The Exploration of Identity through Self-Portraiture by Raymond Roca

The exploration of identity, a concept central to the human condition and sense of self, has been a theme that has resurfaced repeatedly throughout the history of art, with artists often using their works as a key means of expressing their complex identities to their audiences. After being restrained by the abstractionist, formalist tendencies of modernism, the relationship between art and identity has become increasingly significant during the postmodern era, in a context of growing multiculturalism, post-colonialism, feminism and civil rights. One of the most important ways in which artists have articulated their identities through their works has been self-portraiture, which has enabled the expression of the artist’s personal identity, as well as of collective identities relating to gender, culture and sexual orientation. Three artists whose practice has centred on the expression of identity through self-portraiture are Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura. Due to changes in their context, however, each of these artists has approached this genre in different ways and has utilised it to focus on different aspects of their identity.

Frida Kahlo, born in 1907, was a Mexican artist who painted mainly from the 1920s until her death in 1954, and is best known for her self-portraits. Her artistic practice was profoundly shaped by a traffic accident in 1925, which left her heavily injured, unable to walk properly and in periods of extreme pain throughout the rest of her life. Although influenced by surrealism, Kahlo refused to categorise her work, instead stating that, “[unlike surrealism], I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” Indeed, Kahlo’s sixty-six self-portraits can be seen as intense and personal explorations of her post-accident reality, as well as of her complex, multifaceted identity, influenced not only by her accident but also by her heritage and gender.

One of the best examples of Kahlo’s self-portraiture is The Broken Column painted in 1944, which reveals how the artist perceived herself, and hence offers an insight into her personal identity. The painting presents Kahlo’s nude body divided into two by a broken classical column, representing her accident-fractured spine. The compositional centrality of her spine, which is separated from the rest of the body by open flesh, alludes to more than just her spinal injury, instead conveying her personal perception of herself as disabled and fractured, both physically and emotionally. Her mental anguish at her state is also alluded to by the numerous nails which puncture her skin, acting as symbols of her intense pain, as well as the tight leather braces which hold her body together. These braces signify her entrapment as a result of her injury, which rendered her unable to walk for several years, and unable to engage in several social activities. Additionally, the fact that she is surrounded by a barren landscape transmits to the audience her sense of emotional isolation, while also accentuating her own figure in the frame and thus augmenting the importance of her “broken” body to her sense of self. In fact, it is evident from her work, but also from her own admissions, that Kahlo did not see herself as simply injured, but rather as “broken” in a more profound way; she once stated in an interview with Time Magazine that, “I am not sick. I am broken”. Kahlo hence uses The Broken Column to highlight that her disability, and the resulting physical, mental and social consequences of it, in many ways defined her sense of self and her personal identity.

Another work which explores Kahlo’s personal identity is Henry Ford Hospital , which was painted in 1932 and where she confrontingly portrays herself lying on a bed in a pool of blood, after going through her second miscarriage. Described by the American critic John Woodcock as “the frankest work of this famous self-portraitist”, the theme of her disability is again central to the work, considering that her accident gravely reduced her chances of having a child, even though she desperately desired one. Once again, Kahlo depicts herself as isolated, connected only to a foetus which she desires but knows is impossible to possess. In this painting, the artist thus conveys to the audience her concern and preoccupation with her persistent miscarriages, and the contribution this had to her personal identity as a female unable to have a child.

Aside from her intimate personal identity, Kahlo is also well-known for depicting her cultural and gender identity through her self-portraits. According to the critic Richard Dorment, it is this quality of “exploring every aspect of her identity” that has enabled Frida to become “the most important female artist of the 20th century”. The art historian Amie Gillingham also argues this view in her essay Frida Kahlo: Identity/Duality, where she states that, “Although Kahlo’s work is intensely autobiographical on the surface… her work was able to transcend the personal to have political and national relevance”, and thus be more universal in its focus. One of the elements most visible from Kahlo’s art practice was her concern with her mixed heritage and cultural identity, which was half-European and half-indigenous. This is explored in a variety of self-portraits, two notable examples of which are The Two Fridas and My Wet Nurse and I . In The Two Fridas, Kahlo depicts the division between her European self, on the left and clad in a white colonial dress, and her Mexican self, on the right and clothed in a traditional tehuana costume. In this way, she expresses her identity as a product of two cultures, which are separate, suggested by the painting almost to be opposites, yet connected by the delicate artery which runs from her European heart to her Mexican heart.

