Published: June 1, 2001 By

[1]   The objective of this study is to articulate a revisionary reading of Frida Kahlo's "What the Water Has Given Me" ["Lo que el agua me ha dado"1] (1938, Fig. 1), a reading that will argue for the painting's central importance for an understanding of Kahlo's œuvre in general.
 "What the Water Has Given Me" (1938). Paris Collection, Daniel Filipacchi.At the same time, the study's scope moves beyond the confines of strictly art historical considerations in order to suggest that the painting makes an important theoretical contribution to our apprehension of the problematic relationship between gender and cultural nationalism during the postcolonial age. "What the Water Has Given Me" is a striking and yet seemingly hermetic image produced in the middle of Kahlo's most productive period, and it has generally been read within a framework suggested by her ambivalent and short-lived connection with André Breton and Surrealism.2 In proposing a new interpretation of the painting that sets aside the Surrealist thesis (even in its modified form), I argue that Kahlo's self- representation as a bathing viewer gazing at a volcanic eruption on a "tropical island paradise" floating on her bathwater's surface is a highly lucid schematization of her own objectified inscription within the national and transnational cultural politics of post-revolutionary Mexico. Furthermore, this painting also brings together several of Kahlo's most recurrent and important iconographic thematics. Instead of a "landscape of the mind" or a "dreamscape" generically akin to the work of Ernst, Dalí or Tanguy, Kahlo has assembled a set of images (synoptic of several of her life-long concerns) that present a comprehensive self-reflection on her historical circumstances. Revisiting and inverting the locus classicus of woman's visual representation "in the bath," she gazes at the history of her own body's entanglement within the affective violence of post- revolutionary Mexico's national and transnational cultural politics–as well as at the story of her own temporary "rescue" from it.

[2]   In asserting that Kahlo's autobiographical image makes an important theoretical contribution to our apprehension of the relationship between nationalism and gender, I will specifically argue here that her work helps us to see the way in which women who bear the legacies of colonialism3 are entangled in a complicated set of value-laden identifications whose demands they must negotiate as they struggle for social agency in the context of the postcolonial nation state. "What the Water Has Given Me" is relevant to the theoretical and historical discussion that started with the work of Gellner, Hobsbawm, Anderson, Smith, Fanon, Ngugi, Chatterjee, and others, which has sought to make sense of the construction of national culture within the context of "modernity". The painting is especially significant in light of the parallel phase of this discussion that has sought to articulate the problematic place that women occupy within the emergence of the nation state as a dominant structure of social life in both the metropolitan and postcolonial contexts (Rowbotham [1972], Jayawardena [1986] Spivak [1988]; collections edited by Yuval-Davis and Anthias [1989], Alexander and Mohanty [1997], and Kaplan, Alarcon and Moallem[1999] ). By entering into the discussion of culture and nationalism through the lense of gender, this latter body of work has refocused the oppositions that have structured the discussion of revolutionary nationalism thus far; it has taken up the "classic" themes of tradition/modernity, nation/state, public/private, feudalism/capitalism, center/periphery, colonial/postcolonial, etc., and inflected them through the gendered division of labor and psycho-social identity. The aim of this essay is to re-orient the study of Kahlo's painting away from the question of its relationship to Surrealism and toward this emerging body of comparative theoretical and historical work. At the same time that I recognize that much will remain to be said about the details that I will explicate, I argue that Kahlo's image is an eloquent articulation of the way in which women who bear the burdens of the colonial legacy must deal with the demands of an "indigenous" nationalism that itself is always- already caught up in complex transnational representational economies. Within this national/transnational problematic, women struggle simultaneously to counter both (a) the demands of a patriarchy that would cast them in the role of the bearers of traditional "national" meaning4and (b) the objectification of the exogenous gaze that inserts their images in economies of "exoticist" or (more recently) "third worldist" fantasy.5

Staging the Antinomial Spectacle: The Tehuana at Home and Abroad

[3]   My reading of this painting takes as its point of departure the conflict between alternative social roles represented by the two female figures proximate to the yellow tightrope that extends out into the volcanic island's shoals: the strangled, nude Tehuana (a woman native to Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec), whose dress drifts emptily away and the tiny ballerina (an image of the Tehuana's alter ego), who remains balanced on the tightrope behind the entangled corpse. Before proceeding to discuss the details of the painting itself, however, I will make two preliminary points about the symbolic function of Tehuantepec in the Mexican intelligentsia's construction of a post- revolutionary culture, and about the specific way in which the role of the Tehuana was scripted for Kahlo by one of this group's principal figures, Kahlo's husband Diego Rivera.

