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July 13, 2005

The Lies of Feminism, The Lies of Mexican Identity - a personal view of Frida Kahlo at Tate Modern

Posted by Christie Davies

Frida Kahlo
Tate Modern, London
9th June - 9th October 2005
Sunday - Thursday 10am - 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
Friday & Saturday 10am - 10pm (last admission 9.15pm)

The views expressed in this review are those of Professor Christie Davies, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

There are many good reasons for not wanting to see an exhibition of Frida Kahlo's work. She is a feminist icon and was a champion of Mexicanidad, Mexican identity and worse still an exponent of repellent and murderous Leninist political ideas. Who wants to listen, even by looking? However, in our post-modern world it is possible to make images, created by others, mean anything you want. Their intentions are irrelevant. The question is who is to be master, that is all. Go and see the interesting paintings by the talented Kahlo at the Tate Modern and you too can emerge with a sneer at feminism, laughter at the contradictions of Mexican nationalism and a warm glow in your heel where you trod on the head of the Marxist serpent.

Frida Kahlo is loved by feminists because she is that rare thing, a female painter. There have been very few good female painters, not because women have been excluded from studying art or their work pushed aside by male critics but for the same reason that there are hardly any top-ranking female mathematicians, physicists, chess players or composers of music. That is how it is and always was and always will be. It is a question of essence. President Summers of Harvard was right to say so, as one can see from the chaotic response of his angry critics. Now that we can observe the workings of the human brain and map genes, we can see that feminism and sociology are the mother and father of lies. There are very clear limits to human malleability. Sceptical sociologists have been saying this for decades but have been drowned out by the shrieking hysteria of feminists who believed that noise was a substitute for truth. Now the termagants have been crushed by the certainties of the brain scanners and the geneticists. It is time to scorn them in their hour of defeat. Let us have a bit of insensitivity round here.

The highly talented Frida Kahlo was never a good advertisement for feminism but then few feminists are. Many strident feminists perversely choose to marry or cohabit with men from a lower social class or exotic ethnic group where it is customary to treat women badly. Some even seek out violent men with criminal records. So too the bold, independent Frida Kahlo chose the lying, egotistical, Diego Rivera, a man known to ill-treat women. Even worse Diego Rivera was a better artist than she was. Go to the exhibition and look at their two self-portraits made at the same time for the collector Sigmund Firestone. Rivera's Self-Portrait, 1941 with its smug, white, bulky, frog-like face set against an open-neck red shirt and a heavy suit, his hand holding a grovelling note in English for his patron, is a masterpiece both of composition and of self-revelation. Alongside it hangs Frida Kahlo's Autorretro, 1941 which is not any kind of masterpiece. Revealingly, the greeting for Firestone that Kahlo holds in her hand is in Spanish and makes affectionate reference to his two children Alberta and Natalia.

The nature of the relationship between the two of them is unveiled in Kahlo's Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1931. He is a great creative 300lb slob of a man, like a cross between Dylan Thomas and George Melly, who is holding a palette and brushes. He is dressed in a tube-like grey suit with heavy belt, dark blue mock-workman's shirt and heavy brown shoes - here I am, the great artist, the painter of the proletariat. She stands next to him in traditional Mexican dress with a bright red wrap-around over a dark green dress. She carries no artistic symbols and is the tiny demure traditional Mexican wife - just look at those silly little feet in green slippers with red splashes. In their wedding photo she seems much taller. She wanted to emphasise the disparity between them.

Kahlo often said that there had been "two grave accidents in my life", in one of which she was knocked down by a streetcar. She said, "the other accident was Diego". Both events ruined her life. Both were also the sources of her artistic creativity. But only one was an accident. You can not choose whether or not to be run down by a tram but you can choose whom you marry. Rivera was not only a pig but predictably so. He had left a trail of illegitimate children and abandoned mothers behind him in Europe. She must have known this. But she willingly, deliberately, perversely chose a husband fit for a feminist, someone absurdly selfish, irresponsible and macho. Most men are not like that. I have in my possession the thoughtful, caring letters that my ancestor - an ordinary working man in the silver mines of Guanajato (the home town of the bourgeois Rivera) - wrote to his wife. My ancestor was not like that. But feminists think that all men are like that, so they seek out the one man who is like that in order to prove it. Rivera proved it by sleeping with Frida's sister Cristina. Imagine having your own sister betray you and setting up house with your husband in the casa chico. In fairness it should be added that Frida Kahlo seduced the elderly Trotsky. Little Mr Bronstein needed Frida Kahlo like he needed a hole in the head.