My Wet Nurse and I also deals with the idea of Kahlo’s composite cultural identity, and emphasises the importance of her indigenous Mexican heritage. In this work, a weak, helpless Frida, European by the appearance of her dress, is nourished by a wet nurse wearing an Aztec mask, an allusion to Mexico’s Amerindian heritage. Through the metaphor of the nurse, Kahlo seeks to convey the maternal and nurturing influence that Mexican culture had upon her. Unlike in The Two Fridas, where the two halves of her culture are shown on an equal standing, My Wet Nurse and I likens the relationship between her Mexican and European ancestries to that between mother and daughter, or nurturer and nurtured, suggesting her belief that indigenous culture was of key importance in strengthening and developing her sense of identity, as opposed to European culture, which is portrayed as inferior in strength and in need of support. The nurse can also be interpreted as an image of Frida’s Mexican self, providing strength and sustenance to a European self which she always perceived as weaker, particularly after her accident. Additionally, in several other later paintings by her, she is often portrayed in a national Tehuana dress, further showcasing the importance of Mexican culture in the formation of her identity.

Kahlo’s complex exploration of her cultural identity has often been attributed by critics to the “identity problems inherent in a mixed heritage… in being a first generation mestiza”, as Amie Gillingham argues. In many ways, however, Kahlo not only reflected her own composite cultural identity through her works, but rather the collective identity of a nation which, in the context of post-colonialism, was still trying to find its cultural place in the world. As Richard Dorment argues, “Kahlo turned herself into a symbol of Mexico itself, a country whose identity was divided between its indigenous Indian heritage and the equally powerful Spanish colonial presence.” It is also important to note that Kahlo painted in a time when Mexican culture was increasingly inspiring itself from its indigenous heritage and trying to distance itself from its colonial European past. This context may explain Kahlo’s preoccupation for her Mexican identity and the somewhat negative portrayals of her European identity in works such as My Wet Nurse and I.

A third aspect of identity which Kahlo has articulated in her works, and which has become increasingly studied by postmodern critics, is her gender. Although Kahlo cannot be classified as a feminist artist, some of her self-portraits exhibit feminist concerns and reflect the female component of her identity and the way she perceived this. One such work is Frida and Diego Rivera (Plate 5), painted in 1931, where she portrays herself alongside her husband, with whom she had a tumultuous relationship that included several separations and a divorce. In this painting, Frida is presented as weak and somewhat submissive: she is not only standing behind Rivera, but the size differential between him and her is exaggerated to make him appear dominant in the frame. In this way, Kahlo is alluding to the traditional female identity of her social context, and the way in which this identity was often projected upon her by others, who considered her to be “the wife of a great artist” rather than a mature practitioner on her own. This view is supported by the art historian and critic Edward Lucie-Smith, who argues that, despite her talent, Frida was viewed condescendingly at the time, as the “gifted but semi-amateur painter-wife of Diego Rivera”. Interpreted in another way, however, this painting could also convey the importance of Diego to Frida’s own identity, particularly considering that the work was finished in 1931, when their relationship problems had not yet intensified.

In her later paintings, Kahlo tends to be significantly more subversive of gender stereotypes, thus elucidating her own view of her feminine identity. The majority of her self-portraits, for example, focus on her own figure, often dominant in the frame and thus constructing a female who, despite the struggles she experiences and depicts, is independent and in control of her own identity. Her perception of herself as a strong female going against traditional gender roles is also hinted at by her repeated portrayal in the tehuana costume, which, aside from its nationalistic connotations, also makes reference to the indigenous women of the Tehuantepec region, who were known for their courage and their indomitable nature. Furthermore, in what is nowadays an iconic symbol of her practice, nearly all of her self-portraits depict her with thick eyebrows joined together at the bridge of the nose, and facial hair above her lip. In a way that is more akin to postmodernism, Kahlo hence seeks to subvert the traditional female identity of that time, and instead express her own perception of her femininity and gender identity.

Frida Kahlo’s works became increasingly well-known and critically appreciated in the 1970s and 1980s, decades after her death and mainly in the context of postmodernism and feminist art. Several second-wave feminist artists and critics interpreted Kahlo’s works as an attestation to the physical and emotional pain of the female experience, and she thus gained the status of role model in much of the feminist art world. According to the critic and commentator Joy Press, “Frida Kahlo was the perfect feminist heroine for the 1980s”, particularly due the representation of her identity through self-portraiture and the way in which she often subverted gender stereotypes, both of which were also key aims of the second-wave feminist artists. The “Kahlo cult”, as Press calls it, was augmented by the 1983 release of Hayden Herrera’s biography of the artist, titled Frida, which led to several artists finding inspiration in Kahlo’s works.

