As far as I can remember I have been intrigued and inspired by the life and intimate paintings of this Mexican artist. When I was just starting to take some drawing lessons with brilliant teacher Nelly Rojas, my dear friend Os Polo introduced me to Frida. At the time he was working on a big painting about her, mixing poetry and images. I’ve done all the pilgrimage through museums across the world, including the comprehensive exhibition in Tate Modern in 2005; I have sung her songs, read the biographies, saw almost all the films and in my own work, I’ve found constant inspiration in her persona. Just recently, I watched a TV program with Emeli Sande, Frida Kahlo: Under my skin (ITV Player), a very personal approximation to why Frida has been and still is an inspiration for radical life changes. The famous singer confessed that when she decided to give up her career in medicine and embrace music, she got a tattoo of Frida, as a reminder of strength and loyalty to oneself. The TV program is a heart-felt homage and the viewer accompanies this great singer throughout markets and places visited by Frida… (it will be nice to see what emerges from this journey in terms of her music!). I thought that the growing interest toward Frida Kahlo is an auspicious sign for my own interpretation of what Frida means in my life.
Frida in Orange. Acrylic on Canvas. 2011. Beatriz Acevedo.Private Collection
I will focus on the first aspect of Frida’s art: F for Femininity/Feminism/Female Artist/Friendship.
F-Femininity. Perhaps one of the most important legacies of Frida is her approximation to “being a female artist”, by questioning “female” issues such as identity, motherhood, love, passion, identity, but also androginity, authenticity and audacity. In her paintings, Frida uses her own life as the constant topic to be explored. She draws upon the traditional language of self-portrait, previously used by other female artists in history such as Lavinia Fontana, Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) and Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1650). As brilliantly presented by James Hall in his book “The Self Portrait: A Cultural History” (2014), female artists in the XVI century favoured self-portrait as part of a expressive means for self-empowerment, but also, as part of a social trend captured by art. In his words: “The 1630 would see the emergence of a cult of the strong woman, promoted by Queen Marie de Medici of France and her daughter in law Anne of Austria.” Notwithstanding in the case of Artemisia, it seems that her self-portraits are accusatory means against a former collaborator of her father, who raped her (the criminal was tried and convicted) and some of her paintings take the role of Judith, killer of Holorfernes, in a revengeful attempt at exorcising the crime. But apart of this, Artemisia presented painting and the female painter at the centre of a physically demanding activity: she is the maker of her own destiny, her physicality harnesses light and with it she reaches immortality (Hall, 2014).
Three centuries later, Frida drew upon this empowering medium by adding an intimate view of the female psique: this woman is strong, but also fragile, vulnerable, angry. This intimacy, without masking or embellishment, became quite influential in female art, as re-interpreted by contemporary artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Tracy Emin, Sophia Calle and in a more visual way, the erotic/surrealist work of Charmaine Lenisa. The fact that Frida chose to depict raw emotions, pain, disillusion, passion and betrayal, opened a new avenue to explore what is to be a woman, in different moments of history. Indeed, for Frida, being a woman in the shadow of a genial painter, in a very “macho” culture such as the Mexican, was a challenge in itself. How to survive in a culture with an ambiguous consideration of women: virgins or objects (whores)(1)… a view inherited and transformed by the process of hybridisation between a cult to a female Mother Earth (from indigenous cosmogony) with a strong catholic imagery (virgin mary/Virgen de Guadalupe). The concept of hybridisation has been developed by the cultural anthropologist Nestor Garcia-Canclini, in order to explain what results from a process of mestizaje in which two cultures create a third type of culture. He also refers to hybridisation between high art and low art intermingling and the explosion of popular cultural expressions so typical in the Mexican and Latin American life. The result is a new kind of identity, a way of seeing the world that draws from two different cosmogonies, creating a new imagery and expressive art (See Acevedo, B. and Carreira, A.M. 2009).
Another interesting aspect is to understand how female painters, contemporary with Frida Kahlo and associated to the “surrealist” movement, expressed themselves. Andre Breton, one of the main founders of this movement, once said that Frida’s art was like a “time bomb tied with a ribbon”… The art world dominated by men, suddenly seem to welcome women as part of the revolutionary art crusade… no artistic movement since Romanticism has elevated the image of woman to as significant role in the creative life of man as Surrealism did; no group or movement has ever defined such a revolutionary role for her. An no other movement has had such a large number of active women participants, their presence recorded both in the poetry and art of male Surrealists… Yet the actual role, or roles, played by women artists in the Surrealist movement has been more difficult to evaluate, for their own histories have often remained buried under those of male Surrealist who have gained wider public recognition.” (Chadwick, 1985: p. 7). (I will address this in a future blog on Frida and Me: D-for Dreams… ). It is important to remember how the topics of surrealism were explored initially by female artists such as Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Valentine Hugo, Jacqueline Lamba, Dora Maar, Lee Miller, Valentine Penrose and of course Frida Kahlo: dreams, intimacy, play, imagination, sexual liberation and female identity. These topics are also developed by my friend and talented artist Charmaine Lenisa. Her work evokes the erotic and the surreal, the passionate and the ethereal feminine…
Charmaine Lenisa. Pregnatio.