Kahlo's cover story for her retreat into submissiveness was a racist one. Modernity and independent women are American, so she retreated into that little Mexican dress. Mexican nationalism consists of a grudge and a lie, a grudge against the neighbouring United States for being economically and politically successful and a lie concerning the origins and loyalties of the Mexican people. Both of these find expression in Kahlo's work, notably in her Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States, 1932. In the middle stands the sophisticated Frida Kahlo in elegant, modern, upper-middle class attire, with lace from elbow to wrist, smoking a cigarette and holding the Mexican flag. On one side of her are skyscrapers and successive smoking chimneys labelled F/O/R/D, our Ford. The smoke curls around an American flag in the sky. The wires from electrical motors penetrate the soil and curl round under the border to tangle with the roots of Mexico's flowers. To her left in Mexico are the ruins and rubble of an Aztec temple before which lie pre-Columbian artefacts and a skull. Above them are the eternal sun and moon, clouds and lightening. Kahlo waves her Mexican flag encouragingly towards the primitive, natural side in a very unMarxist way, while turning her back in the manner of David Herbert Lawrence on the stupendous achievements of the bourgeoisie. The architecture of America's steel and chemical industries is distorted into a modern surreal version of Hieronymous Bosch's distillation monsters in contrast to the healthy, natural thraldom of Mexico.

Kahlo returns to this theme in My Dress Hangs There or New York, 1933. In the distance is the skyline of Manhattan and the statue of liberty. In front is a church with a stained glass window in which a $ sign encircles the cross. The church is tied by a length of string to a handsome classical building showing trends in the stock market and it lies behind a picture of Mae West on a billboard. Oh what original and creative symbols of corrupted America! To the front, on the tops of the two free-standing classical pillars, are a lavatory pan and a golf trophy. The two are joined by a length of string from which is suspended Kahlo's dress on a coat hanger. Various other symbols crawl around.

It is fair enough to make fun of the American obsession with hygiene and with sport. The former is excessive and the latter contemptible in its triviality. But a Mexican is in no position to laugh at either. What kind of water supply and sanitation did most Mexicans have in 1933? What was the incidence of water-borne disease? The Mexican attitude is to be found in the comic scatological crudities of Picardίa Mexicana. In A. Jimenez' Nueva picardίa Mexicana 1979, a cartoon shows a Mexican with diarrhoea squatting over the North Pole and engulfing the entire globe in his excremental output. A Martian on a flying saucer looks on in amazement. The United States is at least wholesome.

Mexicans also have some of the most incompetent bullfighters in the world. In Mexico City I saw a matador tossed by the bull within thirty seconds and carried off. The substitute matador managed to lose three swords inside the bull. The hilts of the swords stuck out on one side and the points on the other. He had neither been able to kill the bull nor to retrieve the swords. Since he had run out of swords and ideas and the bull was still standing there, they had to call in a butcher from the audience to cut its throat with a knife. Even an American golf match is never quite as bad as that.

Both the ideas behind these pictures by Kahlo and her execution of them are crass. The lie they incorporate is the myth of the noble Aztec with his love of human sacrifice to keep the sun going round and prevent climate change; he is supposedly the ancestor of the Mexicans. It is a myth upheld by the Mexican state that lavishes money on preserving and displaying hideous archaeology of the Aztecs which would be better relegated to the concrete mixer. By contrast the glorious Roman Catholic churches in and around Puebla, masterpieces of Spanish and Indian art combined, have had to depend upon funds from private American foundations for their survival and maintenance.

The real truth is told in two of Kahlo's pictures, The Mask, 1945 and The Bus, 1929. The Mask is one of Kahlo's endlessly obsessive self-portraits exploring her uncertain identity; this time she is covering her own ugly, continuous-eyebrowed, moustached face with a papier mache mask of Dońa Marina. Dońa Marina was the Indian woman who became the interpreter and consort of Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of New Spain. She was the mother of his son Don Mahin Cortés, Comendador of the Order of Sant Iago, the first true Mexican, the prototype of the Spanish-speaking mestizos who make up the bulk of the Mexican population. Yet in drawing herself putting on the mask, Kahlo is not affirming her Mexican identity but her fears of being a Malinchiste, a traitor to Mexico and a lover of things foreign. Here we can see the falseness of Mexican official perceptions.

The Spaniards were brutal Roman Catholic seekers after gold and inflation but they overthrew a far more brutal Aztec empire that imposed human sacrifice on its neighbours. Without the support of these numerous, resentful, subordinated peoples notably the Tlascalans, the tiny force of Spaniards under Cortés could never have overthrown the evil Aztec empire. The son of God who was sacrificed for man now replaced the sacrifice of men to the pagan gods of Baal and the crucifixion became the artistic inspiration for generations of Mexican artists. The Mexican cult of the Aztec is a lie and until such time as the Mexicans give up speaking Spanish, no one is going to be able to deny this. Why cling to the language of your conquerors?

El Camion (The Bus), 1929, is an attractive "primitive" showing all the ranks of Mexican society seated squarely together on a bench in a tram or else a tram-like bus. It is a reminder that Frida Kahlo took up painting after she was seriously injured when a tram ran into the bus in which she was travelling. On the bench is a cashier in his suit and weskit, blue-eyed as a Gallego, taking a bag of change to the bank with a bare-kneed flapper sitting next to him. Next to them are a ladino women with a basket and a dark-skinned skilled factory worker in overalls and tie with his tools. Here is Mexican society, lined up together, roughly but not rigidly stratified by ancestry and colour. But there is also present an "Indian" woman, shawled up like a Muslim, holding her baby like a Welsh grandmother, her awkward bundle like a furoshiki contrasting with the neat basket of the woman next to her.