One notable example of an artist whose practice is similar to and arguably inspired by Kahlo is Cindy Sherman, an American artist who is also preoccupied with self-portraiture, female self-representation and the collective identity of her gender. Sherman, however, approaches the exploration of identity through self-portraiture from a different angle, recontextualising it to fit in with the postmodern paradigms of her time. She works, for instance, in new media, particularly photography and video, and the vast majority of her works are staged and role-played, often appropriating other representations of women in order to highlight social stereotypes. Unlike Kahlo’s works, which are generally deeply personal, Sherman does not seek to explore her individual identity, but is rather concerned with the collective identity and representation of females (the way they self-perceive and are perceived by others).

Perhaps Sherman’s best-known works are her Untitled Film Stills series, which were created between 1977 and 1980 and which feature the artist posing in sixty-nine photographs reminiscent of Hollywood movie scenes at that time. In each of the film stills, Sherman is never herself, but rather plays the role of different female characters. In this way, she explores the various stereotypes which construct society’s perceptions of female identity, particularly in the media, claiming that she only concluded the series when she “ran out of clichés”. In Untitled Film Still #35 , for example, the artist plays the middle-aged housewife, subjected to a life of boredom and tedium as a result of her gender role. Untitled Film Still #15 presents a young woman gazing out of the window, her naked thighs and pose working together to create a sexualised portrayal of the female. Untitled Film Still #21 explores yet another identity stereotype, namely that of the young and confused female office worker, featuring copious amounts of makeup and gazing towards the metaphorical glass ceiling, uncertain of her future in a patriarchal world. By presenting females in their stereotypical roles, Sherman thus invites the audience to question the applicability of these roles, and whether female identity can adequately be defined in such narrow terms. Additionally, as the curator and designer Michael Douma argues, “her work encourages self-reflection in the spectator”, provoking female audiences to question their own identities in relation to the stereotypes presented. According to the artist herself, “part of the idea [of her works] is to get the audience to question their preconceived ideas about women, sex – things like that”.

Even though Sherman’s representation of female identity is intentionally-stereotypical, her work also conveys, subtly, a concern for feminine power and resilience. Despite the circumstances and struggles they are faced with, and the stereotypical identities projected upon them, her compositions are constructed in such a way that they maintain a sense of dignity. In Untitled Film Stills #35 and #21, for example, the artist captures herself from a low-angle shot, placing her in a position of strength and superiority. In Untitled Film Still #35, this is augmented by the determined glance and stance of the woman, who is presented almost as a female heroine, defiant in the face of her patriarchally-imposed role of housewife and the symbolically-begrimed room she is contained in. An alternative interpretation of Sherman’s film stills is also provided by Michael Douma, who argues that, when viewed as a whole, the work subverts the idea of a single, archetypal female identity simply because of the diversity of the artist’s portrayals, where “women adopt several roles and identities depending on their circumstances”. In this way, Sherman’s work can be seen as a manifestation of the complex and multifaceted nature of female identity.

Sherman’s later works, produced in the mid- to late-1980s, are also of key importance in understanding the ways in which she explored female identity. In Untitled #193 , which is part of her series titled “History Portraits/Old Masters”, Sherman appropriates the painterly style and use of light of classical paintings, returning to the subject of the classical reclining female but giving it new meaning through recontextualisation. By recontextualising the reclining female as her own self-portrait, Sherman seeks to accentuate the inappropriateness of such traditional representations and identities of women in a contemporary, postmodern context, where the portrait appears to be anachronistic and almost humorous.

Cindy Sherman, as well as other feminist artists, are often seen as the forerunners of postmodern identity art, with other minority or disadvantaged groups, such as ethnic and LGBT communities, inspiring themselves from feminist art practice in order to visually-represent their own collective identities. In particular, a connection can be made between the art practices of Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura, a Japanese appropriation artist who similarly makes use of photographic self-portraiture by placing himself into several staged roles in order to represent identity stereotypes and then question their applicability. Unlike Sherman’s feminist concerns, however, Morimura utilises the self-portrait to explore issues of cultural identity in a globalised world, as well as his own sexual and gender identity.