[4]   As students of Kahlo's life and work know well, Kahlo took up the Tehuantepec costume as a key element of her self-presentation–both in her quotidian dress and in her work.6 Her self-presentation in the costume of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec's Zapotec women was part of a more generalized practice in which urban women who moved in Mexico City's cosmopolitan intellectual and artistic environments identified themselves with Mexico's regional popular cultures.7 While artists-cum-visual- anthropologists like Diego Rivera, Miguel Covarrubias and Gabriel Fernández Ledesma were engaged in the aesthetic and academic valorization of Mexico's various traditions, their wives and intellectual partners Frida Kahlo, Rosa Covarrubias and Isabel Villaseñor served as the visual embodiment of their shared project by assuming traditional dress.8 Within this urban milieu, the Zapotec culture of Tehuantepec's isthmus occupied a significant place. The isthmus was considered a region where post- contact Mesoamerican civilization had escaped some of Spanish imperialism's pathological effects; and the gender conventions that structured economic and sexual relations were believed to have been particularly resistent to the systematic social reorganization undertaken by Ibero-Catholic colonization.9 When Kahlo (or one of her contemporaries) dons the Tehuantepec dress, she alludes to a resilient indigenous tradition where women were believed to have maintained a strong economic and sexual autonomy–in spite of colonial history. This allusion is in turn framed within the project of anti-imperial resistance and national reconstruction.

[5]   As the comparative literature on women and nationalism mentioned above has made increasingly clear, the projection of women on the screen of postcolonial cultural politics as the bearers of a primordial, anti-imperial culture is one of the recurrent motifs of the nationalist project. But what is particularly interesting about this instance of the gendering of national primordialism is the way in which the Tehuana is an example of a specific kind of antinomial tension between the Mexican nation's claims of cultural continuity with pre-contact times, and the exoticizing fantasy of a "tropical Mexico" linked to tourism and the art market. At the same time that the Tehuana functions within a national context as a sign of singularity, resistance, and difference, she circulates "outside" of the national space (by way of transnational aesthetic and tourist communities) according to the familiar codes of exoticist primitivism.10 During the last several years, those who study Mexican/U.S. relations have devoted a growing amount of attention of the circulation of images of Mexico in the United States during the period from the Mexican Revolution to World War II.11This literature has helped us to understand that at the same time that the Mexican intelligentsia were engaged in a project of self-conscious nation-building, their counterparts in the United States found the newly-revolutionary nation to be a source of pre-modern fantasy. "Mexico" became a kind of refuge for U.S. consumers longing for release from the alienating effects of industrialized modernity and commercialism–a refuge that was gained either directly through travel, or indirectly through the consumption of imagery. In this structure of feeling, Mexico functioned as Tahiti and the Marquesas did for Gauguin, or the way that Samoa did for Mead; it became a pre-modern "island" where the pathologies of Western modernity could be escaped (Gauguin) or critiqued (Mead)–or both. At the same time, then, that Tehuantepec and its women were assimilated into Mexican national iconography as symbols of Native American resistance to imperial history, the circulation of this imagery transnationally facilitated "primitivist" nostalgia. This same nostalgia, of course, has persistently functioned in the history of imperialism as a justification for Euro-U.S. hegemony. One of the principal objectives of this reading of "What the Water Has Given Me" is to demonstrate the way that Kahlo's image is a critical representation of her own situatedness within this antinomial (that is, conflicted) tension.

[6]   As is the case with a number of issues in Kahlo's work, her presentation as a Tehuana straddling the Fashion Notes."borderland between national assertion and transnational exoticism is also inextricably entangled within the specific history of her relationship with her husband Diego Rivera–for according to her own account, it was Rivera who scripted her role as a "revolutionary" Tehuana.12 And it is this personal contingency that brings me to my second preliminary point: Kahlo's relationship with Rivera, as represented in both her work and his, renders extremely problematic any attempt to maintain a distinction between "public art" and "private life."13 For at the same time that Rivera saw his artistic activities as the aesthetic medium through which Mexico's visual culture rose dialectically into plastic permanence, he cast his wife in the duplicitous role of indigenous/national exemplarity. In both his public comments and his mural projects, Rivera incorporated Kahlo as a Tehuana into his nationalist indigenous mythology, a representational process that sees her wearing of the costume as an "outer" sign of her "inner" consonance with Native America.14 In an often cited 1948 Time article, published under the tongue-in-cheek title "Fashion Notes" in a section of news from Latin America, Rivera told the interviewer that his wife's insistence on wearing traditional "Mexican [Tehuantepec] dress" was evidence of her having liberated herself from mimetic dependence on the French and U.S. bourgeoisie. In comments illustrated with a photograph of Kahlo dressed as a Tehuana (see Fig. 2), he explains that

