Aztec Symbolism In Frida Kahlo Artwork
When analyzing the work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, the discourse often centers around the harrowing iconography of her Mexican heritage used to paint herself and her pain.
This pain became an integral part of Kahlo’s life after, at age 18, a streetcar accident left her partially paralyzed. From then on, she underwent a series of operations and, because of her severely injured pelvis, several miscarriages and abortions.
How Has Frida Kahlo’s Art Been Interpreted?
Her physical disabilities never inhibited Kahlo’s flair for theatrics. This, combined with a turbulent relationship with her husband, mural painter Diego Rivera, established her as a tragically romantic figure.
As a result, Kahlo’s work has been exhaustively psychoanalyzed and frequently whitewashed of its bloody, brutal, and overtly political content.
Kahlo’s pain should not eclipse her commitment to Mexico and the Mexican people. As she sought her roots, she also voiced concern for her country as it struggled for an independent cultural identity.
Examples of Imagery
Kahlo expressed her deeply felt nationalism in art by favoring the representation of the powerful pre-Columbian society that had united a large area of her contemporary age Mexico.
Thus the skeleton, hearts, and Coatlicue, images relating to the emanation of light from darkness and life from death, speak not only to Kahlo’s struggle for health and vitality but to a nation’s struggle. These symbols draw from Aztec iconography — a collection of symbols imbued with culturally understood meaning.
It is this intense interest in her homeland that’s behind her transformation into a mythological or cult figure of the Mexican people and art history as a whole.
The importance of the heart can be traced through the folkloric representation of bleeding hearts in Aztec and Mexican art.
The wounded heart with drops of blood, which frequently appears in Aztec art, is shown in the Two Fridas (1939). The Aztec heart is commonly associated with where the soul connects with the body, considered an ultimate point of consciousness. This paired with the iconography of a bleeding heart in Aztec imagery presents a new dilemma for this space of consciousness.
One Frida wears a tehuana dress, the other a white lace European-style dress. The two women are united by hands and hearts. Like a cord, an artery reaches from one heart to another, joining the two cultures.
Although Kahlo’s frequent and explicit use of the heart may also allude to her own emotional and physical suffering, the indigenous cultural source of these symbols cannot be overlooked.
The skeleton, another symbol in Aztec art, is also found throughout Kahlo’s work.
An example of this is Four Inhabitants of Mexico (1938). In this painting, Kahlo’s four inhabitants — a child, a Nayarit (western Mexican) idol with broken feet, a skeleton, and a large Mexican man wrapped in cords and dynamite — are in the immediate foreground.
In Aztec symbolism, the skeleton is not inherently tied to the concept of death but rather of a reborn life. Skeletal goddesses, usually carved in greenstone, are frequently found among Aztec artifacts.
Therefore Kahlo’s paintings of the skeletal figure and death can be understood in relation to the iconography in Aztec work. We can then begin to interpret the use of skeletons in Kahlo’s paintings as not bleak and depressive but as a rebirth, maybe referring to the rebirth of her country as a proud Mexican communist, or personally, with needing to adapt to her new way of life after her accident.
Coatlicue & Aztec Culture
Coatlicue, the Aztec mother of gods, as a symbol is significant in a number of Kahlo’s self-portraits.
The most notable is in Self Portrait WIth Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940). Kahlo’s thorn necklace draws blood from her neck. This aligns with the imagery of Coatlicue, who is historically depicted with a bleeding neck. In this example, Kahlo is deeming herself on an equal level as the Mother of Gods in her beloved Aztec culture.
This could be interpreted as her commenting on her status at the time as one of the more successful women artists at the time. It could also be used to reinforce her ties to her indigenous culture, which is so overshadowed by the post-colonial Mexican identity bestowed upon her by critics.
Modernity Meets Tradition
Kahlo’s paintings have an inherent fascination with the life and death cycle but also refer to the present and modernity in her portraits.
In They Ask For Planes and Only Get Straw Wings (1938), a traditionally dressed Mexican woman is held up by an unseen force that has attached puppet strings to her straw wings. The painting may suggest modernization for Mexico, but not at the expense of cultural identity. Modernity and cultural nationalism often clash in Khalo’s work where we see her try to interlay the references to Mexican culture with elements of post-revolutionary Mexico.
How Were Frida’s Motifs Developed?
Frida Kahlo grew up in the wake of the Mexican Revolution and reached maturity when indigeneity and Mexicanidad, or pride of being Mexican and Mexican culture, were vital forces in her country. We should expect to find direct references to romantic nationalism in her work. And since she was a political person, being a proud member of the Mexican communist party, we should expect to find her politics reflected in her art.
Mexican nationalism, with its anti-Spanish anti-imperialisms, identified the Aztecs as the last independent rulers of an indigenous political unit.
Kahlo’s particular form of Mexicanidad in her art is a romantic nationalism that focuses upon traditional art and artifacts uniting all who closely identify with their indigenous people–regardless of their political stances.
The Intense interest in her homeland and her use of the indigenous Aztec art for themes and symbols makes Frida Kahlo’s art both a political message and a cultural display. She painted herself and her country Mexico and did so in a way to be understood by the people. Still, today these themes can resonate, and it is liberating to view Frida as not just an artist or a martyr for her art but as a committed third-world nationalist.