by Nanette Ashby
The representation of the pregnant body is a rare theme in visual arts, especially if it doesn’t represent a happy ending. Visualizing the pain and sorrow of a miscarriage is a traitorous endeavour. Miscarriages are, even today, largely taboo even though they are relatively common. Art interrogates and dissects the lived experience. “Though art dealt heroically with physical subjects like death, disease, torture, resurrection, and battle combat, it produced virtually no images of what it feels like to be pregnant” (Higonnet 15). Women’s sexuality and reproductive abilities have been causing anxiety throughout many cultures (Mirkin 18). The lack of visual representation of miscarriage could be due to its interpretation as a depiction of the failings of the maternal body which contradicts societies messaging. Frida Kahlo’s work breaks the taboo of miscarriage and the depiction of pregnant bodies in a unique way.
This article will focus on how Kahlo explores the representation and self-representation of a maternal subject, and challenges cultural expectations of the maternal body and ideals attached to it.
Self-portraits do not physically interact with the body, however, the end result can be considered an interpretation dictated by social interests (105). The canvas and the portrait painted on top of it provided a surface on which meaning could be placed and distributed (105).
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-54) is known for questioning the norms of society in her 150 or so paintings, which have been exhibited across the globe. In Mexico, Kahlo acquired growing recognition in the 1940s and became a member of the Seminario de Cultura Mexicana. Her work and life, just as her personal and political views are intrinsically connected. Her artistic canon examines her own subjectivity and lived experiences which is shaped by being a woman with disability and chronic pain, however is not limited to only autobiographical imagery (Inahara 220). She does not shy away from illustrating the “struggle to create life, and the inevitability of death” often connected to the Mexican artform of retablo and ex-voto images (Castro-Sethness 21).
Originating from the Latin word retro tabula, meaning behind the altar, retablo paintings were common in Spain and became known in the Americas due to colonisation (21). The Mexican interpretation of the retablo take shape as small oil paintings that portray a single saint, Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a group of holy personages (21). They were believed to “depict a miraculous cure through the portrayal of one or more persons praying for the sick individual who is usually prostrate in bed”, similar to the composition of Kahlo’s painting My Birth (21). Both Frida Kahlo and her partner Diego Rivera were avid collectors of Mexican art and accumulated roughly 2,000 different types of retablos. The ex-voto’s imagery of divine aid display great imaginative power whereas retablos focus on portraying traditional iconographic sources (22). Reducing the scene displayed down to its essential details reveals the characteristic emotion and poignancy. By surrounding herself with ex-votos, Kahlo created “a powerful cultural and aesthetic source of inspiration” (22). By attaching her art to the larger canon of Mexican retablo and ex-voto images, she “exhibits a complex dialectic between the social dimension of these art forms, their intimate relationship to religion, the creation of art, the struggle to create life, and the inevitability of death” (21).
One of the constant themes in her work is mortality, be it of herself or loved ones. Miscarriage became a theme in Kahlo’s work due to her own miscarriage in Detroit in 1932. Henry Ford Hospital and Frida y el aborto were the first two paintings, followed by Mi Nacimiento (My Birth), also known as Nacimiento (childbirth) the same year (Deffebach 57). During her time in Detroit, Kahlo experienced a miscarriager and was taken to Henry Ford Hospital, which the painting is names after, to undergo emergency surgery. “This painting represents the tragic death of her unborn child and commemorates her unbearable suffering of separation and isolation” (Castro-Sethness 22). Kahlo subsequently takes on the challenge of depicting “another side to the experience of motherhood: the loss of a child rather than the birth” and the physical and emotional pain which is part of the norms of motherhood (Inahara 225, 226).
This article will focus on the painting My Birth (1932), which is one of the earliest and most influential images for childbirth in modern Mexico. Kahlo put oil paint to metal in line with the ex-voto tradition, after her traumatic miscarriage in the same year (Castro-Sethness 23). The painting is divided into three sections. The back wall is forming the background on which a painting is hanging. The focal point of the rather empty room is the bed on which a woman’s body is lying in the process of giving birth. Below is an empty beige scroll (Deffebach 57). Kahlo portrays “three female protagonists, aligned in successive planes on the vertical central axis of the composition: the newborn, the mother, and the saint” (Mirkin 18). The weeping Virgin of Sorrows is looking down on the scene below her, identifiable by her blue veil and two daggers puncturing her chest (Deffebach 57). The colour of her veil “seems to have invaded not only the wall but also the pillow and bed sheets, and the pleats of the veil echo the pleats of the sheet that covers the mother’s head” (Castro-Sethness 23). Covering the face and torso with a white sheet could be an indicator that the female body is deceased during childbirth. The woman’s legs are spread open revealing a head coming out of her vagina. The baby is clearly identifiable as Kahlo herself, based on her facial features and her signature unibrow (Mirkin 19). The title: My Birth confirms this. The sheet below her head is drenched in blood. A “traditional ex-voto would contain a written message in the lower part of the painting” giving thanks or tribute to the Virgin of Sorrow or Mater Dolorosa, however she seemed unable to prevent this situation (Deffebach 57, Inahara 226). Kahlo’s decision to leave the scroll blank could be connected to “the lack of miracles in her life in 1932” (Deffebach 57).
