What’s on your mind? -looking at a painting of Frida Kahlo

A young black haired semi-nude woman, tears adorning her cheekbones as luminescent freckles, bronze colored skin. There’s much to be said on her appearance, but for sure there’s one aspect of her guise that you immediately notice on confronting this painting: her eye- catching unibrow. Because we humans always instinctively look for faces, look at faces, checking them out for what’s on their mind.

The heavy black brow can hook you, as it stands out in this remarkable form: the graphic sign of a flying bird, spread out wings. Nothing here that is free-floating though. The heavy brow singularly characterizes the figure in its rigid marking her out. It outshines the rest of her face, overshadowing her facial expression and emotional state. I mentioned the tears, but you have to make an effort to see her eyes. They look recollected, distant.

But all this comes second. For the next first thing that demands attention, after the eyebrows, are the beautiful breasts eyeballing you. Compositionwise they demand attention because of being in front and center of the picture, but also, of course, because of their being framed and marked out by a framework of white straps, that makes up a garment that on the one hand accentuates the feminine form and on the other hand suggests bars, imprisonment. The body is bandaged and a no-go zone.

All this fixating and keeping in place, it provides the breasts with this paradisiacal complexion, but also makes you having to look away, turning away your too brazen eyes to, maybe, the surrounding landscape. It is plain, barren and amorf, the empty horizon giving no other suggestion than land stretching out to sea, and it functions in deflecting your gaze to the central figure again. This figure whose body and face are strewn with oversized pushpins. These nails seem to be planted allover her, mysterious and unfinchingly upright tenuously piercing this terrain they are invading and reclaiming, piercing and hovering over it at the same time, as the skin seems immaculate untouched. But the shadows they cast – are red.

Another detail of the picture is strange and eye catching as well, but still more difficult to make out. Behind the straps of the garment, there is a stretched conical zone, where the body seems to be partly opened up, and a white classic Greek column is placed in the gap, shattered and broken as it is. The capital seems to push up her head, extending the neck, propping up the woman by force. On further consideration the surroundings reflect partly the state of the body, as dark horizontal streaks echo the opened body.

The title of the painting is ‘The broken column’, and the author, Frida Kahlo, portrayed herself in it. The way she renders herself in this portrait can easily be related to her lifecourse, as it was painted, in 1944, after she underwent surgery on her spine. It was one of the numerous medical treatments she had to undergo in her life, due to a heavy accident which befell her as a teenager.

Can her rendering of herself in this state be categorised as a surrealist painting?

Surrealism was a major approach in art from roughly the 1920’s to the Second World War, and advocated the making of art by tapping into ‘the raw impulses, desires and fears that Freud claimed were seated in the unconscious’ (Arnason 2013, p. 297). Most characteristic of surrealist art is the often dreamlike alienating tendencies in its manifestations, as at the same time there were declared surrealists that made rather abstract art (e.g. Hans Arp and Joan Miró) and on the other hand there were those that worked in a very naturalistic style, as for example Salvador Dalí (see also Arnason 2013, ‘Two strands of surrealism’, p. 299), this feature united the two brands. Surrealist foreman André Breton was a jealous and dogmatic guard of the movement, declaring who was and who wasn’t a proper surrealist, without regards of the opinions of the artists themselves. (Arnason 2013, p. 299)

Frida Kahlo lived from 1907 -1954, and in her many paintings one can certainly discern a surrealist trait in Frida Kahlo’s paintings. The selfportrait ‘The broken column’ can surily testify to this, as the strange rigidification of the body and balancing of the head on the Greek column provide this clear sense of bodily alienation, promoted or fortified by the hovering nails. A strange sensual undercurrent is also present, a quality surrealist art also commonly shares. Still, there is also something in this portrait that strongly opposes a dreamlike appèl of the unconscious and the alienating force in that. It is the general presence of the figure, and her gaze.

Her presence is very real, and her gaze may be hard to get, or encounter, hidden as it is under the dark brow, and yes, she may be staring in some uncertain distance. But it does rather invoke an introverted state of mind, while enduring pain, a very concrete being here, than a being in some nameless inbetween or nowhere.

Breton is said to have claimed Kahlo’s paintings as surrealist art, and Kahlo to have dismissed this because she never was involved with the painting of dreams (Wikipedia 06-05-2020 https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frida_Kahlo). Apart from a possible discussion about whether or not an artist themselves has the last say about what a painting is or is not, boiling down to a ‘intention is king’ (an idea that a surrealist champion discards easily I surmise), based upon the painting ‘The broken column’ the verdict should be in favour of Frida Kahlo.

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