Mexico was one of the world centers of art during this century. Diego Rivera, played a key role with a very distinctive style of his own. His imposing and controversial murals were both revered and hated, for he went against the establishment both politically and artistically. Under this shadow of a huge artist, both figuratively and in reality, young artists in Mexico longed to glimpse and study the giant. His influence in Mexico City was not lost on a young art student Frida Kahlo.
Frida was born in Mexico City, the daughter of Mexican woman and a German immigrant. Her father was a photographer, a trade that was new and interesting, because photography was still in its developmental stages at the time when Frida is born. The family must have been financially comfortable since her parents owned the home where they lived.
From some of her paintings and what we already know about her life, Frida had a nursemaid, as well as domestic servants as part of the household. It is important to know who were her early caretakers and their influences, because she internalized these experiences and later as an artist she was able to use them as a theme in creating her canvasses.
These women who influenced Frida as a child were native women who came from the country to work as household help. Most of them had come from a culture that through story-telling kept their important history alive. These stories had mystical references to the lives of their "antepasados"--ancestors--as a very real part of daily life. Undoubtedly, these women shared their stories with Frida as a child. These women were illiterate, since they came from regions in the country where public education was extremely limited,and young women had even less chance of such an education. Consequently, all of their education was based on oral history, and exposure to a visual culture handed down by their Maya, Aztec, and Mixtec ancestry, important native cultures in Mexico. As we know today, children understand, learn and process a great deal of information in the very early stages of development. I believe that these early learning experiences were internalized by Frida, which in turn helped her to feed her creativity. As she developed her artistic themes she definitely shows her strong identity with her Mexican roots and its historical perspective.
This has been substantiated by Erika Billeter, editor of the book The Blue House, The World of Frida Kahlo, in it she notes:
"Everything in her work that seem surrealistic to us has a profound bases in Mexican thought. The "reality" of Mexican history, which is her cradle, is reflected in the subjects of many of her paintings".
...."Pre-Columbian iconography roots of this portrayal, which from the Middle Ages until now has been unthinkable in European art."
Frida entered the University. She must have been in the minority, because not too many women were allowed to pursue their education. This must have been an exciting and challenging experience, which gave her the opportunity to develop a strong identity. It would serve her well to survive the many difficult circumstances of her life.
Pain and physical discomfort became part and parcel of Frida's life after a major bus accident while she was traveling between school and home. Her Germanic heritage and her close relationship with her father must have given strength to deal with pain and suffering. What is a reality is that she overcame major adversity to emerge as an artist in spite of these difficulties.
What is most fascinating in her art is that she used Mexican traditional art and a historical perspective to show us her suffering. It is well known and documented that bloodletting was a ritual of the Maya, both as a ceremony and as an offering to the Gods. [Frida in more than one painting shows herself with this concept clearly depicted as the theme.]
In one of her gory paintings, she paints herself as an offering in the "altar" - a bed, with blood dripping from many different part of her body. The starkness of the presentation makes it a totally spiritual experience, the offering of a young woman as victim. It also carries the theme of exalting the figure, in this case Frida herself, to that of a goddess, offering herself as an heroic victim. This has a historical perspective referring to Christian beliefs. What is a new concept and surrealist impression is that is a woman presented on the altar as an offering.
This brings us to the importance of Frida's work as it relates to herself as a woman artist but also to her presentation of women's issues never before presented by artists from a Catholic or European tradition. She once again recognizes her mixed ancestry. In Pre-Columbian art the female subject has been found in many different artistic creations, and they appear as an important part of the culture. Goddesses were important figures in the pro-creation of the Maya native mythological stories.
In the ancient Aztec artistic repertoire there are many stone sculptures of goddesses giving birth, it is one of the most popular themes, and their importance is clear for the Mexican culture. Frida was able to tap her knowledge of early Mexican sculpture and her own creative ability by showing us:
"Birth, the coming together of beginning and end, the fleeting moment when life and death meat. Source of the original sin of Christian mythology, and of its redemption. Locus of the sacred and of lust, Earth, creation and woman who, at the moment of giving birth conquers the Phallus.
Frida Kahlo's contribution to Surrealism was her unique way of bringing to light the hidden secrets of a woman's soul by combining popular and pre-Columbian art forms with her knowledge of Western Art."
Frida Kahlo: My Birth by Irene Herner de Larrea in The Blue House THE WORLD OF FRIDA KAHLO, Billeter, Erika, Ed.
What is amazing is that Frida was able to do this long before the modern women's movement began. She did this painting in l932, and in conservative, tradition-bound Mexico. This was long before there was a movement to awaken women's awareness of rights to their own bodies or the importance of artistic freedom to present in bold and realistic ways unique issues for women.