What is really striking, for me, is the opportunity that Frida gives me to explore my own development as an artist. As the reader would have noticed, this new exhibition seems to be a radical departure from the botanical illustrations. Yes, it may look like that, but one must remember that “botanical art” also has been seen as an eminently “feminine” form of art. My homage to Maria Sybillia Merian aimed at revealing the contributions of this amazing illustrator stressing both the beauty of her illustrations and also the important contributions to the world of science and biology of her work. Because as a matter of fact the role of women in western art is rather scarce, not because of the lack of an artistic output, but due to the patriarchal structures dominating most spheres of life. Excluded from the “higher” forms of art, such as the human form, some women turned to nature and still life to express their genius. As argued by Richard Mabey (1985) in his work about the botanic contribution of the Frampton ladies in the eighteenth century:
“women had long had a special relationship with flowering plants. In both Celtic and Anglo Saxon society, for instance, they had responsibility for growing and using curative herbs. In Tudor England they would generally tend the plants in gardens while men cultivated those in the fields. But in none of these periods would the facile suggestion have been made that it was a shared delicacy that made females and flowers such appropriate companions. Yet this was the assumption that underlay even the best intentioned attempts to make botany a useful domestic pastime in the eighteen century.” (p. 6)
Despite this simplistic assumption the reality is that women in England and other European countries took on the gigantic task of documenting the flora of their surroundings and faraway lands, like in the case of Sybillia Merian. By paying homage to these botanic female painters, I aim at stressing both the “beauty” and the “scientific’ of their contribution. Many of the plants that today are used for medicine and other uses were discovered and recorded by female painters. For instance, the work of Beatrix Potter in depicting fungi allowed the discovery of penicillin! My humble mission has been to continue this legacy, in the way of stressing the “feminine” aspects of botanic work, by reminding about these painters and also creating my own way of seeing “Our Garden of Everyday”.
The importance of Frida Kahlo’s work in my own development as an artist lies on her being so close to my heart and identity. Indeed, when I started using acrylics in 2005 the first painting I created was a Frida painting (see below), and from time to time, Frida also appears in my drawings and self-portraits. For me Frida is a sort of ‘comfort painting’, if you like, from time to time she emerged in my drawings, and it is the artist that I confide most of my plans and experiments.
Frida and Flower. 2005. Beatriz Acevedo. Acrylic on Canvas
Another recent example is my recent incursion into oil painting and portraiture. Guided by the great portraitist Lesley Longworth, I started a realistic portrait of Frida, that will be part of this exhibition. Here you will see this work in progress…
Frida and Yellow Flowers.
Oil on Canvas. Beatriz Acevedo. Work in Progress
And finally, F may stand for friendship… as I am just finishing this blog by referring to the many experiments and paths walked with my friends. From my previous blog on Frida, Ana and Me, and the way in which my friends (artists, academic, academic quilters, historians, writers, creators) have influenced me and helped me to develop my art. From the influential friendship with Oz Polo, who encouraged me to paint and to think myself as an artist… to the re-encounter with Latin american friends and the strengthening of our bonds through new projects. Friendship for Frida was a huge part of her life and she will keep long-standing friendships with important artists and actresses of her time: Maria Felix, Tina Modotti, amongst many others. And for me, Frida’s friendship throughout the years is a key companion of my life and my art!
Acevedo, B. and Carreira, A. M. (2010) Hybrid Cities: Practices of Resistance in Urban Development the Case of Medellin-Colombia. In Sonda, G. Coletta, C. and Gabbi, F. Urban Plots, Organizing Cities. Farnham: Ashgate. Pp. 49-66 . PDF available on request.
Mabey, Richard. 1985. The Frampton Flora.
Chadwick, Whitney. 1985. Women in the surrealist art movement. Thames and Hudson.
Hall, J. 2014. The Self Portrait: A Cultural History. Thames and Hudson.
(1) The last book of the great Roberto Bolano titled “2666” denounces the crimes committed against women throughout the Drug Wars of recent years.
MORE ON FRIDA: Frida and Me, R for Religion.