Frida Kahlo was a famous Mexican artist who was known for her self portraits and the intense colors that featured in most of her works. Kahlo was born in 1907 in Coyoacan a small township in Mexico City. She began her painting career after she was involved in a bus accident in 1925 that left her with severe injuries to her spine, her legs, her pelvis and the rest of her body.
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Kahlo was constantly plagued with pain throughout the rest of her life that at times saw her confined to a hospital bed. She underwent a total of thirty five operations after the accident with most of them being performed on her legs and her back.
Kahlo began painting while she was recovering from her accident injuries to occupy her time. She mostly did self-portrayals during the three months she was inert and these pieces of art played a dominant part of her life. She explained that portraying herself in the self portraits was due to the fact that she was the subject she knew best.
She also painted herself because she was lonely for the duration she was under bed rest. Her mother, Matilde Calderon, had a special easel made for Frida so that she could paint while she was lying in bed. Her self portrayals mostly relayed the message of pain and anguish which was drawn from her own personal experiences1.
Frida Kahlo derived most of her work from the Mexican culture which was mostly characterized by Chicano art during that time. Chicano art works emerged from the Chicano movement that took place during the 1960s and 1970s in America. The term Chicano was used to refer to Mexican Americans who had migrated to America during this time.
The Chicano Movement was made up of South American groups such as the Cuban Americans, Colombian Americans, Costa Ricans, Hondurans, Chilean Americans, Ecuadorians and Dominican Americans. The movement was formed to fight against racial segregation of South American minorities as well as reassert their civil rights in the US during the1960s and 70s.
The Chicano art works mostly focused on the themes that were used in literary works with the preferred media being murals and graphic art forms. Rasquache art is the most common style of Chicano art and it was a unique subset of the political movement2.
Frida Kahlo’s Art
Frida Kahlo’s style of painting mostly involved the use of symbolic imagery and Mexican colors. She frequently incorporated the symbolic monkey in her art work which the Mexican culture depicted to be a symbol of lust but Kahlo portrayed the monkey as a tender creature in her work as well as a symbol of protection.
Her paintings also portrayed a feminist reality that so many women suffered with. Her husband’s infidelities, her physical handicaps and her inability to conceive were viewed to be feministic realities that afflicted many women around the world.
Many artists and curators viewed Frida Kahlo’s work to mostly portray feminist views as most of her paintings focused on women and gender issues. One of her artworks that demonstrated the feminist reality was a self portrait titled “My Birth” which she painted in 1932.
In this painting, Kahlo’s head emerges from a woman’s outstretched legs with an image above the bed portraying the Mexican Virgin of Sorrow known as Mater Dolorosa being pierced by swords and weeping. This demonstration was a portrayal of Kahlo’s miscarriage which occurred before she painted the art work.
Her “My Birth” self portrait was viewed by many feminist writers to be a depiction of childbirth issues in women that were not properly addressed in the Western world during that time. The self portrait was also a demonstration of the birth process where women played a more integral role than the men.
Her focus on feminism and gender issues also portrayed the various challenges that women went through in the 20th and also the 21st century. Women struggled to find some self identity and self determination as they took up the roles of being mothers and wives within the family context.
Kahlo developed an identity in her art work that was not easily expressed in the Mexican and Western society. Her art work dealt with conception, pregnancy, abortion and the role of women in a candid and open manner. Such candidness was viewed by many to be a political statement because before them women were not able to talk about such issues in the open.3
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Despite the theme of psychological and physical pain in Kahlo’s work, other themes that were explores were those of Mexican cultural which were portrayed through the use of the country’s national colors. Some of her paintings depicted the love of Mexican things as well as Mexican nationalism which was referred to as “Mexicanidad”.
She depicted “Mexicanidad” within her art works by the native clothes she wore in her self portraits as well as the furnishings that were in her home. She used elements from popular Mexican art forms such as the ex-votos and the retablos that were 19th century tin paintings created by traveling artists.
The retablos paintings were used by these traveling artists to express their gratitude to the Catholic Saints after recovering from illnesses, diseases or from being rescued from disasters. Kahlo’s use of the ex-votos and retablos indigenous art themes demonstrated both political and cultural themes as she painted these themes in a way that was easily understood by the Mexican people.
She incorporated the use of Mexican and pre-Colombian art work, imagery and concepts in some of her works which included “My Nurse and I”, a self portrait that depicts Kahlo in the hands of a nurse with an Olmec mask, “Tree of Hope” which depicts an image of the sun and the moon as functions that depicted the two sided nature of life.
“The Love Embrace of the Universe” was a self portrait that depicted Kahlo and her husband, Diego, in the arms of the universe personified by the Colombian goddess.