The classic Mexican dress . . . has been created by people for people. The Mexican women who do not wear it do not belong to the people, but are mentally and emotionally dependent on a foreign class to which they wish to belong, i.e., the great American and French Bureaucracy. (33-34)

[7]   But Kahlo's own verbal account of her relationship to the Tehuantepec costume is far more complex–and it is precisely this disjuncture between her own account and Rivera's that interests us in a discussion of "What the Water Has Given Me." Instead of an "outer" manifestation of an "inner" consonance with her Native American nature, she indicated in an interview conducted shortly before her death that her assumption of the Tehuantepec costume was an effect of her relationship with Rivera. "In another time," she explained, "I used to dress like a boy, with my hair cut short, pants, boots, and leather jacket. But when I went to see Diego I put on a Tehuana outfit. . . . I have no relationship at all with that people" (Bambi 1; translation mine16; see Fig. 3). Rivera goes on to cite Kahlo as an example of decolonized freedom from "mental and emotional" dependence. Her integration with the Mexican people is evidenced by the "fact" that she had not worn a "foreign" dress for twenty-two years.15 Posturing in the transnational press as Mexico's national painter, he casts his wife in the public role of his "indigenous" partner.

 Frida's sisters Adriana Kahlo, Christina Kahlo, Frida Kahlo, and Frida's cousins Carmen Romero and Carlos Veraza. Photo, Guillermo Kahlo, 7 Feb. 1926.Instead of Rivera's trans-historical consonance with Native America, Kahlo emphasizes the fact that her public identity is both performative and mutable.17Indeed, she shuttles between cross-dressing as a man and "dressing up" as a Tehuana. And although I do not mean to imply that she was "not a nationalist," I insist that her negotiations within and against the nationalist imagery spectacularly exemplified in her husband's work produced an alternative scheme for imagining her place within the nationalist space. "What the Water Has Given Me" participates in the struggle of women who live within the legacy of imperialism to articulate a space of agency that is both nationalist and feminist. It does so, moreover, in a visual medium that focuses specifically on the roles that the objectification of Rivera's male gaze, the contamination of Kahlo's self- perception by this gaze, and the conflictive demands of alternative modes of social presentation made upon her. In her study of women's self-portraiture in twentieth- century Western art, Marsha Meskimmon asserts that twentieth-century women artists who have successfully taken up the project of self-portraiture have all confronted the "stereotyping of woman" by "revealing the viewing structure that supports it" (5). Kahlo's "What the Water Has Given Me" is precisely an attempt to reveal the indigenist "viewing structure" into which her intimate tie to Diego Rivera placed her. It is within and against this viewing structure that "What the Water Has Given Me" must be understood.18

Setting the Surrealist Thesis to One Side: Gazing at the Disillusioned Day Dream

[8]   Most critics who have attempted to make sense of the obvious complexity of "What the Water Has Given Me" have worked within the parameters of what I call a modified Surrealist thesis, a framework that suggests strong affinities between the work's seemingly non- or pre-logical imagery and Surrealist practice. This approach certainly makes a good deal of sense at one level, for André Breton himself was actually the work's first champion. According to Breton, Kahlo was just finishing the painting when he arrived in Mexico in the spring of 1938. In the catalogue essay he wrote later that year for Kahlo's one-woman show at Julien Levy's surrealist-associated gallery in New York, Breton said that Kahlo's work "blossomed . . . into pure surreality" (144). His assimilation of Kahlo and "What the Water Has Given Me" to the Surrealist project was fortified by the reprinting of his catalogue essay, "Frida Kahlo de Rivera," with a reproduction of the painting, in the second edition of Surrealism and Painting, published in 1945 (141-44).19