Frida represents a very important role model for women in this century. She transcends the taboos of the period in which she lived and creates the reality of womanhood with all its pain and despair in her art. But she also elevates it to a religious, cultural experience by returning to a "communal historical perspective".
There is another theme that Frida uses in her paintings. The use of monkeys in her work is fascinating, students always ask why they appear in her paintings.
Continuing to recognize that Frida used her knowledge of ancient Mexican stories and art, it would be logical that the use of monkeys in her paintings relates to the importance of these animals throughout the mythology of the Maya. Howler twin monkeys were represented as gods of the scribes, as the artists and creators.
Writing and pictography were very important in Maya society, a skill reserved for the privileged members of society. In many of their painted historical stories monkey represented artists and scribes.
Frida used this knowledge to create a unique visual reference to herself by incorporating monkeys in many different situations. They are whimsical and very personal. They are part of a mystical and regal representation of her persona. One definitely gets the feeling that these "gods" that surround her are an important part of her life, and they elevate her to the status of a goddess. Through the inclusion of monkeys in her paintings, the physical connection between the central figure, Frida, and one or more of the monkeys becomes part of the composition.
Is Frida's fascination with monkeys related to her own personal life? One of Frida's great problems was that she was unable to have children. Although she did get pregnant she was unable to carry the child to full term. How much are these monkeys her children? Do they not only represent her creativity, as part of the iconography of ancient Maya gods, but also fill a void in her barren life?
Monkeys gave her the opportunity to pamper and care for them under the conditions of her restricted existence.
"The lovely garden, filled with cacti of every variety, was a jungle for her beloved pet monkeys".
The Blue House THE WORLD OF FRIDA KAHLO, Billeter, Erika, Ed.
Frida's painting "Self-Portrait with Monkeys, 1943", shows her with four monkeys surrounding her among leaves and a bird of paradise flower. She wears the typical headdress of the ancient Mexican figurines found in tombs and depicted on painted artifacts, most of them believed to be important ruling class members.
It is my theory that through this painting Frida is presenting the five senses. Each monkey represents one of the senses. She herself at the center of the painting represents the brain and ability to think. There is a bird of paradise flower right next to Frida's head, or as if it is part of it. In Latino lore, this flower has always meant freedom. It seems in this composition that it indicates the freedom of thought.
It has been suggested that this painting shows Frida as "sexual victim". I disagree, because I believe that Frida's use of monkeys was related to her creativity and a symbol of herself as a Goddess as indicated by Robin Richmond:
"She was an irreverent High Priestess of Art, cloaked in magical raiments, who giggled behind her mask and fidgeted under her robes...and was faithful to her own-image-some would say too faithful" .
Robin Richmond, Painters and Places.
FRIDA KAHLO IN MEXICO, 1944.
This is especially important because this painting was her greatest accomplishment and, under her circumstances her saving grace.
There is another connection with the representation of monkeys in Frida's paintings. One great ethnic group in Mexico, is called the Mixtecs. They have an important story about a heroine, a part of their culture which is called "Six Monkey". This story is included in the Codex Selden, the historical manuscript that tells the history of the Mixtec. It describes a very strong woman who avenges the death of her father and brother, and she becomes an important figure in their mythology.
It is highly probable that Frida had come to know about this story. With all her knowledge of native culture and mythology, it is possible that she also had heard the story through one of the women who might have been Mixtec, and who were part of the household servants, or her nanny. The story of "Six Monkey" must have been an important oral history piece, especially for the women of the region. Because "Six Monkey" was a figure of strength and leadership, I believe this suited Frida very well, and she used this story in her paintings. In addition, a Mexican scholar, Alfonso Caso, in the l930’s identified this story. It had been lost but Caso deciphered the manuscript. This period would be within Frida's time frame of research and development.
Once again I base these ideas on my own personal experience, during the forties, as a young girl living in Colombia and having native women from different regions come to work at our house. It was common to have them tell important and imaginative stories about their families, heroes and heroines from their particular region. Most of these beliefs were based on their native heritage, their rituals and experiences. These type of stories were not encouraged by parents, and children were able to hear these stories when parents were away, as a kind of "underground" learning done during the long hours that were spent with nannies and other caretakers.
This "underground" learning was perhaps, one the few opportunities to learn about the native cultures. It had a magical and unique feeling in that it was a sense of a culture that was hidden and forbidden. Latin American writers are a group of artists who have consistently used these stories that were told to them as part of their life experiences.
The last theme of Frida's work was her use of native clothing as part of her paintings and her persona. Native clothing gave her a strong attachment to the native cultures of Mexico. Her customs were creative and beautiful, but Frida wearing this type of clothing was out of the ordinary in Mexican society. It is said, that when she appeared in public her whole appearance made people stop to look at her, it was so unique and beautiful.