During Frida Kahlo’s lifetime (and after), many viewers of her art have limited her capabilities and understanding of politics to the minimum by corralling her to the corners of her mind labeled “pain” and “suffering”. Janice Helland, however, brought to light these other thoughts and notions beyond pain and suffering in the form of politics and culture.
In her article “Culture, Politics, and Identity in the Paintings of Frida Kahlo,” Helland states that Kahlo purposefully inserted Aztec symbolism within her paintings to represent her longing for the renewal of pre-Columbian times, a time where Mexico had their own identity and was not controlled by other nations. Also, mentioned by Helland was the constant symbolism linking towards how much Kahlo disliked the United States and preferred her life in Mexico by ten fold. Helland’s article made the reader understand that Kahlo was a woman of great capability in not only her paintings of pain, but in the portrayal of love towards her nation and the sacrifices she was willing to make to have it back.
Pain and nationalism are not the only thoughts and feelings present either, but are the fuel to the fire that led to her political beliefs and turn towards communism. In Kahlo’s painting, What the Water Gave Me (1938), painful, personal, cultural, and political thoughts are present, yet are each interconnected in a way that one set back was the result of another and all thoughts are living together in the tub with her.
On original viewing, one would think that What the Water Gave Me would be a painting strictly created out of the physical sufferings of Kahlo’s trolley accident when she was eighteen, her times as a child with polio, and her diagnosis of spinal bifida when she was twenty-three years old.The symbolism within the painting to support this immediate claim would be substantial enough to give the painting that general label. While Kahlo’s body is submerged in the tub, the viewers can see her toes peeping out of the water with her right toes being disfigured and bleeding. Also, the imagery of the volcano melting and eating down the Empire State building while at the same time bubbling and spewing gangrene could link to the constant surgeries and physical pain forever linked with her right leg and the foreshadowing of her future amputation. Lastly, the one-legged quetzal pierced by a tree could also be a portrayal of Kahlo after her trolley car accident, since she was impaled and her right leg is seemingly useless to her now.However, stopping the analysis there and concluding that the piece was created out of physical pain would not be giving Kahlo the proper credit when the piece is littered with cultural references and longing for rebirth of pre-Columbian times. As Helland pointed out previously in her analysis of Kahlo’s paintings, the inclusion of desert plants and succulents with elongated roots is commonly included in Kahlo’s work which is symbolizes the return to one’s roots and promise of rebirth, her Aztec roots specifically. Rebirth and new life can be found within roots, even the type of plants within the painting, and Kahlo’s roots are strong and unmoving, just like her beliefs in returning to the latest natural state in Mexico. A Tehuana dress, also referenced in Kahlo’s other paintings, is floating alone and away from the woman nearby in the bath who is unclothed, vulnerable, and decaying while seperated from her culture. The quetzal bird is also a reoccurring cultural image within Kahlo’s paintings that represents the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, yet at the same time represents herself as a part of the Aztec culture, with the creature impaled and missing a leg.Portraits of Kahlo’s parents rests in between the plants which connects them to her roots and cultural upbringing. Lastly, the volcano is a representation of Aztec times dominating the current industrial times perceived by Kahlo and explain what her preference is. While both physical pain and cultural influences are within the painting, political and personal influence is what ties the painting together
During the time when Kahlo painted the painting, her relationship with her husband, Diego Rivera was strained by the constant infidelities committed by each other, which is symbolized by the diamond shaped line connecting to the dead woman’s neck in which a man is on the other end of it, pulling. These strings of affairs and Diego’s stubbornness to leave the United States resulted in the man being imaged still on the island in which the Empire State Building is on while the woman is floating in the water, unable to go any further since she is being choked, when all she wants to do is return to her Tehuana dress, her culture. This suppression then leads to dislike towards the United States, which is imaged in the painting with the Empire State building being swallowed up by a volcano. The volcano symbolizes her culture, which in turn dominates the building and expresses her preference. If the volcano and the building try to mix, gangrene starts to spew out to show that both cultures will never be able to mix in her eyes, or at least, she will not be able to live in both areas and call them both home.Frida Kahlo is more than just a painter who paints her physical and emotional pain, but is a painter who paints her pain, culture, political beliefs, and personal struggles. She puts her whole beliefs, life story, cultural love, and thoughts of the United States all in one bath tub. She is more than just a woman who has had a tragic life, but is a political thinker as well. The immense amount of symbolism in just one painting is an
example of her great mind as well as the complexity of some of the symbols and the background information on it, like the Tehuana dress and the Quetzalcoatl. Kahlo would not have stood for being corralled into a corner of pain and suffering expecting pity while she was alive, so why should we start corralling her there now?