'The Kaleidoscopic Self,' a three-part series by Brianna Mullin
Brianna Mullin is currently a PhD student in French Literature at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include transgressive desire, humour noir and word-image studies in French surrealist literature (Nelly Kaplan, Lise Deharme, Valentine Penrose).
Brianna's three-part series begins with an exploration of Frida Kahlo's textual and visual diary, interjecting a feminist perspective on the autobiography as literary genre.
The Kaleidoscopic Self in the Diary of Frida Kahlo (1995)
The autobiography is a male-dominated literary genre par excellence. From Montaigne’s Essays (1580) to Rousseau’s Confessions (1782) to Henry James’s A Small Boy and Others (1913), the most revered autobiographical texts are those written by men and about men. From a feminist perspective in autobiographical studies, the question is thus obvious: what about women writers? How do women writers perceive themselves, and in turn, how do we perceive them? Whereas critics do not taint the autobiographical works of Rousseau or James with labels such as “vain” or “narcissistic,” they are much more inclined to employ such adjectives for women’s autobiographical works. Julia Watson and Sidonie Smith explain that narcissism is a key concept in women’s autobiographical studies, “which traditional art histories have tended to understand as the self-absorbed identification of the female subject with her own alterity" (Watson & Smith, 2002, 13). Reworking this patriarchal concept, however, “the strategic deployment of narcissism […] offers a means of agency to the disenfranchised woman” (Ibid, 13). Frida Kahlo’s personal diary, published in 1995, offers a rich visual and textual exploration of women’s (re)presentations of the self. The dialogical rapport between word and image in the diary allows the self to function like a kaleidoscope: it is in constant becoming; reflecting and distorting itself, it is never complete or coherent. The kaleidoscope, which comes from the Greek kalos, “beauty”, eïdos “form”, and skopeïn “to view," never presents a single fixed image but rather assumes a multiplicity of forms that are ever-changing.
Written between 1944 and 1954, The Diary of Frida Kahlo reworks and challenges patriarchal notions of womanhood and femininity by presenting an imperfect, “unstable” body that serves to deconstruct the relationship between the artist and the self. Kahlo’s body functions in disequilibrium: after polio caused her right leg to be shorter than her left, the infamous tramway crash that she miraculously survived at eighteen years of age concretised the schism that would define her body for the rest of her life (Fuentes, 1995, 10). The pages of the diary imitate the “imbalance” of Kahlo’s corporeal being through a process of pain-ting: the visual expression of physical suffering. A poignant example of this is the image that bears the epigraph “Yo soy la DESINTEGRACION…” (I am DISINTEGRATION…).This painting seems to imitate the process of reflection in a fun-house mirror as figures are doubled and distorted, differentiated between the “before” and the “after.”
We see the shape of a double-headed minotaur which imitates the Roman god Janus in the centre of the two pages: one head, on the left, turned toward the past, the other, on the right, looking toward the future. The page in Frida Kahlo’s personal diary plays a role that is both spatial and material. In this painting, the two pages enter in dialogue with each other to illustrate the manifestation of a physical evolution. The page on the left represents the past and the pain it brought, the woman’s head engulfed in flames, decorated by a blotch of black ink. The green foot that protrudes from her neck transforms into a green column on the right page, in the future, where physical suffering reigns. In a kaleidoscopic process, the body deforms and reflects itself through the pages. The three aspects of the kaleidoscope— beauty, form, observation— illuminate this painting: beauty, incarnated by the three feminine figures (the woman’s head, the minotaur-woman, the column-body), changes shape between the two pages as in a kaleidoscope. The changing forms of the painting demand that the spectator observe each page reciprocally, but under a different light, in order to better understand the transformation that takes place. The self that Kahlo presents is thus performative because unstable, as Watson and Smith explain: “Autobiographical narratives […] do not affirm a “true” self or a coherent and stable identity. They are performative, situated addresses that invite their readers’ collaboration in producing specific meanings for the “life” (Watson & Smith, 11). Kahlo presents a broken body of which the reader/spectator must collect the fragments in an attempt to piece together their own corporeal image. The green foot that becomes a green column illustrates the paradox of pain in Kahlo’s diary: the column, a symbol of stability, incarnates the demise of the artist, like a tragic figure in a Greek epic falling to her death. With her raised arm, the bloodied feminine figure seems to be pointing to the epigraph, and her tilted body leads the spectator to the corporeal fragments that fall in mid-air: an eye, hand, head and foot. In this way, word and image reinforce each other as they work together to illustrate the deep suffering of the artist.
