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Uni Archive: Spirituality, Frida Kahlo and the Male Surrealists

From 2009, my 2nd year at uni. Typed up from a hard copy so no in-text references, but I have copied the reference list below for anyone interested. This is the last one I will be typing up and sharing on here – so I guess I better start on some original content soon!

Question: What was it about the woman artists associated with the Surrealist group that was unique in their approach to spirituality?

Conflict between the spirituality of Frida Kahlo’s work and the attitudes of male Surrealists.

Surrealism was an art movement borne out of the death of Dada, and a “desire for positive action”. The initial group was dominated by the painters Max Ernst, André Masson, Joan Miro and founder André Breton, who wrote the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto. Surrealism was a revolt against the intellectualisation of art, and the idea of “Art for Art’s sake”. Initially the movement was primarily concerned with the subconscious, promoting “pure psychic automatism through which it is intended to express…the true functioning of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside any aesthetic or moral preoccupation.” While the dominant artists in the group were mainly male, the Surrealists welcomed women into the movement, (even if somewhat exploitatively), among these female artists were Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington, Valentine Hugo, Lee Miller, Meret Oppenheim, Dorothea Tanning and Frida Kahlo. This essay will discuss in particular the work of Kahlo and compare her attitudes and representation of spirituality to the European male Surrealists. For the purposes of this essay, ‘spirit’ will be defined as either “the vital animating essence of a person or animal…The intelligent non-physical part of a person…The soul…[or] a prevailing mental or moral condition or attitude” and ‘spiritual’ as something “concerning the spirit as opposed to matter…Concerned with sacred or religious things…[or] refined, sensitive, not concerned with the material”.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a successful female Mexican artist who was associated with the Surrealists. Her work includes powerful personal symbolism, and is aesthetically similar to the work of Surrealists such as Ernst, Tanguy and Dali. The aspects of early Surrealism such as automatism, accident and biomorphism are, according to Lowe “absent from Kahlo’s idion. On the other hand, the impetus for using these methods, to “express the functioning of the mind” is, in fact, close to the way Kahlo’s paintings function”. While Breton saw Kahlo’s work as “pure surreality”, her work was much more biographic and symbolic than the automatic writings, collage and dream records of the early Surrealists, and it wasn’t until the second Manifesto of Surrealism (of 1928) that parallels can be seen in the work of Kahlo and imagists such as Salvador Dali and René Magritte, “with whose realist style Kahlo had more in common”. Both Kahlo and the Surrealists admired the work of Henri Rousseau and Giorgio de Chirico, and the “variety of formal strategies [used by Kahlo] in order to convey her personal symbology” coincided with Surrealist means of expression. Kahlo, however did not admire the Surrealists in Europe. Breton’s preface to a 1938 exhibition of Kahlo’s work is described by Lowe as “eulogistic” and “self-serving”, filled with “patronising and provincial arrogance” and a “reductive essentialism” that sexualised both Kahlo and her paintings, “so that her art becomes merely a reflection of a masculine idea of the feminine”. In 1939 Kahlo visited Paris to participate in the exhibition “Mexique”, and stayed with Breton. Duchamp and Ernst were the only artists she was interested in, and she described the rest, especially Breton as “coocoo lunatic sons of bitches”. So while Kahlo held obvious disdain for the “damn intellectual” Surrealist movement, she nevertheless practiced a kind of “Naïve Surrealism”, more concerned with her own identity and spirit rather than the Surrealists’ preoccupation with primitive art and “the other”.

