The Construction Of National Identity In Frida Kahlo's Paintings

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In post-revolutionary Mexico the construction of a national identity with the aim to unite a fractured and factionalised country was the priority for many artists, intellectuals and government officials. Frida Kahlo, who was producing work in this era of introspection and negotiation of identities, shared a desire to search for a mexicanidad that could define the identity of a mestiza Mexican woman. Through closely examining her paintings Mi nacimiento, Mi nana y yo and El abrazo de amor entre el universo, la tierra (México), yo, Diego y el señor Xólotl it is clear that Kahlo constructs national identity through employing Christian and pre-Columbian religious iconography and cultural symbols. By adopting and transforming such imagery in her artwork, she is able to evoke their traditional connotations and redefine their meaning in the context of post-revolutionary Mexico. In doing this, Kahlo asserts her own mestizaje, fusing together different cultural elements to create a unique mythology to represent her heritage and Mexico’s past (Deffebach 2015), she seeks a spiritual guidance which can lead her to the creation of a national identity and her use of religious iconography presents a readable and accessible visual vocabulary which communicates with the Mexican population.

The sparse bedroom scene of Mi nacimiento supposedly depicts Kahlo’s birth. It features a mother lying on a bloodstained bed, her head covered by a white sheet as she gives birth to a baby Kahlo with an adult sized head. Kahlo makes reference to religious iconography in Mi nacimiento in order to create an accessible painting, assert her mestizaje and question the glorification of Aztec symbols through indigenismo. Rendered with oil on metal and with dimensions of 30 x 35cm, it mimics the style of a retablo or ex-voto painting. This is Kahlo’s first religious reference. Through replicating the naivety of the ex-voto which is completed by Christian believers and not artists, Kahlo identifies herself with the popular masses and denies the elitism that comes with being an artist whilst transforming her paintings into spiritual entities with a communicative power. It is clear that Kahlo is attempting to recall the ex-voto when she also reflects it within the structure, style and content of her painting. Castro-Sethness (2004) notes that the subject of a woman in a difficult situation, along with the paintings reduction to essential details, is evocative of the ex-voto style of painting. Mi nacimiento also features a scroll painted at the bottom, however, unlike the traditional devotional painting which uses this space to give details of the miracle taking place, Kahlo’s scroll is left blank, thus she has removed the portrayal of “divine intervention”’ (Zavala 2010: 234) and left the narrative inconclusive. Through employing the familiar ex-voto structure but disrupting the associated meaning, Kahlo demonstrates her intentions to create accessible and meaningful art as she constructs a national identity for the people.

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Moreover, Kahlo manipulates the meaning of holy figures in her attempt to challenge conventionality. The sacred healer who is usually depicted at the top of an ex-voto, takes form in the Mater Dolorosa depicted in a frame above the bed. The significance of the Mater Dolorosa is ambiguous, however rather than acting as a ‘protective and consoling figure’ as Castro-Sethness (2004: 23) states, the placement of her enclosed in a frame indicates her acting as a powerless figure. Therefore, she instead represents motherhood and its passive role, as reflected in the faceless mother who, with her obscured identity, is simply assigned and limited to a biological role in the birth of the child. Traditionally, the Mater Dolorosa mourns the death of her son and in Mi nacimiento, she is mourning the death of an old generation as the new one is born. Kahlo is, therefore, representing the regeneration of Mexican identity along with the spiritual renewal of humanity through Christ’s sacrifice (Castro-Sethness 2004) and through the inclusion of the Mater Dolorosa; Kahlo’s head in the painting transforms into the Christ figure and so becomes the saviour of humanity and creator of national identity.

Despite her obvious references to Catholicism, Kahlo is not demonstrating her faith as she was not a religious person. However, through engaging with pre-Columbian symbols alongside Christian ones she critiques the idealisation of such cultures. Lindauer argues that rather than celebrating Catholicism, in Mi nacimiento Kahlo is simply acknowledging it (Lindauer 1999). However, the lack of divine intervention in the scene despite the presence of the Mater Dolorosa, can be interpreted instead as Kahlo offering a critique on religion due to its failure to intervene when needed. To further this argument, Kahlo as the newborn child, who is potentially being birthed by herself is taking on the role of both Christ and the Virgin Mary, transforming herself into a spiritual saint and martyr therefore subverting Christianity through irony (Deffebach 2015). Mi nacimiento simultaneously depicts a birth and a death, a dualism constant to Aztec mythology, as well as referencing the birthing figure of the Aztec deity Tlazolteotl. Through this reference many scholars would argue that Kahlo is assigning Aztec heritage a pivotal role in her birth and therefore in the creation of a new national identity. By layering references to both Aztec and Christian iconography Kahlo is not necessarily exalting or romanticising them but rather challenging the government’s post-revolutionary ideal of mestizaje and indigenismo by which Mexico’s indigenous past is appropriated to distinguish their ‘unique cultural heritage’ (Lindauer 1999: 124). Kahlo’s employment of pre-Columbian and Christian references in Mi nacimiento rejects this ‘Philosophy of the elite’ to ‘mestizo-ise the Indians and indianise the mestizos’ (Knight 1990) through suggesting that she birthed herself, thus the source of her own heritage, thereby ignoring the possibility that Mexican identity is to be solely formed through Aztec foundations.