In her work, as in her diary, Kahlo does not sexualise the female body. Rather, she revolts against the patriarchal hyper-sexualization of women by presenting an “alternative” to this image, a defiant female body that is disabled. It is also worth noting that she paints the Greek mythological figure of the minotaur, replacing the traditionally masculine body with that of a woman. A figure of great interest to the Surrealists, the minotaur represents the internal conflict between conscience and animality. As the Greek myth explains, Minotaur, destined for sacrifice, was sent away in a labyrinth by Poseidon after Minos, Minotaur’s bull father, refused to kill him. Considered a monster, Minotaur lived in the labyrinth until he was killed by Theseus. What, then, does the minotaur illustrate in Kahlo’s painting? Minotaur, locked away in the labyrinth with his unbalanced body and rejected by the gods, reflects, in a way, Kahlo’s own position caused by her physical ailments. Bedridden throughout her life, Kahlo spent much of her time alone. The woman-minotaur thus functions as the ultimate woman-outsider, who uses herself for art, as the reflection of the two heads indicates. The evolution of the self comes from within. The diary itself represents a colourful cry by Kahlo to combat her feelings of loneliness while she battled her body’s deterioration. If she was physically tied down to her own labyrinth, her room, during particularly difficult days, she uses the diary as a means of emotional evolution and release.
There is no conflict here between conscience and animality because there is no hierarchy between human and nature in Kahlo’s work. Rather, they reflect and distort each other. The incorporation of animals, plants, and other elements of nature in Kahlo’s diary is a literalised attempt to return to humanity’s metaphorical roots, those of Mother Earth. The importance of nature in the diary illustrates the ways in which Kahlo rejects the 20th century’s patriarchal capitalism. The painting that bears the words “The colour of poison” illustrates, for example, the important connection between woman’s suffering and the suffering of the planet.
In the same way that the “disintegration” painting covers two pages in a kaleidoscopic performance of the self, this horizontal painting uses the entirety of the page and demands the participation of the spectator/reader in its representation of the instability of the body. The bust of a crying Kahlo resembles the statue of the crying Madonna. Planted in the earth like a flower, her legs have been replaced with bloodied roots as she physically shares the burden of pain and sorrow with the ground below her. As in a kaleidoscope, the colours of the painting mix together: red, colour of blood, and purple, colour of poison, reinforce the corporeal image of the suffering woman. The layout or “spread” of the page also imitates the process of kaleidoscopic observation. As the spectator of a kaleidoscope must physically turn the object to see different shapes and colours, the reader of Kahlo’s diary must physically turn the book in order to better observe the image of the poisoned earth. The materiality of the earth that Kahlo uses to express herself transforms into the materiality of the diary itself in the hands of the reader who, in turn, becomes directly implicated in this performance of the self. Kahlo writes on the bottom half of the page “Colour of poison” and on the top half “Everything upside down. ME? Sun and moon feet and Frida.” (271). She enumerates the figures found on the page: nature and Frida together, as interchanging parts. The image of the foot plays an important role in the journal as it symbolises, metonymically, the pain of the artist. Broken in the infamous tramway accident, Kahlo’s right foot caused her suffering all her life. In 1953, doctors had to amputate her right leg up to the knee because of gangrene.
The transformation of the ailed body in painting allows Kahlo to examine and control the physical suffering that she endures. We see this in the portrait of her feet doubling as a vase. Kahlo looks to master her pain by distancing herself from it. Imitating a still life portrait, this painting renders the foot, the metonymy of pain, an object of observation for the spectator/reader. This is no longer the burden of a solitary woman locked away in her labyrinth, but rather the subject of study of each person who contemplates the image. By changing shape through fragmentation, as in a kaleidoscope, Kahlo is object and subject of the portrait at the same time. She “[…] doubles her being […] the self and the witness, the body and the mind; […] As Kahlo transforms her body into works of art, the witness/mind “speaks” a pictorial language to communicate the self/body’s pain” (Yang 1997, 129). Witness and bearer of physical pain, Kahlo seems to answer a rhetorical question posed at the bottom of the painting: “Feet what do I need them for If I have wings to fly.” (274). This laconic statement alters our reading of this melancholic and desolate scene: it now represents a form of freedom for the artist. Kahlo is not a victim of suffering—she conquers pain in her art by giving herself wings. She retreats from sickness and transforms it into an artistic and natural phenomenon: the thorns that protrude from the leg imitate those of a rose while the red background represents blood. The feet of Kahlo double as artefacts of the earth. To contemplate them means to contemplate the ground on which we walk. Kahlo, object and subject of this still life, frees herself from carnal constraints and masters her body in art.
In her diary, Frida Kahlo finds freedom in the fragmented pieces of the self, in the abstraction of (her own) anatomy, and in the way that these representations reflect yet distort her own image like the shards of a broken mirror. Kahlo, admired by Breton, created art that remains in perpetual revolt against the patriarchy and its “feminine” ideals. The Diary of Frida Kahlo reflects and dissects the intricacies of Kahlo’s ever-changing self. It illustrates a corporeal performance of the self that demands the participation of each spectator/reader. Kahlo’s self is kaleidoscopic because it favours instability over stability, reciprocity over the absolute, and evolution over stagnation. If we, as reader-spectators, are called to observe and manoeuvre Kahlo’s self-representation, we, then, are called to partake in her resilience, and perhaps, even, see its reflection in ourselves.
Figure 1. Frida Kahlo, 'Yo soy la disintegracion,' Diary of Frida Kahlo (c.1944-54; 1995).
Figure 2. Frida Kahlo, 'Dolor de veneno,' Diary of Frida Kahlo (c.1944-54; 1995).
Figure 3. Frida Kahlo, 'Pies para que los quiero si tengo alas pa' volar,' (c.1944-54; 1995).
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