A few days ago, I posted two of Nickolas Muray’s portraits of Frida Kahlo. They are modestly blowing up. My dashboard is flooded with snippets like “she’s so beautiful” and “how was she so pretty?” and “#tears in my eye over how flawless you are” and “frida, you dirty girl.” Dirty girl.
I am reminded of something Garçonnière wrote, part of her continuing commentary on tumblr, credit, and context but specifically in relation to the circulation of decontextualized images of (often by, but always of) Kahlo on tumblr. The Frida industry, as we know, runs on Frida’s body herself—her face/hair/person has become a commodity partially because her face/hair/person was her medium and her most frequent subject. The thing is, though, that commodifying that face/hair/person removes that image from the reasons why it was her medium and subject: her politicization of her indigenous woman body vs. others’ politicization of her indigenous woman body; her sexuality/not sexuality; her work to materialize memory and place and pain, in order to do which she worked through the body as much as with it; and most notably her work as a response to the condition of her own body.
As my followers and friends know, I’ve been working through feminist representations of hair—the political, embodied, tenuous, tactile, poetic, ironic, painful ways women relate to the hairs that grow and fall out of us. Oddly enough, my mind didn’t initially turn to Frida.
This month my work project has been shifting LOC numbers TR—the photography subheading. During winter break, with the library mostly empty and Fine Arts that much emptier, I’ve spent most of my shifts in that back aisle, shifting and sorting photography books. In those long, lulling afternoons I’ve got plenty of browsing time (especially since our librarians remind us not to shelf-read for more than twenty-five minutes at a time or we’ll lose our minds). So I’ve been pulling books and flipping through them, looking for images and thoughts about hair. The other day I pulled TR680.F735 2010: Frida Kahlo: her photos.
The two photos I posted were spread with one more, a photograph of her head in traction, placed between them. I was so blown away by the succession of the three photos, of the way both photographer and subject were grappling with her physicality, of the way the sequence disrupted what we take for granted about her body and, mostly, about her hair. I should have included that third picture between the two that I posted, and removing it from that context feels now, to me, so exploitative.
In order to consider the context of the photos, one should consider the book I took them from. “Her photos” are actually the photos that she was given or collected as much as the those she created. It’s a book of photographs from the files uncovered and filed in back rooms in her old house, the Kahlo museum. They were all photographs she owned. It’s a really, really brilliant book which frames the collection as Frida’s own responses to the art world at large as both an insider and an outsider (considering her family portraits, self-portraits, as well as works gifted and acquired by Brassai/Weston/Bravo/Man Ray). It also places her own photography as a conversation with her other work and her position as a collector, and it paints a really compelling image of her collection/creation as an obsessive act, a search for grounding. In the chapter which documents her days in bed (most photos in which were taken by Muray), snippets she collected (anatomical drawings of pelvises, diagrams of gestation) are paired with portraits of her pain, her posing in pain, or her working through and about pain. The book draws a genealogy of making which includes not just artmaking but collecting, modeling, bodymaking.
Muray’s photos of Frida in bed are noted for their stillness, their sense of classicism, a jilting image in contrast to how we’ve all come to think about Frida. They stuck with me because of the ways that her body was so politically unmade. A condescending Kahlo commenter might say that her image was always categorically unmade; that Frida’s body and images thereof were political because they were outside of contemporary beauty processes. (“Radical ugliness,” maybe.) But really, we know that making her body, making her image was one of Frida’s most dedicated labors. She was not unplucked and unfashionable because she was Mexican; she opted out of Euro/white fashion as a way to dramatically construct not only an indiginisma but to make her body into the other/outside/off that she was trying to materialize. Frida was an artist whose artistic identity was so defined through self-portraiture, but for her, self-portraiture and construction of body was also a seamless process of making.
Thus the unmade photographs: the unmade white sheets, the undressed, the undone hair, the Odalisque so classic[al] as if effortless. But there, in between them, that ultra-constructed traction brace. I am left unknowing what is body and what is material, what is made and what is unmade. And in the middle of all of this was her hair.
Frida’s hair is fundamental—the radically unplucked feminine indigineity, her relationship with her mother, her making. But I have only recently begun to think of Frida’s construction of her hair as an extension of her making of herself, as a process embodying her own tenuous relationship to her body. To me, and people like me, hair is an analog for so much more; making with hair is both a compulsion and a language. Seeing Frida with her hair down and not just down but wrapping her up calls me to a more thorough reflection on hair as meaning/medium in Frida Kahlo’s work, her collections, her paintings, her photographs, and her self-making.
I’m looking at those photos again and at the hump of her hip and her peeking glare. That hump is one which, I guess, people tend to sexualize—or anyway, that’s what tumblr has done. That arching, jagged, fleshy hump. I guess it’s just as useless to reflect on that patch of body, the subject/object of these photos, without talking about Nickolas Muray. There’s this tension, between her own sexuality (and her relationship with Muray) and her absolute desexual objectification of her own body. And here was this photographer, in love with this woman, broken and holed up in her bed, photographing that flesh. Still, I’m grossly uncomfortable that all a viewer takes from these works is that she’s beautiful, that she’s sexy.
Even to the extent that Nickolas Muray was thinking about sex, even to the extent that she was thinking of sex, even to the extent that it was sex, I don’t think these photos are about sex.
But that returns us to that Industry of Frida, right? There was a reason that she was such a powerful self-image-maker, but those reasons have evaporated not just because of enterprise or uncrediting tumblr, but also because of art history itself. We are taught, when we are taught of Frida, compartmentally: there was indigineity, there was Diego (and therefore politics), there was pain (therefore psychoanalysis). We are not taught to examine her and her work for itself, for herself, and holistically. We are not taught to discuss her sexuality in the context of her artmaking and her politics. Frida, whose labor was making image, has been reduced to an image.
Maybe I should have mentioned all of this the first time I posted those photos.
i needed to re-reblog this because rgr pop tells it like it is and also DO NOT ERASE DISABILITY FROM FRIDA’S LIFE. do not decontextualize her story