"The Indians" (not the term they like to use, they prefer campesinos, country people) are a social rather than a racial category, for they are excluded or have excluded themselves from a racially mixed Mexican society, the ladinos, the society of those who are Spanish in language and culture. The mythical Aztecs may be heroes but the Indians, particularly in the south of Mexico in Chiapas, do not have homes fit for heroes. They have something close to reservations and, like many excluded aboriginal such as the Ugandan pygmies, they get hopelessly intoxicated. I have seen one of them stagger down the road, clamber into the cab of a lorry, drive twenty yards, steer into the ditch, fall out of the cab into the ditch and lie there motionless, dead-drunk. I can only hope that Pentecostal missionaries redeem them with bibles in their own indigenous language before mad gringo scholars arrive to outflank the Hispanics and to radicalise them as the native Anishinabe, a pre-Columbian composite of their own imagining.

In The Two Fridas, 1939, Kahlo paints herself twice, once in colonial wedding dress and once in traditional costume as if to indicate that she, the mestiza, is, like the dhobi wallah's dog, neither one thing or the other. But turn to Portrait of Engineer Marte R. Gōmez 1944, the best of her portraits. His oval face sits snugly within her skilled handling of the angles of his collar, weskit and lapels. What is he? Is he a Spaniard? Is he a Mexican? Is he an Indian? No, he is an engineer. He has escaped the shallow politics of identity and shaped his own future within a material world that exists independently of how we feel about it. Next, go and look at her excellent still lifes. Kahlo too is an engineer but choice and subjectivity are here.

Professor Christie Davies went to Mexico for the filming of The Silver Road to Guanajato. His latest book is The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction 2004.


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For some unexplainable reason, the US Postal Service a while back issued a commemorative postage stamp honoring Kahlo as a distinguished American female artist.

Now, that's a stamp I'd like to see well cancelled. But, honestly I've never even seen one on an envelope.

Posted by: John J. Coupal at July 13, 2005 10:17 PM
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the US post office might have stopped selling the stamp because people spat on the wrong side of it.

More seriously, I have always been perplexed by the eagerness of modern Mexicans to venerate the Aztecs, especially (as Prof Davies points out) given their fondness for ripping out people's hearts. Then again, if one venerates Lenin and Stalin, what's a little heart-ripping after all?

Posted by: s masty at July 14, 2005 08:43 AM
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I rather doubt that Frida Kahlo venerated Stalin, since she was carrying on with Trotsky, and this not long before Trotsky got an axe through his head, courtesy of Stalin. So dear old Frida probably had a rather negative attitude towards darling old Stalin. Having said that Trotsky's own conduct during the Civil War hardly show him to be a sweet old pussycat.

Posted by: David Rothstein at July 14, 2005 10:18 AM
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Is it really right for us Europeans to be pointing the finger at the Aztecs? Our own culture derives from the Romans who mined the surrounding nations for slaves and who invented crucifixion. Among them was the Emperor Nero who introduced live incineration of Christians. In the decades around the time of Cortés, though thinking they were the spiritual seed of Abraham, the Western European powers had revived this practice: not only the Spaniards but also our own Henry VIII even after the break with Rome, thereby showing themselves rather to be the spawn of Nero. Wolves in sheep’s clothing indeed!

And why shouldn’t today’s Mexicans look to the ancient people of their land? After all, it was neither the Saxons nor the Celts who built Stonehenge.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at July 15, 2005 11:24 AM
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You are a disgrace to Art History. In my career as an art historian for over twenty years I have never read such a horrible review.You are one racist, angry, pathetic being and your writing skills are worse than a high school student's. It is impossible to beleive that you are a proffessor.

Posted by: Astarte at October 13, 2005 08:25 AM
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You're gonna end up being a very bitter old man...if you are not one now. :-s

I do agree that she is being falsely credited as being the perfect example of feminism. But her paintings were unique and ahead of her time. And I think she painted mostly for herself and her intent was never to become the world's greatest artist.....so I don't think she would give a damn about your lousy review anyway.


ps. maybe her stamps are being framed and hung on walls ;)

Posted by: f. halym at November 25, 2005 02:58 AM
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Are you kidding me? This is the biggest piece of garbage I have ever read. Interesting that 20 years ago it wasn't so common for women to be Professors either but here you are with that title (God knows how) spouting your ignorant, racist, assinine, opinions. I seriously hope that you are not teaching students this crap.

It's amazing that Frida is still coming up against resistance and criticism long after she has been gone. She must have done something extrodinary if we are all still talking about it many years later.

Posted by: Lara at September 1, 2006 06:24 PM
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Keep your racist, sexist, and ignorant views to yourself. Finishing this trash was nearly impossible. Congratulations you nearly made me puke.

Posted by: Chantel at March 11, 2008 08:58 PM
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s masty you trailer trash, how about the West's pride in Ancient Greeks and Romans who had slaves, blood baths in gladitorial games, yet somehow its okay for white people to be proud of that heritage but not ok for Mexicans to be proud of the Aztecs, talk about a double standard,

The article writer is also a typical intolerant Christian racist.

Posted by: Leonidas at February 17, 2009 12:50 AM
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