In 1939, Frida Kahlo divorced her husband Diego Rivera. As Mexico’s leading painters, they had been modern art’s power couple for a decade and received constant media attention both for their artwork and personal lives. Much has been written about the marriage of the two influential artists, so I won’t spend time on the intimate details within this post (Luna, n.d., wrote an in-depth narrative on the two artists’ connection). For an overarching sense of the mood, Kahlo described her sentiments about their relationship in her notebook, saying that “There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst” (Dawson, 2018).
Kahlo’s separation from Rivera was a poignant and productive time for her as an artist. The months following their divorce resulted in some of her most profound paintings including The Two Fridas (1939) and Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940). The latter is one half of the subject of this post.
Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair is a seminal depiction of intersectional feminism and Kahlo’s assertion of her agency as an artist and individual. As a self-portrait, it expresses the social, emotional and cognitive aspects of Kahlo’s multifaceted identity. Kahlo sits in a chair. She wears a suit, which is too big for her (because it is actually Diego’s) and a pair of mid heel pumps. Her face is turned slightly to the right of the viewer, while her eyes are fixated straightforward so that she is making direct contact with her audience. She is holding a pair of scissors and there are long strands of her own hair, which she has cut and now lay scattered on the floor. On the top of the painting are lyrics and musical notation to a song. This painting is a tour de force. Kahlo’s body language and gesture communicates vulnerability, power and self-awareness all at once. The painting can be interpreted in several ways. Most prominently, it is a symbolic representation of her recent divorce and her new life as a single woman. Her androgynous appearance and fashion choice might also signify her identity as a queer woman (Kahlo was openly bisexual and has inspired generations of LGBTQ artists) who defied traditional gender roles. The painting is unmistakably rendered in Kahlo’s signature dreamlike style, yet the palette is uncharacteristically dark. This is in part because she has given up her colorful and traditional Tehuana dresses that she is wearing in the majority of her other self-portraits (Rosepapa, n.d.).
Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair reflects Kahlo’s rebellion against gender-normative roles, while powerfully restating her personal and professional autonomy. It brings to mind contemporary tabloid images of pop star, Britney Spears, shaving her head in an audacious act of defiance against the biased and stifling portrayal of her by the media, mainstream culture and even some members of her own family (a recent documentary film, Framing Britney Spears, examines these concerns and events in great detail). The parallels between Britney and Frida are poetically presented in a painting by Sarah Maple, titled ‘If I loved you it was because of your hair. Now you no longer have your hair, I don’t love you anymore.’ Maple’s painting shows Spears sitting in the same yellow chair as Kahlo, while she moves her hands across her half shaved head. Strands of hair are strewn across the floor in a nearly identical manner as they are in Frida Kahlo’s seminal self-portrait. Britney’s gaze echoes both Kahlo’s and the tabloid images taken by the paparazzi. She too is presented as vulnerable, strong and self cognizant.
The name of Maple’s painting is a direct quote from Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, which are lyrics to a popular Spanish language folk song. For Kahlo, these lyrics could refer to a conversation between lovers, but for Spears, this quote is more reflective of her public persona and portrayal in the media. Both the painter and the pop star express potent awareness of the biased societal standards that affect the careers and critical perception of women and gender non-binary individuals. They also convey bold and direct approaches for taking their narratives into their own hands and dismantling the legacy of male chauvinism and gender based oppression. Maple says, “I was fascinated by how women can feel a loss of control over their lives and bodies. I am interested in the ways we try to take that control back…”
Maple’s oeuvre, which includes painting, photography and performance, is heavily centered on diverting and deconstructing the sexist male gaze and the heteronormative act of depicting women of color as ‘exotic.’ Through multidisciplinary work that centers around her own explorations of self-portraiture, Maple prompts us to break free from binary characterizations, be rebellious and change the paradigm that currently alienates and boxes people in based on their appearances, beliefs, ethnicity and gender.
Although traditional gender roles are subjective, they remain a predominant constraint in mainstream society. As gender theorist and philosopher, Judith Butler and others (see: Butler, 1988; Lather, 1991; Ellsworth, 1992; Manicom, 1992; hooks, 1994; Forrest & Rosenberg, 1997; Tomlinson & Fasssinger, 2002) have expressed, gender is connected to the actions and ideologies of political, social, economic and cultural spaces. The fight for gender equality is always in flux, because our society experiences progress and endures pitfalls in regards to equality, equity and social justice. As long as inequality exists for those who identify as women and those who are non-binary, there will be a need for voices, actions and curricula to empower the individuality and plurality of our intersectional identities.
Addendum: I previously wrote about some examples of feminist pedagogy in the post Feminist Art Education. Additionally, the following feminist art and educational resources should be very helpful and informative for artists, educators and students alike:
- FARE – The Feminist Art Project at Rutgers University’s online gateway to curriculum and teachers’ guides.
- Feminism & Art is an online class/curriculum map for learning and teaching feminist theory via visual art.
- The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum has myriad resources and accessible content focusing on activist art by women identifying artists.
- The Judy Chicago Art Education Collection at Penn State University.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Butler, Judith (1988). “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal. 40 (4): 519–531.
Dawson, Brit. “Frida Kahlo in her own words.” Dazed, 8 March 2018. https://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/38331/1/frida-kahlo-in-her-own-words
Ellsworth, Elizabeth. (1992). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. In C. Luke & J. Gore (Eds.), Feminisms and critical pedagogy (pp. 90-119). New York: Routledge.
Forrest, Linda. & Rosenberg, Freda. (1997). A review of the feminist pedagogy literature: The neglected child of feminist psychology. Applied & Preventive Psychology, 6, 179-192.
Fulleylove, Rebecca. “Frida Kahlo’s Lasting Impact on LGBTQ Artists.” Google Arts & Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/frida-kahlo%E2%80%99s-lasting-impact-on-lgbtq-artists/CgISm6mFqz2HIQ
hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.
Lather, Patti. (1991). Getting smart: Feminist research and pedagogy within the postmodern. New York: Routledge.
Luna, Javier Aranda. “The Elephant and The Dove: A look at Frida and Diego’s Relationship.” Google Arts & Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/theme/the-elephant-and-the-dove-a-look-at-frida-and-diego%E2%80%99s-relationship/KQKiXi4jN0TeJw?hl=en
Manicom, Ann. (1992). Feminist pedagogy: Transformations, standpoints, and politics. Canadian Journal of Education, 17, 365-389.
McRae, Jenna. “Queer Women Throughout History: The Writer and the Painter.’ Medium, 21 December 2020. https://medium.com/the-collector/queer-women-throughout-history-the-writer-and-the-painter-15ffd6acb28
Rosepapa, Christina. “Frida Kahlo Self Portrait with Cropped Hair – What is the meaning?” Inspiration Art & Design. https://artanddesigninspiration.com/frida-kahlo-self-portrait-with-cropped-hair-what-is-the-meaning/
Tomlinson, M. J. & Fassinger, R. E. (2002). The faces of feminist pedagogy: A survey of psychologists and their students. In L. H. Collins, M. R. Dunlap & J. C. Chrisler (Eds.), Charting a new course for feminist psychology (pp. 37-64). Wesport, CT: Praeger.