Kahlo’s most famous self portrait was” What the Water Gave Me” which was viewed by many artists and feminists to be a self reflection of her traumatic life. The self portrait demonstrated a variety of images that were related to Kahlo’s personal life.
These images included an image of her parents, an image depicting her Indian and European background which is demonstrated by an image of one naked Indian woman and a white woman floating on a sponge.
Other images that depicted Kahlo’s tumultuous life included a bleeding heart, a skeleton seated on a mound, a dead bird on a tree and her Tehuana Indian dress which all depicted the physical and psychological pain that she experienced as a result of her accident injuries, the pain of loosing her child as well as her husband’s infidelities.4
As stated earlier Chicano art has its foundation from the Chicano movement that took place in the 1960s and 70s although contemporary artistic Chicano renaissance work had its roots from the folk arts that emerged in the southwestern regions of America during the same period.
Chicano artists who were part of the Chicano movement looked for artistic ways to protest about the social inequalities that they were experiencing during the 1960s and 70s. The Chicano artists focused on feminist concerns during that time as they incorporated the works of Frida Kahlo into their art forms.
They also used the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe as a feminist role model and a source of inspiration in their art works. The Chicano art circles organized themselves into groups that would be used to promote art and also advance their feminist concerns to the rest of the world.5
The renaissance of Chicano art was seen as a visual expression of the “movimiento” ideology that existed during the Chicano movement. Examples of these ideologies included cultural affirmation, emphasis on families and social status, brotherhood and political assertion.
The most notable Chicano artists included the famous muralist from south California, Judith Baca. Other Chicano artists included Patricia Rodriguez who was a retablo artist, Yolanda Lopez who was a specialist in La Guadalupana paintings, Carmen Lomas Garza who was a specialist on family portraits and Santa Barraza who was a cultural chronicler.
Despite the fact that Chicano art emerged from a political movement, it has continued to develop and grow over the years to represent the various cultural contexts of the Mexican society. By the 1990s many Chicano artists had joined a growing group of artists that practiced multiculturalism in their art works.
These artists recognized the various changes that were taking place in the society especially within the Mexican American community living in the United States. Chicano art work during this time experienced experimental designs with media forms such as films and videos as well as sculptures and other artistic forms.
The Chicano artists also incorporated some aspects of their older art forms to ensure that the original Mexican culture was incorporated into the new age art forms. As the Chicano artists entered into mainstream art, their works began to gain a broader appeal with the American society.
During the Chicano movement, Chicano artists mostly adapted themes from mythologies such as Aztec and Maya into their artistic works, in the process creating new art forms that symbolized the struggles that the political activists were going through during the movement.
The artists mostly used Pre-Columbian symbols and icons such as Emiliano Zapata who was a Mexican revolutionary and the Virgin of Guadalupe in their murals and artistic posters.
These icons were used to demonstrate and express the Chicano’s views on feminism and social realism during that time. Artists who painted murals usually used blank walls as their canvas and most of these artists were usually self-taught barrio youths. These murals were usually painted in urban centers and areas that had high numbers of people at a particular time.6
While many of the Chicano artists borrowed heavily from Mexican culture, some of these artists did not want to be associated with the Mexican culture and history. Some of these artists; Carmen Garza, Margarita Herrera, Alfredo Arreguin and Porfirio Salinas incorporated other aspects into their artistic works apart from Mexican culture.
For example, Arreguin’s paintings reflected Indian landscapes while Salinas’ paintings demonstrated Texan landscapes that were mostly characterized by bluebonnet flowers. Garza’s paintings depicted the life of Mexican Americans in Texas during the 1950s and 60s which showed that they did not primarily focus on the Mexican culture as a whole in their artistic works.
This shaped the 21st century Chicano artists who focused more on individual artistic expressions and inspiration for their subject matter which showed that their artwork was now focused on personal experiences and self expression.
Most of the mural artists viewed these form of canvas as a form of nonverbal communication that could be used to teach the community or Mexican society about ethnic solidarity and cultural nationalism during the political movement.
The murals conveyed the message of nationalism, unity and brotherhood through the use of Mexican imagery and symbols that were derived from Mexican Indian history and the 1910 Mexican revolution.
The Chicano murals also portrayed the native Mexican history of groups such as the Aztecs and the Maya. The growth of mural portraits and artistic expressions emerged as a result of a strong community orientation in public art forms that depicted the struggle for human rights. 7
Chicano art has began to receive some recognition and respect after many museums around the world failed to accord this type of art work any form of recognition during the 1960s and 70s. This growing recognition has been evidenced by the five year traveling exhibition known as the “Chicano Visions:
American Painters on the verge” that shows the various art works of Chicano artists whose style of painting peaked during the 1980s and 90s. The traveling exhibition took part in 15 cities within the United States with 50 paintings and pictures on display.