Kahlo’s references to religious imagery in Mi nana y yo allow her to redefine the role of the female in her construction of national identity. A hybrid adult-child Kahlo is cradled by an Indian wet nurse wearing a pre-Columbian Olmec funerary mask, which mirrors Kahlo’s conjoined eyebrows (Zavala 2010). Anderson (2009) claims the mask symbolises the post-revolutionary government in their attempt to reconstruct a broken Mexico. Hence the mask becomes their use of indigenismo as they venerate the pre-Columbian ideal, concealing the undesirable aspects. The nurse nourishes a child-like Kahlo with her breast milk, this can be interpreted that adult Kahlo continues to receive spiritual nourishment from her Indian heritage. The nourishment of cultural heritage that Kahlo is alluding to is reinforced as the milk of the maternal nursing figure is replicated through the milky rain that falls from the sky onto the fecund vegetation that surrounds them. Through this imagery Kahlo re-codes the gendering of Mexico’s past whereby culture and knowledge are classified as masculine. Kahlo is therefore reversing this historic gendered framework through Mi nana y yo and constructing a national identity through references to pre-Columbian and Christian symbols which rely on the female image. This is furthered through the obvious structural visual reference to the pietà, whereby Kahlo symbolises the Christ figure in the arms of the Virgin Mary. Transforming herself into a saint as in Mi nacimiento, Kahlo reinforces the power of her own image and therefore the female power which she represents within her personal mexicanidad.

Kahlo destabilises the traditional conceptions of femininity even further when she depicts a lack of emotional connection between the Indian nurse and Kahlo, in spite of the nourishment that takes place. Such ambivalence and distance in the relationship is created through the awkwardness of their posture, Kahlo’s distant stare and the inaccessibility and threat of the mask (Lindauer 1999). Lindauer uses this as an argument for the basis that despite her inclusion of Christian symbolism the painting is absent of faith and spirituality. Although religious symbols take on a somewhat secular meaning in Kahlo’s construction of national identity, they form part of her own spiritual mythology which unites elements of her cultural heritage to form her mestizaje. Rather what the awkwardness of the painting aims to do is remove any attempt to sexualise the naked body of the nurse as to critique the construction of the female Indian body as vulnerable to the European male destruction. Kahlo extends this critique of the romantic representation of the Indian mother as nurturer (Anderson 2009), reducing her to a biological role by depicting the internal layer of breast tissue and concealing her face through the use of the pre-Columbian mask. Therefore, Kahlo is reconstructing gender roles and even more specifically the position of the Indian female further within her construction of national identity.

As she constructs national identity in her artwork, Kahlo manipulates pre-Columbian mythology to establish an identity that, through spirituality, connects nature with her homeland and this is most obviously seen in her 1949 painting titled El abrazo de amor entre el universo, la tierra (México), yo, Diego y el señor Xólotl. Immediately, through the title Kahlo asserts the relationship between herself, whose bodily image also resembles a symbolic Mexican identity, the powers of nature and the very land of Mexico itself. When viewing the painting this becomes even clearer as the figures depicted fit together in one natural embrace which leads to a harmonic and synergetic relationship. This harmony is emphasised through the many parallels and dualisms which are layered through the painting. One that is noticeable is the replication of the wound that sprawls across both the neck of Kahlo and the earth goddess. Kahlo references bodily scars in other paintings such as Recuerdo de la herida abierta, where Kahlo pulls back her dress revealing an injured leg. Here the non-healing wound symbolises those of Mexico’s brutal past (Gannit 2002). Kahlo also uses wounds, specifically those located across the neck as a reference to the severed neck of Aztec goddess Coatlicue. Kahlo frequently uses Coatlicue as a motif in her work and she forms an important symbol in Kahlo’s mexicanidad (Helland 1990: 8). Coatlicue, mother of the Gods who gave birth to the moon and stars (Franco 2004) is a complex character open to various modern day interpretations. However, by referencing Coatlicue in El abrazo de amor entre el universo, la tierra (México), yo, Diego y el señor Xólotl, Kahlo is emphasising the relationship between Aztec mythology and the Mexican land, through which she constructs her national identity.

Continuing to use the body alongside bloody imagery as a physical space which mimics the suffering of the land, Kahlo makes further references to pre-Columbian spiritual practice through the bleeding chest. For the Aztecs, the heart was the centre of consciousness and in art this was represented through blood on the breast (Helland 1992). This lesion therefore represents a spiritual wound caused by Kahlo’s lack of spiritual guidance. On the chest of the earth goddess the bloody cut runs into her breast which then leaks a drop of milk whilst a tree also sprouts from the wound; a sign of regeneration and an allusion to the duality of life and death that governs much of Aztec spirituality. The tree and the milk drop on the body of the earth goddess symbolise a continual cycle of renewal and rebirth, referencing the connection between nature and the rebirth of the Mexican national identity and its source of life as the wounds of the past.

In closing, Frida Kahlo constructs a unique national identity through her artwork by engaging with religious and cultural iconography and imagery, bringing together a mestizaje and spirituality that defines her and communicates with the Mexican population. Kahlo defines national identity to represent the modern and mestizo Mexican and in doing so redefines female gender roles, challenges the post-revolutionary government’s ideal and asserts her pride in her heritage and homeland. Through simultaneously drawing on Christian and pre-Columbian sources, Kahlo refocuses their significance as she removes them from their traditional religious context and employs them in her unique modern one. Through examining how Kahlo carries out this process in just three of her paintings it is possible to begin to understand the broader situation of Mexico at the time whereby many artists were using their art as a medium for defining a mexicanidad. Analysing Kahlo’s work through this one lens displays how she establishes a national identity that not only represents her but also the wider population. Ultimately, this reveals the ignorance in the readings of Kahlo’s art that simply interpret her paintings as biographical diary entries and overlook the significance of the often subtle adaptations of and allusions to religious and cultural symbols in her work.


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