The importance of Frida Kahlo for contemporary female empowerment

Her story is every bit as distinctive and striking as the unapologetically graphic narratives communicated in her paintings, yet Kahlo is not a name our generation necessarily turns to for developmental inspiration.

Best known for her idiosyncratic self-portraits, the Mexican painter famously battled with health complications for the duration of her relatively short life, which came to an end in 1954, when she was just forty-seven years old.

Credit: frida-kahlo-foundation.org
Credit: wic.org, frida-kahlo-foundaton.org

Kahlo contracted polio when she was six , which marked the beginning of her recurrent isolation from the outside world due to a potentially life-threatening disease. At eighteen she was involved in a near-fatal accident and was impaled through the pelvis by a metal handrail, fracturing her spine and a substantial number of bones. The accident crushed her aspirations of becoming a doctor, leaving her physically and psychologically traumatised as well as contributing to the misery of her subsequent infertility. It was during this period of great emotional and biological turmoil that her most poignant work was created.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo.
The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo.

The turbulent nature of her ill-health and the dissatisfaction that accompanied her marital life are certainly relatable for the masses of women experiencing similar issues today. For instance, she was deeply affected by her husband’s infidelity, which included an affair with her own sister Cristina. Nevertheless, these experiences are only partially representative of the artist’s emblematic nature. Perhaps the most pertinent thing about Frida Kahlo is not what happened to her, but the manner in which she so brazenly delineates these occurrences.

Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) by Frida Kahlo.
Henry Ford Hospital (The Flying Bed) by Frida Kahlo.

It is paramount that young girls and grown women understand that we do not need to, nor are we under any obligation to apologise for the gender assigned to us at birth, in an era where a young woman’s dress code somehow plays a part in her sexual assault; where hijabs are disrespectfully snatched from women’s heads because they are collectively demonised for their part in a crime they know nothing about; where a woman’s mood is automatically attributed to the anatomical workings of her body – as if we have no personality aside from that bestowed upon us by our ‘time of the month.’

When examining Kahlo’s portraits, the haunting vacancy of her subject’s eyes as they defiantly meet the gaze of the spectator, almost symbolises the theme of loss, which plagued her existence. It is a multi-faceted loss, embedded within each deliberate brush stroke, which is not quite understood. This strain of the artist’s distinguishing topoi not only includes the loss of the prospect of motherhood, the loss of limbs and organs, and the loss of some degree of innocence,  but also a prominent fear of the loss of identity. It is often speculated that Kahlo’s work is so profoundly centred around herself, because of her ‘unmitigated undetectability’ in real life. In other words, because she was often bedridden her paintings gave her the opportunity to occupy every inch of a different type of reality. André Breton called this a sur-reality, labelling her work as predominantly surrealist, though Kahlo herself rejected this categorisation, declaring that her work reflected more of her reality than her dreams.

The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo.
The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo.

Kahlo’s oeuvres are didactic in nature because they teach us two main things. Primarily and most importantly, they teach us not to shy away from our bodies. Body-shaming is an abhorrent movement catalysed and facilitated by the existence of social media platforms, and it has been particularly rampant over the last couple of years. It constitutes morally heinous instances of disrespect, whereby women – in most cases – are publicly degraded simply because of their body types. At the same time, there are also specific feminist lines of thought which state that we are in every way equal to men and that we must strive to dissociate our minds from our bodies so that men do not define us by them.

However well-intentioned, such doctrines blatantly disregard the importance and uniqueness of the female body and the fact that genetically, it can never be the same as a man’s. Our corporeal disparities must be acknowledged, appreciated, understood and, to a certain extent, celebrated – yet not completely isolated from one another. This is a vital lesson, which underpins most of Kahlo’s work.

The final critical aspect that must be noted about the artist’s style is the fact that it is fearless in what it stands for and intrepid in the face of criticism. Even if one did not know the ins and outs of the artist’s life, it would still be possible to decipher certain biographical elements simply by analysing Kahlo’s pieces.  She teaches us that what we choose to show others of our bodies and our experiences is entirely down to us and that this is, and will always be, perfectly acceptable.

Her name is one which has been transmitted over time both orally and in an academic context, yet we remain ostensibly unfamiliar with the impact of her significance upon modern-day feminist concerns. It is important that women find inspiration in all fields. Despite her disconsolate end, as far as the hemisphere of fine art is concerned, there may be none more courageous, enduring or relatable than Kahlo. Her paintings allow us to partake in her suffering, yet only a remarkable woman could transform such raw anguish into an extraordinary artistic legacy.

The Wounded Deer by Frida Kahlo.
The Wounded Deer by Frida Kahlo.

 

Magdalene Janjo

Magdalene Janjo

Literature and French student at the University of Birmingham. Inherently creative.

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