Diego and Frida became two century-defining artists. Yet Frida outlives her husband. While he looked through tradition and history, reinvigorating indigenous Mayan mural art, she looked inwards.

She dissected what it is to be alive, through every inch of her pleasure and her pain. Seventy years on from her death, her legacy transcends that of Diego’s. The swathes of flowers in her hair, strings of extravagant jewellery, flowing skirts and iconic eyebrows influenced the bohemia of the 1960s and still continues to influence pop culture and high fashion today.

Frida and Diego’s relationship was turbulent. Frida later confessed that, “there have been two great accidents in my life. One was the train, the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.” Infidelity and deceit plagued their marriage, “Diego is not anybody’s husband and never will be.” Read more about their marriage in the Independent.

Frida’s art is so much more than autobiographical, radiating political explosivity, gender deconstruction and sexual liberation

Her ‘Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair’, 1940, pictures the devastation preceding their divorce. Frida seizes a pair of scissors and hacks away at her hair, and her past. The floating snakes of hair take on a life of their own. All alone, Frida owns the room.

The lyrics of a popular Mexican song are scrawled tauntingly above her head, Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore; a sardonic retort written in her own severed hair.

Yet, Frida’s art is so much more than autobiographical. Her political explosivity, gender deconstruction and sexual liberation makes her work vibrate with an electric intensity, like André Breton’s great phrase, describing her art as a ribbon tied around a bomb.

A moment that lingers is of Frida’s first solo exhibition in Mexico in 1953. Cocooned in flowers and adorned in linen sheets, she was carried out to the exhibition in her bed, despite having been told by the doctor she was too sick to attend. She looked serenely at her life’s work, seeing her soul etched onto canvas around the room, and that same butterfly, streaked with silver and gold, fluttered away.

Radiating with regality and poise, she beamed at her friends and fans, oblivious to the breathtaking impact her work would continue to have nearly a century later.

Womaness is vibrancy, wisdom, innovation. The only madness is to be silent.

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