This exhibition was meant to demonstrate the ongoing reconciliation that Chicano art offered to the Mexican American community by demonstrating Mexican traditions and American culture. The Chicano art forms were inspired by indigenous pre-Columbian people as well as southwestern American styles of painting. The Chicano artists involved in this exhibition achieved regional success and recognition within the US and South America. 8
Chicano art derived most of its influences from Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro and Clemente Orozco. These artists image of public art was depicted through their portrayals of liberation struggles and freedom movements during the 1910 revolution in Mexico.
The mural art forms that were painted during the 1930 Depression also had an influence on Chicano mural artists who plied most of their trade on blank walls. The Chicano mural artists were also influenced by Tres Grandes works which were mostly eminent during the post revolution period in Mexico.
The Chicano artists were stereotyped by major art critics in the US as being artists that produced poor people’s art that was mostly radical in nature. They also referred to these artists as being too folklore because of the bright colors they used in their paintings and their murals. Chicano art was therefore not readily acceptable in most of the galleries and exhibitions based in the United States during and after the movement.
The American art critics viewed Chicano art to be in conflict with the bourgeois and traditional art tastes that existed during that time. This rejection of Chicano art by the Westernized countries because it was not sophisticated led to the emergence of community based art galleries in the Mexican American communities within the United States.
One of the first community based galleries was the Mechicano Art Gallery that was based in the eastern parts of Los Angeles. This gallery mostly exhibited Chicano movement art works and also modern paintings that had Chicano or Mexican influences.
Institutions such as the Social and Public Art Resource Center were established to promote the work of Chicano artists that mostly painted murals. These murals continued to gain more prominence within Los Angeles and were accepted as artistic forms of public art within the city.9
Chicano art has gradually changed today to incorporate a more modern and urban outlook. The modern artists have retained the bold colors and the original format used in most Chicano murals but the subject matter and content in these murals is what has changed.
While Mexican natives influences and prominent people still have play a vital role in today’s Chicano artwork, the new subject matter tends to focus on societal issues that affect the Mexican American Chicano artists in the present context.
Some of these issues include inequality in education and health care services, immigration issues, drug problems and segregation by the American society. The current Chicano artists have continued to uphold the muralist tradition of painting while at the same time portraying the history of Mexico as well as Mexican culture.
Contribution of Kahlo’s and Chicano’s Art to 20th Century Art
Kahlo’s artistic work has been viewed by many people in the art world to have a positive influence in today’s modern art scene. Her work has mostly influenced 20th century Latino art as well as feminist artists because of her self portrait paintings that mostly portrayed the challenges that she went through as a woman.
Frida Kahlo has been viewed by many as the most fascinating artist of the 20th century because of her body work and the use of imagery in her self portraits. Kahlo was also viewed to be one of the enigmatic artists in the 20th century which was mostly attributed to her bold and unabashed imagery of her self and her life.
Some discomforting self portraits of herself showed her physical wounds such as her deformed right leg which had an open wound as a result of the many operations that she went through after her surgery. 10
Her self portraits have influenced a lot of feminist artists and literature writers because of the peaceful resolve that followed many of her discomforting paintings. Her portraits showed a woman who was confident and in total control of her self image despite the many psychological traumas she had gone through in her life.
Many female artists in the 20th century identified with Kahlo’s self portraits of psychological pain and suffering and the way she choose to express her emotional feelings on canvas.
Many of these 20th Century artists such as Christine Herrera viewed Frida Kahlo to be both a poet and a painter because of her visual comparisons and the use of metaphors in her self portraits to express her feelings. This form of expression contributed in part to the modern artists who mostly relied on their experiences and views on life to create various art forms and paintings.
Frida Kahlo’s work was also renowned for its emotional intensity as well as its unrealistic and dream like quality. She was referred to as the heroine of the 1980s because of how she overcame her personal problems to become a renowned artist during her time. In the last twenty years, her work has joined the same ranks as that of famous artists such as Picasso and Van Gaugh.
Her image changed from that of being a poster girl for young Latino adolescents to that of being a historical artistic figure used in postal stamps and key chains. Her husband, Diego Rivera, who was also a famous artist viewed Kahlo to be the first woman in art history brave enough to portray the various issues that affected women in an open and uncompromising way.11
Frida Kahlo introduced the aspect of symbolism in her paintings which made them different from those of other artists during her time. People were able to identify Kahlo’s works because of the unique and original introduction of symbolic imagery in most of her self portraits.