Kahlo’s work, especially her self-portraits, explored her identity and spirituality through dream-like imagery similar to that of the Surrealists, and through personal symbolism. Lowe suggests that Kahlo painted images “in which she could be sure she existed”, and to “situate herself at the intersection of various levels of being…[exploring] her condition as Mexican, as woman, and as disabled”. Her piece Henry Ford Hospital (1932) is a phsyical, emotional, mental and spiritual self-portrait depicting her “month-long ordeal of miscarriage”. Kahlo lies on a hospital bed covered in blood, with six symbols attached to her with “veinlike” red threads. The “excruciatingly accurate” portrait of her lost baby boy, a medical model of “science’s idea of what is inside a woman, an image of what she lacks” after her horrific injury in a bus accident in 1925. Diagonally across from the model is a diagram of her shattered pelvis, which prevents her from carrying a child to full term and is “damaged further by sexual intercourse”. These three objects are fairly straightforward in their meaning but Kahlo has added three more with subtle personal symbolism: A snail in the top right, is described by Bauer simply as a “sexually charged” image but Lowe uses Kahlo’s own words to interpret it as an animal that embodies her “experience of an abortion, which was slow, and in her words, “soft, covered and at the same time, open”.” The “bruise-coloured orchid” underneath Kahlo’s hospital bed is, according to Lowe, another example of her conversion to emotions and sensations into concrete images; the flower, given to her by her husband Diego, mixes the sexual with the sentimental. Finally an unidentified machine is tied to the crying figure of Kahlo. While the viewer is not sure of its purpose, Lowe suggests it is a symbol of Kahlo’s abhorrence of machinery, it being “a, machine that caused her injury” in the first place. Henry Ford Hospital is a raw examination of Kahlo’s experience of femininity, how she has failed in her role as woman, and presenting, in Diego’s words, the “endurance, truth, reality, cruelty [and] suffering” involved in her experience. While Kahlo’s portrait of womanhood is painful, raw and spiritual, the portrayal of women in the art produced by male Surrealists was far less emotional – Lynford claims that “Male Surrealists used the figure of Woman as both ground and metaphor for revolution”, rather than for any exploration of their spirit, role or experience, summarised effectively by Bradley’s statement that the attention of the Surrealists was focused on ” ‘woman’ rather than women”.

Kahlo’s 1940 Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair is another exploration of her experience of the role of femininity. The piece was painted immediately after she was divorced from her beloved husband, she turned away from friends and turned instead to alcohol. Kahlo, who had “difficulty integrating and maintaining a cohesive sense of self”, cut off her “long brown hair that Diego loved…and shed her Tehuana costume like a skin”. Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair gives the viewer an insight into Kahlo’s mental and emotional condition at the time, and her position in the world, which Lowe suggests is a primary personal function of Kahlo’s self-portraits, “[mapping] her tenuous hold on her self, allowing her to negotiate a way to exist”. In this way, the piece (and others) act as a sort of diagram of her spirit, contrary to Surrealists such as Breton, Ernst and Dali who were more concerned with chance, dreams and unconscious desires. Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair depicts Frida sitting in a plain chair, wearing an extremely baggy, oversized suit, (“Diego’s?”) and holding a pair of scissors. She has cut her hair off, and strands of it lie around the room and hanging from her lap and the chair, animated almost as if living tendrils. Kahlo’s face is immobile and “reads as a mask…[and] her calculated effort to disguise her emotions and hide her feelings while she relentlessly depicts her life on canvas [produce] an ever-present tension in her images”. Above her are written the lyrics to a popular song accompanied by the notes on the staff: “Look if I loved you, it was because of your hair. Now you are shorn, I love you no more”. Whether the scene “represents female castration or reconquered liberty, or both” is not made clear to the viewer.

While the works and attitudes of the male European Surrealists are summed up ideally by Lautréamont’s phrase “as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”, Kahlo simply described her work as painting “her own reality” – a pure translation of her spirit into a painting. Surrealists were preoccupied with chance methods of art production, with tribal art and the “other”, with the “congruence of incongruous objects” within imagery and with recording dreams and dream-like states through writing and painting. Kahlo, however, cared little for the Surrealists’ emphasis on process and instead explored her own world, her role and experience of being. Her work is pervaded by a personal symbolism and emotion that is lackign in the works of most prominent male Surrealists, seen more in the work of female Surrealists such as Leonora Carrington. While the Surrealists explored the human mind, Kahlo explored her own mind, her identity, and her spirit, painting a part of her that no one else could otherwise see.


Ades, D., Dada and Surrealism, in ed. N., Stangos, Concepts of Modern Art, Thames and Hudson, London, 2006

Bauer, C., Frida Kahlo, Prestel Verlag, Munich, 2007

Bradley, I., Surrealism, Tate Gallery Publishing, London, 1997

Burrus, C., Frida Kahlo: Painting her own reality, Harry N. Abrams, North America, 2008

Grimberg, S., Frida Kahlo: Songs of herself, Merrel Publishers, London, 2008

Lowe, S., Frida Kahlo, Universe Publishing, New York, 1991

Lyford, A., Surrealist Masculinities, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 2007

Ed. Moore, B., The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1999

Piper, D., The Illustrated History of Art, Bounty Books, London, 2000

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