One of the best examples of Morimura’s concern with cross-cultural identity is After Brigitte Bardot 2 , which was completed in 1996 and is part of his Self-portrait (actress) series. In this composition, Morimura appropriates himself into the figure of Brigitte Bardot, an archetype of American popular culture, who is depicted standing on a Harley Davidson motorbike, similarly valued in the American identity. The image, however, is removed from its natural context and instead placed into a stereotypical streetscape of downtown Osaka, Morimura’s native city. The resulting juxtaposition between Western and Eastern culture seeks to subvert the idea that identity can be defined in terms of national icons, such as the Bardots and Harley Davidsons of the USA and the narrow neon-lined streets of Japan. Rather, Morimura’s Bardot possesses a more complex, hybrid identity, augmented by the fact that she is played by an Asian male (the artist himself) while being quintessentially Western in terms of dress and cultural association. Consequently, the artist proposes that, in the current context of globalisation and transculturation, identity should be perceived as a composite of multiple identities, rather than as a single entity. When read from a post-colonial perspective, the work can also be seen as an articulation of Morimura’s Eastern identity and its increasingly important role in world culture. In this way, the recontextualisation of Bardot into a context where Eastern identity is normative represents a “reverse colonial conquest of the East over the West”, as critic Margaret Marsh puts it.

Morimura also explores identity through his appropriations of classical works, which are remarkably similar in technique to Sherman’s “History Portraits/Old Masters” series. In these photographs, the artist draws inspiration from well-known classical and early modernist painters but gives their works entirely new meanings by placing himself in the role of all of the subjects. A significant example of this is Portrait (Futago), an appropriation of Manet’s Olympia, where Morimura plays both the reclining nude and the black maid. Even though it is evident that Morimura’s personal identity is represented by neither of the two figures, his placement into their roles once again rejects the idea that identity is absolute or unitary, rather presenting it as fluid and ambiguous in nature. The work can also be seen as an example of post-ethnicism, considering that the work’s Morimura is at once Asian, white and black, and by representing himself as all ethnicities, he almost does away with the idea of ethnicity as a basis for distinct identity in the first place, or at least suggests that ethnicity is not a major component of his own personal identity.

Portrait (Futago) reveals yet another layer of identity when read in an LGBT context. Morimura’s choice to portray himself as female in his self-portrait, achieved through crossdressing, challenges the notion of fixed, binary gender roles and instead constructs a more elastic gender identity. He thus provokes the audience to not only consider what constitutes distinct male and female identities, but also to reflect on the validity of cisgender-normativity in general. In fact, the fusion of male and female characteristics in his figure establishes an indifference for gender-based identity, alluding to a post-genderist view of the world. Alternatively, as a gay artist, Morimura may also be exploring his own sexual orientation through Portrait (Futago), thus revealing another aspect of his identity, or at least identity stereotypes commonly associated with gay people, such as effeminacy.

In the more recent years of his artist practice, Morimura has increasingly found inspiration in the works of Frida Kahlo, appropriating himself into in what he calls his “dialogue” with the Mexican self-portraiteur. In these staged photographs, such as Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (Crown of Thorns) , Morimura once again transcends gender and ethnic boundaries in order to reflect his postmodern view on the fluidity of identity. However, when viewed in the broader context of the artworld and the links between artists, most critics have predominantly read Morimura’s Kahlo series as a tribute to Frida, reflecting his admiration for the artist and acknowledging, as critic John McGee argues, “the power and importance of her artwork”, particularly to the development of identity art and self-portraiture.

By examining the art practices of Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura, it can be seen that all of these artists were concerned with the exploration of identity, both personal and collective, and the use of self-portraiture as a means to achieve this. Even though they lived in different contexts and interpreted identity in different ways, the three artists are significantly linked through the influence they had on one another. Kahlo, who chiefly explored her own, complex identity, had a noteworthy impact on both Sherman and Morimura, in part due to the “Frida cult” that was popularised from the 1970s onwards. Sherman also had an important influence on Morimura’s practice, with both artists working in appropriation and role playing in order to investigate how identity is constructed and represented. In turn, Sherman and Morimura’s practices have given Kahlo’s works new meaning when viewed in a contemporary context, enabling audiences to ascertain how “rich and complex” her art can be, in a “neat example of how the art of the present influences our responses to the art of the past”, according to critic Richard Dorment. This interplay between artists, which is a key component of the artworld, has enabled the art of identity to present an increasingly-sophisticated examination of the human condition and of human societies and the way they perceive themselves and are perceived by others.


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