The symbolic imagery was mostly viewed as a metaphorical depiction of her life especially in her famous “What the Water Gave Me” self portrait which used symbols such as a dead bird and a bleeding heart to depict her physical and psychological pain.
These metaphors were viewed to represent real life issues that afflicted both men and women in their day to day struggles. Her use of metaphors and symbolism made her gain a lot of prominence in the 20th century art world that mostly focused on self expression and the use of symbolism to communicate a message.
Her work gained a lot of recognition during the 20th century because of her candid and unobscured portrayal of women’s issues such as menstruation, pregnancy, birth, death, miscarriage, love and suffering. Many 20th century artists viewed her paintings and self portraits as a demonstration of a different view of the world. Her self reflection and analysis of her image was viewed to be an analysis of her self image and worth.
This was viewed by many feminists and artists to be a confident look at her self despite the many traumas she had gone through in her life. The importance of her work in contemporary art culture demonstrated that modern cultures around the world were empty and lacked any meaning. Her self reflection was viewed by many people to be a reflection of today’s societal cultural conditions.12
The impact of Chicano art on 20th century art work was deemed to have a positive influence on modern mural paintings as a form of artistic self expression. The visibility of Chicano artists has continued to increase over the years from the period of the Chicano movement. However many Chicano artists during the 20th and 21st century did not receive the appropriate amount of recognition for the paintings and murals.
This lack of recognition was mostly attributed to the political affiliation that these artists had to the Chicano movement. Many post modernist artists viewed Chicano art to be full of political innuendos as well as narrative style imagery that was represented in bold and bright colors. Major galleries and exhibitions also failed to pick up Chicano paintings because they were tied to Mexican movements13.
Some museum curators have tried to incorporate the various styles of painting and imagery that Chicano artists used in their work over the years. Artistic works such as the “Phantom Sightings’’ incorporated the use of Chicano art practices as well as conceptual foundations in its imagery. This art work was the only notable art form painted in the 20th century that properly depicted the Chicano style of painting.
Chicano art incorporated the use of imagery mostly related to Mexican history and culture, an aspect that made it difficult to replicate in other art circles that existed during the 20th century. This categorization of Chicano art was what made it difficult to exhibit this type of art work in major art exhibitions and galleries because it focused on ethnicity and politics.14
The research work has mostly focused on the art of Frida Kahlo and Chicano and what effects these artists had on 20th century art. According to the findings, Frida Kahlo has been viewed as a feminist artist who contributed to the revolution of modern art through her use of symbolic imagery and metaphors.
Kahlo has been viewed by many artists and curators to be the initiator of self expressionist and self reflective art in the world as a result of her various self portraits. Her work is now receiving a lot of recognition because of this which is not the same case for Chicano art.
Chicano artists have been gaining slow recognition in the modern art world because their art has been viewed by many 20th century artists to be mostly ethnic, political and folklore. Their murals have however gained acceptance with the modern urban youth who express themselves by using bold colors in their wall paintings.
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Meadows, Mary M. “Kahlo as artist, woman, rebel”. Web.
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Miranda, Carolina A., “How Chicano is it?”, ARTnews. Web.
Patrick, Frank. Readings in Latin American Modern Arts. New York: Yale University Press, 2004.
Scott, John F. Latin American art: ancient to modern. Florida, US: University of Florida, 2000.
1 Patrick Frank, Readings in Latin American Modern Arts (New York: Yale University Press, 2004), 79
2 John F. Scott. Latin American art: ancient to modern. (Florida, US: University of Florida, 2000),203
3 Mary Motian Meadows, “Kahlo as artist, woman, rebel”
4 Mary Motian Meadows, “Kahlo as artist, woman, rebel”
5 Matt S. Meier and Margo Gutierrez, The Mexican American experience: an encyclopedia, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003), 29.
6 Matt S. Meier and Margo Gutierrez, The Mexican American experience: an encyclopedia, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003), 28.
7 Matt S. Meier and Margo Gutierrez, The Mexican American experience: an encyclopedia, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003), 27.
8 Doug Hanson “Chicano art on the move: with its roots in political activism, Chicano art documents the evolution of the Mexican-American experience”. Art Business News.
9 Carlos Callejo , “Chicano art: now and beyond.
10 Carter B. Horsley, “ Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Twentieth-Century Mexican art.
11 Carter B. Horsley, “ Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Twentieth-Century Mexican art.
12 Carter B. Horsley, “ Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Twentieth-Century Mexican art.
13 Carolina A. Miranda, “How Chicano is it?, ARTnews.
14 Carolina A. Miranda, “How Chicano is it?, ARTnews.