The painter Frida Kahlo

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Painter Frida Kahlo (1910–1954) often used harrowing images derived from her Mexican heritage to express suffering caused by a disabling accident and a stormy marriage. Suggesting much personal and emotional content, her works—many of them selfportraits—have been exhaustively psychoanalyzed, while their political content has been less studied. Yet Kahlo was an ardent political activist who in her art sought not only to explore her own roots, but also to champion Mexico’s struggle for an independent political and cultural identity.

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Kahlo was influenced by Marxism, which appealed to many intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s, and by Mexican nationalism. Interest in Mexico’s culture and history had revived in the nineteenth century, and by the early 1900s,Mexican indigenista tendencies ranged from a violently anti-Spanish idealization of Aztec Mexico to an emphasis on contemporary Mexican Indians as the key to authentic Mexican culture. Mexican nationalism, reacting against contemporary United States political intervention in labor disputes as well as against past domination by Spain, identified the Aztecs as the last independent rulers of an indigenous political unit. Kahlo’s form of Mexicanidad, a romantic nationalism that focused upon traditional art uniting all indigenistas, revered the Aztecs as a powerful pre-Columbian society that had united a large area of the Middle Americas and that was thought to have been based on communal labor, the Marxist ideal.

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In her paintings, Kahlo repeatedly employed Aztec symbols, such as skeletons or bleeding hearts, that were traditionally related to the emanation of life from death and light from darkness. These images of destruction coupled with creation speak not only to Kahlo’s personal battle for life, but also to the Mexican struggle to emerge as a nation—by implication, to emerge with the political and cultural strength admired in the Aztec civilization. Self-Portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States (1932), for example, shows Kahlo wearing a bone necklace, holding a Mexican flag, and standing between a highly industrialized United States and an agricultural, preindustrial Mexico. On the United States side are mechanistic and modern images such as smokestacks, light bulbs, and robots. In contrast, the organic and ancient symbols on the Mexican side—a blooddrenched Sun, lush vegetation, an Aztec sculpture, a pre-Columbian temple, and a skull alluding to those that lined the walls of Aztec temples emphasize the interrelation of life, death, the earth, and the cosmos.

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Kahlo portrayed Aztec images in the folkloric style of traditional Mexican paintings, thereby heightening the clash between modern materialism and indigenous tradition; similarly, she favored planned economic development, but not at the expense of cultural identity. Her use of familiar symbols in a readily accessible style also served her goal of being popularly understood; in turn, Kahlo is viewed by some Mexicans as a mythic figure representative of nationalism itself.

Topic and Scope:  

Frida Kahlo’s art; specifically, the political content of an art mostly known and studied on a personal level.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author’s purpose is to explore the (hitherto under-explored) political aspects of Kahlo’s work—and that leads immediately to the main idea that the rest of the passage is there to support: Kahlo’s art can be read as a political statement about Mexican freedom, not just as Kahlo’s autobiography.

Paragraph structure:

Paragraph 1’s first two sentences are decidedly factual in nature, focusing on the personal nature of Kahlo’s art: how overt it is, and how deeply studied. The turning point comes at line 7: “...while X has been less studied. Yet...” Italics ours. This phrase jumps off the page, providing the key to where the author is sure to go. And indeed, “X” is the political content of Kahlo’s art. By ending Paragraph 1 with the assertions that Kahlo explored her roots and pushed a political agenda in her art, the author promises to provide evidence to that effect. . .

. . . and so he does, in Paragraph 2 onward. Paragraph 2 is notable in its total concentration on politics, rather than art. We get a lot of facts about Marxism and Mexicanidad, a romantic nationalism celebrating the Aztecs. Since we know from Paragraph 1 that the passage is about Kahlo and art, we need to see that Paragraph 2 is mostly laying out the political influences on this artist, especially highlighting the idealization of “old Mexico,” e.g. the Aztec culture. So Paragraph 2 is background.

Paragraph 3 picks up on the Aztec influence and brings it (finally) into an artistic context, detailing the Aztec symbolism and imagery that Kahlo used to explore contemporary political issues. (Note the back reference in line 35 to “personal battle”— a reminder that, as we heard in Paragraph 1, Kahlo’s art is also personal, it’s not just political.) The extended example of a Kahlo work (lines 38-50) has to be read in the context of the previous sentence: Kahlo uses Aztec imagery to explore Mexico’s current struggles against the United States. And that’s exactly what the details about the 1932 Self-Portrait... are telling us.

Paragraph 4 adds little new to the argument: Kahlo used a Mexican folkloric style; she championed Mexican identity; she is seen in popular and mythic terms for those very reasons. This Paragraph  ends the passage neatly, even eloquently, but the passage’s substance and reason for being are pretty much over by the time Paragraph 4 comes along.

The Big Picture:

As you read a passage’s opening Paragraph , watch for “turning points” such as line 7 here— Keyword phrases that nakedly reveal the author’s structure.

Read for context, especially where details are concerned. To understand why, for instance, Self-Portrait... is given so much space in Paragraph 3, look just before it and understand its context.

As you get into the body of a passage, don’t lose sight of the early hints and ideas that remain part of the author’s overall view. Here, for instance, there’s so much discussion of Kahlo’s politics that one may forget that the (more common) personal view of her art still, according to the author, has validity. He is adding to the interpretation of Kahlo, not differing from the old one, but it’s easy to forget that as you get deeper into the passage. A good tip: Stop after each paragraph of the passage and recap its key points. That way you’re less likely to forget ‘em.

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