[9]   Although critics like Hayden Herrera, Araceli Rico, and Sarah Lowe have been very careful in their respective treatments of the work to qualify and limit the significance of Kahlo's connection with Surrealism, all of them still read it as having strong surrealist affinities. In the 1983 critical biography, the first of two instances in which Hayden Herrera has dealt with the painting, this most distinguished of Kahlo's critics suggests that the painting's imagery is akin to Surrealism's fortuitous juxtapositions, for the painting is made up of a "plethora of minute and irrationally juxtaposed detail." For the early Herrera, "this canvas is the most complex and deliberately enigmatic of all Frida's work" (1983, 257). Herrera's commentary in Frida Kahlo: The Paintings (1991) follows much the same line of reasoning. Perhaps sensing, however, that there is more to discover, Herrera concludes her comments by admitting that although the painting is "Frida's most Surrealist painting, each detail is so intimately connected to the painter's life that the work remains a realistic depiction of the dreamer and her daydream" (1991, 129).

[10]   Both Araceli Rico's and Sarah Lowe's monographs on Kahlo's art are boldly revisionary in many ways; both of them have moved thinking about the painter in important new directions.20Their specific readings of "What the Water Has Given Me," however, are ultimately quite similar to Herrera's in the sense that both emphasize the work's essential non-rationality. Rico suggests that the image is a manifestation of the "the Surrealist world itself." The water serves as motive for the "unfolding of a rich imaginary of sexuality, delirium, and death" (88). In a similar vein, while Lowe is critical of Breton's assimilation of Kahlo to his Surrealist project (79), she acknowledges that this image seems to use the Surrealist technique of non-logical juxtaposition and the "free play of oppositions." The effect of the image's contrasts is to "destabilize any preconceptions that we might bring to this image." For although the various images in the painting might be "identified . . . the meaning never becomes clear" (93).

[11]   Only Teresa del Conde, in Frida Kahlo: La pintora y el mito(1992), fundamentally challenges the Surrealist thesis. In the section of her book devoted to direct commentary on several of Kahlo's paintings, del Conde insists that although the images may be "hermetic," they are not undecipherable. In spite of the fact that Breton loved the work, the painting was not produced according to the technique celebrated in the 1924 Surrealist manifesto. These images are not "arbitrary," but are images in which the "intellect has intervened" (un-numbered page facing plate IV). And although del Conde doesn't suggest a strategy for reconstructing the logic of Kahlo's intellectual intervention, she implies that such a reconstruction is possible. It is in the spirit of del Conde's comments that this reading proceeds.

[12]   Kahlo's own characteristically cryptic comments about "What the Water Has Given Me" are important starting points for deciphering the logic behind the work's imagery, as well as the generic frame in which the imagery is set. Commenting to Julien Levy in 1938 while in New York for her one-woman show, Kahlo explained that the work revisits the scene of childhood daydreaming from the perspective of mature disillusionment, a re-visitation that Kahlo called "backward dreaming." Herrera cites Levy's paraphrase of Kahlo's remarks: "As a child she played with toys in the bathtub. She had dreams about them . . . And now she looks at herself in the bathtub, and, as with backward dreaming, all her dreams have turned to a sad ending" (259-60). Although juxtapositions appear, it is not the hidden operation of dreamwork that has forged them, but the passage of real time. The mature woman who now sits looking at her wounded body in a bathtub sees the imposition of what life has actually given her over the top of what she had hoped it would give her. Rather than a surreal reworking of the materials of life by the dream, it is the domination of the original dream by the reality of life.

[13]   Furthermore, Kahlo's brief comments to Levy likewise open the way toward considering what is to me the work's most striking aspect: its engagement with a whole set of issues associated with women's representation in the traditional genres of Western art–especially its reclamation of the mîse-en-scène of the nude for the project of self-portraiture. Expanding on the bathtub setting, Levy explained that the painting's philosophical concern centers on the "image of yourself that you have because you do not see your own head" (Herrera 260). In other words, although it is set in the locusclassicus of woman's objectification–the bath–the image showsher own perception of her body. Reclaiming the space of self-perception, Kahlo constructs the painting so that the spectator shares the viewpoint of the self-portraying subject. In a painting whose central subject matter is Kahlo's objectification within the national/transnational tension inherent in Mexico's cultural politics, she reclaims the space of nakedness from the generic overdeterminations of the nude, suggesting that the painting is an interrogation of self-perception itself.

Displacing the Volcano Culturescape: What Lies Behind the Island Facade?

