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Women were depicted in all ages starting from pre-historical till nowadays. However, different artists perceived femininity from various perspectives. The ideal image of women’s beauty depended on the epoch and personal taste of the author. Frida Kahlo is a Mexican painter who is famous for her self-portraits. She has specific view on the womanliness that can be observed in the two works Fulang-Chang and I (1937) and Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940). This essay will analyze these two paintings in the context of Joan Riviere’s essay “Womanliness as a Masquerade”.
The first portrait Fulang-Chang and I depicts Frida with one of her pets. It is the first self-portrait where Kahlo uses a monkey. She kept spider monkeys as pets, and many critics believe that depiction of monkeys symbolizes the children Frida and Diego Rivera were unable to conceive. Later, in her works, she often used animals like parrots or monkeys. Andre Breton during the first exhibition pointed out that Kahlo’s work is rather surrealistic and is “a ribbon around the bomb”. However, the author herself rejected her attitude to surrealism because she was depicting not dreams but realities of her own world. Some people think that Fulang-Chang and I recalls to Renaissance paintings with Madonna and the child. Frida Kahlo depicts not a usual child but a hairy monkey, which adds mystery to the work. Probably no one can firmly assert on the accurate meaning of the painting. Some even suggest that it has a shade of humor, where Frida underlines the similarity between the facial expression of monkey and her own. Not every woman will depict herself with a shadow of moustache and monobrow holding a monkey that associates with the child and therefore is similar to mother. Another interesting fact about the painting Fulang-Chang and I is that it was exhibited along with another exposition of a frame with a mirror inside. One more mysterious detail lies upon the painting. Visitors see themselves in the mirror along with observing the self-portrait of a woman and a monkey connected with a ribbon.
The second work Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair is Frida’s first self-portrait after her divorce with the husband. She depicts herself in male clothes that probably belonged to her husband. She has just cut her hair and holds scissors in her hands. Hair lies everywhere in the painting, and there is a feeling that it lives its own life. The hair looks dead as well as the feelings and marriage of Kahlo. Diego loved her hair very much, and hair is therefore described as a symbol of broken love. Above the painting, there is a part of the lyrics "See, if I loved you, it was for your hair, now you're bald, I don't love you anymore." Emphasizing that her husband does not love her, she cuts off her hair and wears masculine clothes in order to show her independence. The only feminine attribute visible in the painting is earrings. In this painting, Frida does not hide her masculinity but on the contrast underlines all male features. Through self-portraits, the painter expressed her inner feelings and tried to put all the essence of divorce in the image. Without her husband, she does not need to have long hair and be beautiful and womanly. It is also a kind of revenge on the man who loved her hair the most. If she has no hair, there is no point to love her and come back. After several years, however, Frida Kahlo remarried her husband Diego Rivera again.
If to compare these two paintings and try to find some similar motives, the first thing that crosses mind is hair. In the paintings of Frida Kahlo, the presence of hair that the majority of women would prefer to hide is a distinguishing feature and a telling sign that outlines her works among thousands of others. On the Fulang-Chang and I, the representative of hair’s symbolic meaning is a monkey. Monkey is compared to a child because of the resemblance of the posture seen in the depictions of Madonna. Moreover, monkey personifies not conceived children of Diego and Frida. In Mayan and Christian cultures, monkey is also a symbol of the sin. Woman holds a monkey in her hands and her hair, which is a symbol of femininity, is tightened with the monkey’s neck. The ribbon recalls an umbilical that connects mother and fetus. Other representations of hair in the painting are the famous monobrow and slight moustache. White-haired cacti behind the woman often can be seen on the background of Frida’s paintings. The meaning of hair in the work Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair is quite obvious. Cutting of long hair had always been a symbol of great tragedy and loss of beauty. It was also a sign of freedom from men’s authority and meant that there is no point to have long hair for the bellowed. In some cultures, women cut off their hair when their husband died or when they became old and were unable to take care of their hair. Throughout the history, long hair and thick braid was the main gender distinguisher and, as a result, an image of womanliness. The act of total haircut and wearing men’s clothes means both sorrow because of the broken marriage and strength to start an independent life as a human being equal to men.
Joan Riviere in her essay describes the examples of fake womanliness and females wearing masks in order to both manipulate men and look tender and woman-like. Frida Kahlo in her self-portraits wears no mask. As a painter who draws herself, an ordinary woman would have tried to conceal her defects. Nevertheless, Frida is a strong woman who does not pretend weak and wears men’s clothes and short haircut. Without any doubt, she remains a woman and has female features such as slim figure and delicate neck, but she is not ashamed to emphasize masculine details such as moustaches and monobrow. Joan Riviere points out that women often wear masks in front of men to hide the possession of masculinity. For example, a very capable and strong housewife can easily do masculine matters such as carrying heavy things, moving furniture or knocking in a nail. However, when men are near she would pretend weak and unable to carry her packages from the supermarket. Another example can be observed with a plumber or builder who comes to fix something. Woman tries to hide all her technical knowledge and make wild guesses about building techniques that are well known to her. As a result, the relationships between women and men are a sort of play in which women pretend to be helpless and weak. Such behavior of females makes men feel themselves strong and needed, at the same time helping women to capture males attention. Furthermore, women tend to wear even more masks during their everyday life. Not only their natural behavior is hidden under the mask of “a weak woman”, but also their appearance shows the desire to seem better and more beautiful. In fact, makeup is also a kind of mask worn by the overwhelming majority of modern women. A typical man would never “suffer for beauty” like tweeze eyebrows, wearing uncomfortable clothes or shoes on high heels. All these thinks are a kind of masquerade or role-play where women perform their part.
To conclude, the artistic worldview and eccentric style of Frida Kahlo are completely unique and extraordinary. In the two paintings Fulang-Chang and I (1937) and Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), she depicts herself as a powerful personality who does not hide her masculine features and does not wear a mask. Unlike the majority of women who prefer to act the role of weak and helpless beauties in front of men, she is not afraid to throw away all the prejudices. Her first painting is full of mystery and is rather womanly. A monkey as a representative of a child shows the longing for motherhood. However, Frida Kahlo does not depict a usual child, but chooses one of her pets. The second painting underlines the independence and strength of a woman after divorce. She cuts off her hair and wears men’s clothes as a sign of sorrow and new life. Modern women wear plenty of masks every day, whether these masks are in their behavior or appearance. However, Joan Riviere suggests that no one can distinguish between the masquerade and a real nature of a woman. This role is a part of woman and therefore remains inseparable. Thus, if there is no difference between the womanliness and masquerade, social masquerade of women is a genuine womanliness. Frida Kahlo’s works combine both feminine and masculine elements and ruin the stereotype of beauty. The uniqueness of Kahlo is her genuine womanliness that has no masks and pretending. Despite the fact that in her works Frida depicts herself without hiding her defects such as broad shoulders, monobrow and slight moustache, she remains a woman and does not lose her femininity but, furthermore, underlines female features by contrasting them with masculine.
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