The Intimacy of Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portraits: A Video Essay

“Cul­ture has come to prize this qual­i­ty in cre­ative work: the abil­i­ty to grab peo­ple quick­ly,” and “above pret­ty much any­thing else” at that. So says Evan Puschak, who should know: as the Nerd­writer, he runs a pop­u­lar epony­mous chan­nel on Youtube, where every­thing depends on get­ting and hold­ing the view­er’s increas­ing­ly fleet­ing atten­tion. Even under such pres­sures, Puschak has man­aged to main­tain one of the most thought­ful cul­tur­al chan­nels around, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for its video essays on every­thing from the films of Jean-Luc Godard to the paint­ings of Edward Hop­per to the music of Fleet­wood Mac.

But it is Fri­da Kahlo whom the Nerd­writer cred­its as a mas­ter manip­u­la­tor of audi­ence atten­tion. “Yes, there’s a sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic obses­sion with the dra­ma of her life, but that would­n’t arouse near­ly as much inter­est if it weren’t for the dra­ma of her art — which is also sen­sa­tion­al, but in the good way.”

The sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic qual­i­ty of Kahlo’s paint­ings owes to the “inti­ma­cy of the images” they depict, espe­cial­ly when they com­mu­ni­cate “her vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, her phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al pain, but also her defi­ance and self-con­fi­dence, and the pride she so clear­ly has in her cul­ture.” This comes through with spe­cial clar­i­ty in the self-por­traits she cre­at­ed quite pro­lif­i­cal­ly, and in so doing defined her­self as well as the new 20th-cen­tu­ry Mex­i­can cul­ture with which she came of age.

“I real­ly, real­ly hes­i­tate to bring up the word self­ie,” says Puschak, but “inso­much as her self-por­traits are always simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a record­ing and a per­for­mance of iden­ti­ty, they’re bound to be relat­able to mod­ern audi­ences.” In the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry dur­ing which Kahlo lived, paint­ing was a rel­a­tive­ly effi­cient way to pro­duce images of one­self. Today, many of us do it dozens of times a day, at the touch of a but­ton, mar­shal­ing few artis­tic resources in the process. But if self­ies lack the impact of Kahlo’s self-por­traits, it may owe to the iron­ic rea­son that the self­ies look too good. Kahlo’s paint­ing “has a bit of an ama­teur­ish qual­i­ty to it, in its flat­ten­ing of depth and skewed per­spec­tives and anato­my.” But she used that style on pur­pose, pay­ing homage to the folk art of her home­land and also mak­ing you feel as if “some­one you know” paint­ed these works. Puschak, who refers to her on a first-name basis, seem­ing­ly feels that way; but then, he’s far from the only Fri­da fan to do so.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Brief Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Life and Work of Fri­da Kahlo

What the Icon­ic Paint­ing The Two Fridas Actu­al­ly Tells Us About Fri­da Kahlo

Vis­it the Largest Col­lec­tion of Fri­da Kahlo’s Work Ever Assem­bled: 800 Arti­facts from 33 Muse­ums, All Free Online

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Fri­da Kahlo’s Blue House Free Online

Dis­cov­er Fri­da Kahlo’s Wild­ly Illus­trat­ed Diary: It Chron­i­cled the Last 10 Years of Her Life, and Then Got Locked Away for Decades

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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