Postcolonial Thoughts: Frida Kahlo and Surrealism, part 1

by Christopher Hutchinson


Frida Kahlo was a Mexican Surrealist painter who has achieved international popularity. She typically painted self-portraits using vibrant colours in a style that was influenced by cultures of Mexico as well as influences from European Surrealism. Her self-portraits were often an expression of her life and her pain.


Surrealisms’s love of the exotic

Id, ego, and super-ego are the three parts of the psychic apparatus defined in Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the psyche; they are the three theoretical constructs in terms of whose activity and interaction our mental life is described. According to this model of the psyche, the id is the set of uncoordinated instinctual trends; the super-ego plays the critical and moralizing role; and the ego is the organized, realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the super-ego.[1] The super-ego can stop one from doing certain things that one’s id may want to do.[2],_ego_and_super-egos


Surrealism’s interest in the exotic begins initially with surrealism’s art mission to be the artifacts of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. The exoticism presented in Freud’s Id became surrealist illustrations of the “primitive” from a Western perspective. Initially, accessing the “primitive” was merely a jumping off point, to access the inner psyche that was not so heavily governed by the stifling rules of Western painting. This use of the “primitive” is the second overtly appropriation of Africa from the West within a 20 year span from Picasso’s Cubism/African art. The “primitive” of surrealism is slightly different than the direct appropriation of Picasso. It is cloaked in the entitlement of Freud’s writings. Freud gives the surrealists permission to investigate the “primitive” that lies dormant within all humanity. We just have to access it.

This principle of Freud brings about terrible surrealist works that play on this Id/primitive concept “juxtaposed” its binary, the “norm”. Carefully composed compositions that have a jarring effect simply because object and images are not unified in a linear way. Jamming two things together that doesn’t relate to each other in any way is not an exploration. It is not a development of an aesthetic. It is at best a one-liner never to be thought of again, at its worst the work just gets swallowed up in the litany of icons like the yin and yang, tragedy and comedy symbols, and it leads ultimately boring work. It is amazing that this juxtaposition method still exists.

This photograph of Kiki de Montparnasse’s head next to an African ceremonial mask bears a title that references both the black and white process of photography as well as skin color. It was created at a time when African art and culture was much in vogue. The oval faces of the two almost look identical in their serene expressions, but he contrasts her soft pale face with the shiny black mask. He simplifies the conflict of society into a problem of lighting and imagery in aesthetics – one oval next to another oval; one laying on its side contrasted with another that is erect; one lit from above and the other from the side


Is Frida Khalo’s exotic inclusion to surrealism valid?


Adjective 1. of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized or acclimatized: exotic foods; exotic plants. 2. strikingly unusual or strange in effect or appearance: an exotic hairstyle. 3. of a uniquely new or experimental nature: The flower show included several tropical exotics with showy blooms.

The surrealist intentionally tried to be as exotic as possible as an indicator of their Id/primitive quality. Is Frida Kahlo purposefully attempting to be exotic? Is her every day dress a costume? Is she exotic to herself? Of course not. What has occurred here is not unique by any means to Western history. Kahlo is forcefully adopted into a vernacular that is not her own, yet she still paints honestly.   Kahlo is not just jamming things together and hoping they create something new.


As with all Western discoveries, the indigenous contribution is eliminated, leaving just a whisper of a name in reference to its origins.   This forceful adoption into surrealism negates Kahlo’s actual contribution to painting. It negates her conscious choices as an artist. It negates Mexico’s ability to produce such an artist of equal standing responding to her time. It not only negates; it also validates the West’s investigation into the primitive.

Kahlo becomes proof that this Western surrealist investigation into the Id/primitive is an unbiased valid pursuit by the West. The desperate stretch to include her in such a dialogue is obvious when one considers Salvador Dali as one of the premier surrealists. Kahlo is Not Dali. Mexicans are not Spaniards. If the goal were truly to unleash the Id/primitive why wouldn’t surrealists look to African art and artists? Dali tried everything outlandish to connect with that Id/primitive by dressing and consuming the exotic. When Dali dresses up, it is a costume. Most of the surrealist artists do not succeed in more than an illustration of the Id/primitive, which in fact is ego, not Id, and sometimes especially in Dali’s work, super-ego. They do not achieve an actual connection to Id. Dali did his best to calculate and present the Id/primitive from a super-ego viewpoint.


Kahlo’s paintings are a reflection of an honest narrative. She has a direct relationship with every image and object in her pieces. These objects are not juxtaposed to have psychoanalytical discussions; often times these objects are images that are needed at the moment. Including Kahlo into the canon of surrealism suggests her imagery and objects are random thoughts, playing out a clever Freudian dreamlike state.



The stretch to tie Kahlo’s work to surrealism has more to do with using the indigenous to validate Western academia. It is a continuation of a foundation laid in romanticism’s Death of general wolfe. Benjamin West’s general has an indigenous native placed to witness and give credence to West’s good nature. The native sits beneath in a solemn respect his place not equal to the general slightly lower and of little concern.

When Kahlo is forcefully adopted into a surrealist dialogue, she actually becomes the exotic native in The death of general wolfe. Kahlo placed at the feet of surrealism only to prove its good nature, slightly lower. Once she is placed in the context of surrealism, it prevents a real analysis of her work. Kahlo’s work is honest; surrealists don’t care about honesty.


Christopher HutchinsonChristopher Hutchinson is an accomplished Jamaican conceptual artist, professor and contributor to the art community as a writer, critic and founder of the nonprofit Smoke School of Art. He is a Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan State College and has been featured as a lecturer including prestigious engagements at University of Alabama and the Auburn Avenue Research Library. For two decades, Chris has been a practicing artist. His works have been exhibited in internationally recognized institutions including City College New York (CUNY) and featured at the world’s leading international galleries such as Art Basel Miami. He has always had an innate passion for creating spaces where Africans and people of African descent contribute to an inclusive contemporary dialogue—ever evolving, not reflexive but pioneering. This requires challenging the rubric of the canon of art history, a systemic space of exclusion for the Other: women and non-Whites, and where necessary he rewrites it. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of Art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama.


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Categories: Art, Postcolonial Thoughts, Writing


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