• Essays

Frida and her obsession of self-portraits: fetishism or idolatry?

An essay by Daniela Falini inspired by Mario Perniola

Lots of people have defined Frida' s mania for self-portaits (about 1/3 of her works) as a sort of therapy to survive, an alienation of suffering and phisical pain from herself, a kind of repression of the ravaging action inflicted by external events on her body (bus accident, abortions, surgery operations and "weird" medical treatments of her age).
The body surely was for Frida the centre of any kind of thought, both about her internal self (as women and artist) and about her external environment (cultural, political and social aspects of her time).
Certainly her body, wounded, pierced, distorted by technology (bus) and by the medical treatments of her age, was the ideal place for eliminating all self/world barriers:
when the external (s)wor(l)d pierces you from the stomach to the pelvis your body becomes a privileged place of understanding, passage and metabolization of any event.
Representing oneself becomes representing the world.
Anyway this representation must not be interpreted as an idolatry of the self. In spite of Frida's fondness of religious Mexican idols, often depicted in her paintings - above all in her diary - and of "retablos", Frida does not idolize her self: she does not depict herself as a divine image, there is no trace of mystical tension in her works, neither as exaltation of her personality nor as vision of an hypothetical ideal self.
Starting from Mario Perniola's definition of the fetish that "is not the symbol, neither the sign nor the figure of something else, but is valid only for itself, in its splendid indipendence and autonomy" we can formulate the hypothesis that Frida was moved to represent (depict) herself and her body by a deeply fetishistic attitude: in this way her body ceases to be an object fixed and identical in the subject's perception - a determined shape - to become a sort of "thing" that acquires an "overflowing" abstract universality.
Through this interpretation it is possible to understand one of Kahlo's paradoxes: even if perforated and tormented by the external world and by the desease, Frida has always held a great energy, a surprising dynamism. Maybe this attitude was possible thanks to the fetishism that "does not adore the world, does not have any illusions about it, nevertheless declares itself without reserve and with the greatest energy in favour of a part, of a detail..."; indeed, Frida made several details of her body become fetishes, through a real disintegration of her self/body scattered in her paintings and drawings.
This fragmentation method was mainly put into practice in Frida's diary. The pages of the diary are full of bodies and parts of bodies, placed in an accidental way, sometimes sketched, simply outlined or created through spots, sometimes inserted in net structures where hands, foot, genitals and faces mix together.
This style has often been interpreted as close to surrealistic writing, according to the technique of "automatism" and words freedom. Frida herself denied this connection - "They thought I was a Surrealist but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality" - driving us to a different reading, where the nearly maniacal concentration on herself becomes "turning into a thing", through the elimination of body inside/outside barrier (see "Two Fridas", "The broken column", "My nurse and I"), the fusion with nature sometimes as an animal ("The wounded deer") sometimes as a plant ("Roots"), the depiction of herself as a thing among other things ("Portrait on the borderline between Mexico and The United States" where Frida, dressed in pink, rises as a statue in the middle of the painting between things representing the Mexican tradition on one side and the technological landscape of North-America on the other one).

Through the visual howl of the writing
Frida howls

My thanks to Mario Perniola for the hints I took from his book "The sex-appeal of the inorganic"