Kahlo’s depiction of giving birth is believed to be based on the Aztec sculpture of the goddess Tlazolteotl since it depicts life and death at the same time (Castro-Sethness 22). The idea that life comes out of sacrifice and death is part of the Mexican pre-Colonial myth of creation (23). “As is common among patriarchal societies, the Aztecs in consolidating male dominance, most likely transformed, symbolically, taboos related to menstruation and childbirth into ‘unclean’, ‘shameful’ and ‘dangerous’ acts, all of which entered religious ritual. The conquerors emphasised the “Aztecs’ limitation of women’s life to the sphere of reproduction” (Mirkin 18).
This is not the only link to mythology. “One of the most influential traditional Mexican retablo and ex-voto icons in Kahlo’s art is the Mater Dolorosa” (22). This symbolism is repeated through her work. Originally the Mater Dolorosa or Virgin of Sorrow mourns her dead son. However, in this scene she is mourning the death of Kahlo’s mother, baby and herself. Kahlo is faced with her maternal reality of not being able to birth a child herself. “This agonising loss of her son is another factor in this process of iconographic and spiritual approximation to the Mater Dolorosa” (22). This solidifies the connection to the religious images known as ex-voto paintings. The identification with the Mater Dolorosa, and her face in the painting reveals a striking similarity through the features, expression and positioning to the plentiful retablo images from the 19th century (22).
Kahlo depicts the bloodied act of childbirth in many of her artworks. In My Birth, she “allows the genitalia to take centre stage in the painting and reclaims the act of childbirth from the realm of taboo” (Inahara 227). Being confronted with such a visceral depiction of mortality caused an abject reaction. The abject has been defined as “that which we are socially forbidden from looking at” (227). Depending on the culture, female sexuality and reproductive rights are policed by creating taboos and unrealistic expectations around female anatomy since “the female sex in its cultural ambivalence – as both a body and a threatening sex” is a source of distress for the male oppressor (Ross 150). According to Kristeva, “the abject refers to the bodily reaction (horror, vomit), induced by the loss of the distinction between subject and object, or between self and other” (Inahara 227). The birth of Frida was not completed, leaving her head hanging out of the corpse of the mother. The image of the abject body can be seen as a “site of subversion whereby the mother’s body is displayed as ambivalence and a complexity of two embodied subjectivities”, which can be identified in My Birth as well (227). It has been suggested that the image is displaying Kahlo’s own rebirth from her mother’s corpse after the traumatic experiences of 1923 (226). Due to the different options of interpretation, the painting’s message “remains ambivalent and offers its viewers a way to grasp her experiences of extreme bodily and psychological pain” (226). Throughout her work, Kahlo’s self-portraits “strike us with images of blood, barrenness, splintered bodies, hearts, glands, bones, organs, physical gashes” (Smith 319). The pains and bodily fluids – including blood – of procreation are connecting women and their bodies with what is considered base or abject (Mirkin 18). This destructive archetype, capturing the process of childbirth, is present in most images produced in Mexico throughout the 20th century (18). However, the association with revulsion and disgust, can be exploited to explicitly shock the viewer thus, actively confronting the male gaze with the abject (Ross 149). Mirkin suggests that “birth is not a joyful moment in which a woman feels like an irreplaceable link in the cycle of life but a monstrous event, filled with pain, blood, and death” (Mirkin 19). During pregnancy or disease, the “body acts independently of your will, even from your consciousness”, which can be terrifying (Ross 152). Loss of control often elicits rage, sadness, pain and abjection (Mirkin 18). “The loss of control or what should be called the contingency of the body and its failure to be what it is supposed to be in contemporary Western society” can leave the individual in peril (152). Disability and pregnancy can also cause “abject loneliness of the long struggle for health”, be it to return to the body pre-pregnancy or a body which did not stand in the way of participating in everyday life (Ross 152). At the centre of Kahlo’s work “is a naked and brutal realism”, which she uses to illustrate “her physical and psychic disintegration” (Smith 319).
Kahlo’s paintings capture the intricacies of her identity, examining “her sociocultural beliefs, codes and expectations that reinforce the depictions of her identities” such as being a woman, daughter, wife or disabled (Inahara 220). When faced with her inability to bear children she reinterpreted her inability by figuratively giving birth to her new identity as an artist (Mirkin 19). This shows that “the culturally learned desire to give birth continued to inform Kahlo’s art and life” which created “a fruitful tension between creativity and procreativity” (19). Depending on their gender, modern Mexican “artists encoded different gender concepts into their childbirth metaphors, but in general birth is depicted from the vantage point of the observer rather than the mother. This outsider perspective might explain the monstrous interpretations of birth. Equating childbirth not with creativity but with some kind of social brutality (Mirkin 18). This connects to the idea that God punished women for their sinful nature by making pregnancy and childbirth a painful process (18). The body is a “site for the inscription of sociocultural norms” by being a “significant carrier of emotion” which is easily recognized by the general public (Inahara 222). Kahlo’s paintings confront society with the harsh reality that women are not always inherently able to give birth.Being unable to conform to these gender expectations, the reality of miscarriage breaks with societal messaging and brings other parts of the gender performance into question.
