What is surrealism?
The word surrealism by definition means bizzare or having the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream. Surrealism is often regarded as one of the most influential cultural, artistic and literary movements of the 20th century. Surrealism emerged from the fall of Dadaism, at the end of World War I. André Breton officially began the movement through his written work, ‘surrealist manifesto’ in 1924, and thus is often referred to as the ‘Pope of Surrealism’.
The artistic and literary movement started off in Paris however it was quickly accepted and practiced across the globe. Artists in the movement painted dream-like sequences, illogical scenes and allowed their brains to explore the unconscious. The surrealist movement itself was dedicated to ‘expressing the imagination as revealed in dreams, free of the conscious control of reason and convention’.
There are 2 forms of surrealism-
There are two forms of surrealism-
Automatism- which explores the artists’ subconscious and lacks form and
Veristic surrealism- which consists of both form and meaning.
Frida Kahlo conforms to the veristic style of surrealism, but, is she even a surrealist artist?
Most people consider her to be a surrealist, however evidence suggests otherwise.
One very famous surrealist artist is Rene Magritte, who’s simplistic but strange art conforms to the veristic style, and can be compare with Frida Kahlo’s art.
‘The Son of Man’
Rene Magritte’s ‘The son of man’ is one of the most widely recognised painting that emerged from the surrealist movement. At first glance, it seems like a simple self-portrait of a man whose face is largely obscured by a floating apple. The man is seen standing before a sea wall, dressed in a suit and tie and a bowling hat, making him noticeably overdressed for the occasion.
The man’s left elbow faces the wrong way and the third button of his coat being left undone.
Several people interpret this as Magritte acknowledging how people attempt to decipher the meanings of his works and thus attempt to understand him.
When asked about the artwork, Rene said ‘Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”
This painting makes the audience feel intrigued and frustrated about the obscured face. Several of his other artworks involve similar themes and motifs, with men wearing bowler hats and having their faces obscured.
The overall of meaning of the portrait is difficult to decipher and can be interpreted in several different ways. It is often described as bizarre and unnatural, fitting the criteria for a ‘surreal painting’.
The title of the painting ‘Time Transfixed’ literally translates from French to mean “ongoing time stabbed by a dagger.” It was purchased by private art collector Edward James. The painting was intended to be placed at the base of the staircase, so the train would ‘stab’ people on their way up. The train is depicted moving rapidly, in the middle of a deserted living room, which is an example of a classic surrealism techniques that involve placing two things that do not normally belong together and making an object (the train) smaller than it would ever be in real life.
Without the train, the painting would appear fairly normal, thus adhering to the French title that he preferred.
The painting disorients the viewer from what they’re familiar with, creating a surreal effect.
‘Self-portrait with cropped hair’
Frida Kahlo’s ‘Self-portrait with cropped hair’ painted in 1940 was her first self-portrait after the divorce from her husband Diego Rivera.
She sits on a stool in what appears to be a vast, empty land, surrounded by chunks of her long hair that has been cut off. The hair on the ground resemble snakes, as they appear to have lives of their own. In her right hand she is depicted holding a pair of scissors, and in her left hand she clutches a singular lock of her hair.
Diego had admired her long, dark hair, therefore she cut it all off to represent her desire for freedom and independence. She also replaces her feminine, traditional Mexican dress that she usually wore in her self portraits with a dark, oversized suit, most-likely that of her ex-husband. The suit is extremely similar to the one worn by Diego in her painting “Frida and Diego Rivera’, painted in 1931 when they were together.
It uses rebatment and the golden triangle to draw our eyes to her and her hair at the bottom of the canvas. However, there is text atop of the canvas which are the lyrics from a famous Mexican song during the time the portrait was painted. The lyrics translate to “See, if I loved you, it was for your hair, now you’re bald, I don’t love you anymore.” Contributing more to exemplify her toxic and superficial relationship with her then ex-husband.
As seen through this painting and some of her other paintings, while married Frida was more in touch with her traditions and her ‘Mexican-side’, however when divorced she conformed more to the western side, as proven by her suit.
Overall in the painting she depicts a ‘masculine’ image, contradictory to most her self portraits showing her femininity. However, she still wears dangling earrings and dainty heeled shows, depicting how she now fulfils both the roles from her marriage and how she was now self-reliant.
The painting reflects her emotions she felt at the time of and after her divorce, with nothing outstanding, bizarre or ‘surreal’ being shown.
Without hope was painted during another difficult time in Frida Kahlo’s life. The mid 40s were a period in her life where her health deteriorated- her back problems had worsened to a point where she could no longer sit or stand comfortably. Her back surgery in New York, 1945 was a failure. She painted several paintings at this time such as the Broken Column, The Wounded Deer and Without Hope – all of which represent her declining health.
Without hope depicts Frida’s loss of appetite due to her various illnesses and surgeries. Her doctors recommended complete bed rest and a strict diet, which she visualises to her frail, weak body being tightly tucked into her bed, while a wooden canvas used for holding her paintings now held a funnel, which continuously force-fed her ‘meals’ that appear almost inedible.
The skull placed atop her ‘diet’ could either represent how she would inevitably have to face death soon, or it could be a sugar skull, whose presence also fails to make her diet look appetising.
The blanked pinning her down feature microscopic life which is interpreted as the bacteria and diseases that constantly invade her and make her health worse.
She is placed in a rocky land, potentially resembling her ‘rocky’ condition. The sun and the moon in the background, accompanied with the barren land may represent how she had to face her struggles all alone, both day and night.
The painting overall gives a sense of sorrow and hopelessness, hence the name.
Overall, although both artists have form and use symbolism to convey meaning, Frida Kahlo’s art is used to portray her personal life struggles- all of which is a reality to her and features nothing whimsical or dream-like, as opposed to Rene Magritte’s obviously surreal artwork.
Frida Kahlo also largely rejected labels. She often said and wrote in her diary her frustrations and despite Andre Breton’s claims, did not consider herself to be a surrealist.
Frida Kahlo didn’t paint dream-like sequences, instead painted issues that were very real and personal to her. Moreover, she herself did not wish to conform to any label or even consider herself to be a surrealist. Therefore, she is not a surrealist artist.