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The Problems of Sexual Identity in the Self-Portraits of Frida Kahlo

  • Journal of History of Modern Art
  • 2003, (15), pp.83-110
  • Publisher : 현대미술사학회
  • Research Area : Arts and Kinesiology > Art > Arts in general > Art History
  • Received : November 30, 2003
  • Accepted : December 31, 2003
  • Published : December 31, 2003

Hea-Ok Cho 1

1홍익대학교

ABSTRACT

Frida Kahlo's self-portraits have been regarded as containing the life of a woman who has to fight against physical and mental pain during her lifetime. Her pain is attributable to the fact that her husband, Diego Rivera, has been constantly unfaithful and that she has been too ill to give birth. Yet her self-portraits do not only delineate a woman's suffering, but a victim's agony. And it cannot be appreciated at an angle of essentialist feminism only. I focused on the fact that Kahlo's self-portraits seemed to ridicule and reject the prescriptions of femininity and to represent the bisexuality in her works. And I also thought that the themes related to maternity should be reinterpreted from a new point of view. Julia Kristeva's theories on sexual identity appear to offer a framework for analyzing these problems. This study is designed to reexamine the established androcentric definition of femininity and to reread her self-portraits on the basis of Kristeva's theories. Chapter Ⅱ covers Kristeva's theories of identity and sexual identity. Kristeva insists that identity and sexual identity are not fixed. It is in the process of continuous 'signifiance' between 'the semiotic' and 'the symbolic'. The latter is related to social order, 'the Law of the father' and language inhibiting oedipal and incestuous desire for mother. On the other hand, the semiotic is related to marginal and oppressed feminine discourse, the pre-Oedipal phase, and the symbiotic relationship between the mother and child. Kristeva looks upon the subject as 'the subject in process/on trial', for the semiotic is not completely repressed by the symbolic, flowing over the boundary and challenging it. Chapter Ⅲ analyzes Kahlo's self-portraits according to Kristeva's theories. First, Kahlo's self-portraits have been read in accordance with conventional ideas on femininity in the androcentric society. But her self-portraits seem to challenge the prescriptions of femininity. For Kristeva, femininity is not inherent. I t is something only regarded as marginal in androcentric society, and it is equipped with 'negativity' and 'rejection', the attributes of the semiotic designed to subvert 'the Symbolic order'. Second, I looked into the expressions of bisexuality represented in Kahle's self-portraits. For Kristeva, the semiotic is bisexual. The semiotic is related to the mother at the pre-Oedipal phase, who cannot be reduced to an example of a biological femininity. The semiotic bears bisexulity, because the difference between femininity and masculinity doesn't exist at the pre-Oedipal phase. The semiotic challenging the authority of the patriarchal symbolic bears bisexulity Therefore, revealing bisexuality causes a crack in repressive gender ideologies dividing femininity and masculinity and imposing an unique identity on each gender. Third, Kahol's self-portraits reject and criticize oppressive ideologies instead of adhering to maternity in a compulsive manner. Images related to maternity can be newly understood through Kristeva's conception of 'abjection'. Kristeva puts much emphasis on the semiotic elements of motherhood. The maternal body is something horrible that threatens the boundaries and orders between the subject and the non-subject. As a result, the Symbolic order tries to suppress and accept the semiotic and abject mother. In spite of the operation of the patriarchal ideology, the maternal semiotic power is not completely repressed. Lastly, Kahle's self-portraits contain 'herethics', which is the ethics of the subject in process, and the characteristics of maternity accepting alterity. Her self-portraits should be not read as depicting women in pain sticking to repressive ideologies, but should shed light on it in terms of the fact that new sexual identity raises an objection to the dichotomy of distinguishing the superior from the inferior and the governing class from the governed class.

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