[14]   As we move from the painter/viewer's placement in the bath to the assortment of images that float on the bathwater's surface, we are presented with many seemingly unrelated objects, the largest of which is a tropical island whose life has been disrupted by a volcanic explosion. The first issue that needs to be addressed centers on the identity of the island and the nature of the "reality" that the cataclysmic eruption has uncovered. What daydream has the "backward dream" disrupted? Within the context of the history of Mexican painting, the volcano landscape constitutes thenational landscape genre, a genre that finds its finest realization in the work of José Guadalupe Velasco and Gerardo Murillo ("Dr. Atl") — and in which Rivera himself also worked. So central is the volcano's significance in the national iconography that it has recently been suggested that it challenges the eagle/serpent motif in its claim to be Mexico's national icon (de Albiñana 64). But while there seems to be a consensus among Kahlo's critics that the volcano in this image represents what might be called Mexico's "volcano culturescape," the significance of its relationship to the skyscraper that emerges from its interior has been a source of controversy. Herrera, for example, suggests it represents the neo-imperial rape of Mexico by the United States, a reading that (at one level at least) is a bit difficult to sustain, since the phallic skyscraper is emerging from the cone rather than entering into it (Herrera 1991, 127). While it is certainly true that the volcano/skyscraper image asserts something about Mexican/U.S. relations, I would argue that the composite image represents the antinomial identification between the appearance of national life, represented by the volcanic culturescape, and the circulation of this culturescape in the transnational art world centered in New York. Indeed, one might say that for Kahlo the national image always-already bears within it the transnational phallic authority of the skyscraper, and the eruption has only revealed a structure that was already there. The work not only assimilates the volcano to Kahlo's critique of the tension between national assertion and transnational exoticism; it also uses this generic allusion as a backdrop against which her self-representational dilemma is played out.21

[15]   This rather unflattering revelation about what lies beneath the island paradise's surface is only the first of several revelations the eruption has precipitated. The second revelatory effect — the meaning of the dead bird lying feet up in the tree — takes us beyond cataclysm to apocalypse. Bosch, "The Garden of Delights" (detail). Madrid, Museo del PradoAlthough the implications of the allusion are not developed, Andrea Kettenman has suggested that the dead bird alludes to apocalyptic imagery of Hieronymous Bosch's "The Garden of Delights" (Kettenmann 48; see Fig. 4). In Bosch's painting, a male European goldfinch with a white breast and a red head sits comfortably surveying an orgy of sensual pleasure in the triptych's central panel, a panel that is flanked by the pre-history of mortality in the Garden of Eden on the left and the consignment of sinners to hell on the right. Bosch's goldfinch presides over a nude couple encircled in a bubble who make love just to lower left of the bird; this image has been traditionally read as an allegory of the fragility of earthly pleasures and the imminence of a divine judgement that will consign sinners to hell. Following on Kettenman's suggestion, I infer that Kahlo's placement of a dead goldfinch (this time the female of the species22) to the side of the erupting volcano implies a connection between Bosch's apocalypse (the bursting of the bubble and the consignment of the sinners to hell) and the cataclysmic explosion (the destroying the island fantasy). Kahlo's allusion to the triptych confirms the narrative sequence: the eruption has unveiled the presence of the phallic skyscraper within the volcanic culturescape and killed the island's bird, revealing the truth behind the island's bubble-like delusions.

[16]   In Kahlo's image, the two figures parallel to the lovers encased in Bosch's soap bubble are the dead Detail, "What the Water Has Given Me" (1938).Tehuana and a masked male figure on the island's shore, again below and to the left of the (this time dead) European goldfinch. (see Fig. 5). While in Bosch's picture the fragility of the lovers' pleasure is represented by a bubble that is to be shattered by divine judgement, a similar quality of precariousness is represented in the former "island of earthly delights" by the yellow tightrope extending from the masked figure's fist and wrapped around the Tehuana's neck. The continuity between the apocalyptic bird and the precarious tightrope on which the Tehuana had been balanced is suggested by the root that extends out from the foot of the dead bird's tree. As the root passes behind the masked figure to the rock formation against which his shoulder rests, it seems also to metamorphose into the rope-like cording that edges the figure's mask, a transformation that completes itself as the cord emerges from the same figure's hand. This continuity between the bird and the tightrope is further suggested by the fact that the root/rope circumscribes a rough rectangle with the tree as it extends out into the island's shoals and back to the rock formation proximate to the dead bird's head. It seems that before the volcano erupted, the Tehuana had been making her way toward the masked figure Chacmool, Tula, Hidalgo, Mexico.on the tight rope that extends from his hand to the offshore rock formation. In spite of the fact that the reclining, light-skinned figure seems human, his posture and stone face are suggestive of a Chacmool, the enigmatic sculpture found in Toltec-influenced regions of Mesoamerica whose reclining torso functioned as an altar for receiving offerings (see Fig. 6).23 Before the eruption, the Tehuana who now drifts naked in the water seems to have been trying to offer herself to the masked idol, walking toward him on a tightrope he controls.