Religion is a source of societal norms and expectations, dictating what the performance of womanhood entails. Kahlo “resolved her objections to religion and her fascination with spiritual issues by co-opting Christian iconography for secular purposes and subtly evoking the ancient cultures of Mexico with symbolic elements from Pre-Columbian art” (Deffebach 54). Her paintings “subvert the normative (patriarchal) manifestations of motherhood and femininity ascribed to the classical images of female nudes and the Madonna” (Inahara 227). Kahlo maintained that Gods, regardless of what religion was attached to them, “were invented by the rulers to control the masses” (Deffebach 54). She exploits the “characteristic of visual representations of deities” by creating “images of herself that are structurally equivalent” (58, 59). She creates an easily recognizable persona based on herself. Even though in the paintings My Birth and Henry Ford Hospital, she is not wearing any clothes, the facial features and signature unibrow are enough to identify her. Christianity provided “a long established visual language that communicated effectively” across the Near East, Europe and its colonies (66). Iconography was especially useful during the colonisation of Mexico since the “population remained largely illiterate until after the Mexican Revolution” (58). During the process of converting the indigenous population “images took precedence over the written word” (58). By placing herself within Christian narratives, depicting herself “as if she were Christ, the Virgin, or a Christian martyr, she endowed her own image with spiritual power and at the same time undermined Western religion through irony” (66). An indigenous cultural identity was sought to be rehabilitated as part of the Mexican Revolution through art. The “nationalists sought the glorification of ancient and pre-colonial Mexico, especially Aztec imagery, as a source of purity and honour in the construction of a post-revolutionary conscience” (Castro-Sethness 21).
Kahlo not only appropriated Christian iconography, but also Aztec imagery in her art. The duality of pregnancy and childbirth which creates its abjection, was reused by the painters of the modern Mexican movement who “transformed the old childbirth iconography into an extraordinary persuasive motif, relating it to the violence that permeated the social-political events of the first half of the 20th century” (Mirkin 18). By manipulating the symbolisms “in ways that simultaneously co-opted the efficacy and authority of religious visual languages”, Kahlo not only critiqued the religion itself, but also empowered women who were stereotypically considered religious (Deffebach 51). She managed to “transform religious symbols into signs of personal power” which created an “image that synthesised tradition and modernity, femininity and power” (66). Women received few economic or political rights “but were stereotypically believed to be especially religious and therefore endowed with power in spiritual matters” (51). The presence of religious elements in her work allege to “retain traces of their ancient symbolism, which she transformed and adapted to narrate her life and express her personal philosophy. By drawing on Pre-Columbian connotations she imbued her work and her own image with a sense of myth” (59). Kahlo’s appropriation gave her a way of empowering herself and women in general, liberating them from societal expectations and gender norms. The “incorporation of sacred characteristics or intrinsic elements of holy persons” forms the basis of the mysticism in Kahlo’s paintings (Castro-Sethness 24).
Throughout the evolution of the portrait, it continuously depicts a socially constructed self because the creators control the staging of the scene to satisfy the expectations of the current society. Self-portraits follow the same method creating an extension to the gender performance they are providing in day-to-day life, no matter the medium.
Coming back to the original question of representation and self-representation of the maternal subject, Kahlo created a visual connection between her art and an art historical canon by recreating her own version of ex-voto paintings. She utilised her self-portraits to confront the viewer with her physical and emotional suffering which “was transformed through sublimation and mysticism into an artistic production that reveals that profound relationship between her perception of suffering and power to express it” (Castro-Sethness 22). Kahlo used her own identity and lived experiences to break through the taboo of miscarriage and by doing so revealed the cultural expectations of the maternal body and the ideals attached to it. Kahlo appropriated signifiers in her work by reusing the visual language of the Christian faith and Aztec traditions “as a way to legitimate and empower her self-portraits” and to create her own mythology (Deffebach 51).
The perceived purpose of a maternal subject is to use their body to produce a new life which can be interpreted as the ultimate performance of gender, by composing motherhood as “the main role assigned to women”(Mirkin 19). Kahlo’s art interrogates the taboo of miscarriage by being conscious of the “cultural anxieties that surround the maternal body” and providing a different set of symbolisms “that acknowledge the agency and potential power of the pregnant subject” (Betterton 97). Not being able to conform to gender expectation due to miscarriage creates an abject reaction not only from the viewer of the artwork portraying it but society at large.
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