[17]   Kahlo's placement of an ancient mask on an otherwise human Chacmool figure is parallel to a similar representational strategy she used in "My Nursemaid and I" (1937). Completed a year before "What the Water Has Given Me," it is one of her most direct articulations of her complex relationship to indigenous Mexico. In "My Nursemaid and I," Kahlo's link to indigenous America is represented as a complex process of mediation between the pre-Columbian past and the ethno-political present. Nested in the arms of her urban family's native servant, the mixed-blood Kahlo is nourished simultaneously by the indigenous nursemaid and by the pre-Columbian past mediated through the ancient mask the nurse wears (Fig. 7). "My Nursemaid and I" (1937). Mexico City, Collection Dolores Olmedo.And suggesting that nothing in these relationships is simple, neither the facial expression on the nurse's mask or on the "infant" Frida betrays any of the tenderness proper to the mother/child double portrait genre in which the image participates. Indeed, it seems as if the stone mask has successfully prohibited the formation of any inter-subjective affect, dehumanizing what might otherwise have been an intimate exchange of gazes. And it is precisely this interruption or refusal of intimacy by a human figure who wears a pre- Columbian mask that we also find in "What the Water Has Given Me." Although the Tehuana who had been making her way toward the nearly-nude figure now lies strangled in the water, the stone mask on her partially dressed "human" paramour betrays no concern as he gazes blankly forward.

[18]   The Chacmool takes on further levels of complexity when we move beyond the device of mediating the indigenous past through the pre-Columbian mask to analyze features of the Chacmool that distinguish it from the earlier nursemaid: (a) the human figure's light skin; and (b) its proximity to a large stone head that is partially unearthed behind him. In contrast to the nursemaid, the partially dressed male that languidly reclines on the shore is white, a difference that implies that in donning the ancient mask he is assuming an indigenous identity to which he has no genealogical claim. And although I will return to this issue of the painting's racial chromatism in more detail when we turn to a consideration of the light- and dark-skinned nude females who drift on the bathtub's sponge, it is important at this point to underscore the fact that the island's principal citizen is assuming an indigenous identity (rather than simply reclaiming one). No less than Kahlo's performative donning of the Tehuana costume when she "went to see Diego," this faux Chacmool is caught up in the Mexican daydream of a revitalized indigenous past.

[19]   This quality of performative indigeneity marked by the faux Chacmool and the strangled Tehuana who had "put on the Tehuana costume" as she was going to see her paramour marks the island's dream within the post-revolutionary elite's cross-ethnic identification with Mexico's pre-Columbian cultures. A further hint of this class's identification with indigenous imagery is found in the monumental stone head just behind the Chacmool. At the same time that the seismic disturbance has revealed the skyskraper and killed the bird and the Tehuana, it has unearthed a formation reminiscent the mammoth Olmec heads found in the Gulf Coast region of southwestern Mexico. Furthermore, the monolith also simultaneously resembles Rivera's head as viewed from above. Rivera was not only a vociferous champion of the plastic beauty of Mexico's indigenous visual art and a passionate collector of pre-Columbian sculpture, but he also articulated a theory of American culture which utilized geological metaphors to describe the foundational nature of indigenous civilization. "My Dress Hangs There" (1933). San Francisco, Hoover Gallery, Heirs of Dr. Leo Eloesser.Insisting that any true or beautiful aspect of American culture had an indigenous origin, he called his own project for American visual culture a quest for this "indigenous substrate."24 But rather than unearthing a Native American image from the "substrate," the seismic disturbance on Kahlo's volcanic culturescape has unearthed from beneath the strata of indigenous appearance and Native American valorizations an image connoting Rivera's own (monumental) head. Linked to the tree by the root that passes behind the Chacmool mask to the round rock formation, this unearthed head marks this multi- layered game of appearances that controls the tightrope on which the Tehuana was trying to balance herself. Hiding behind a pre-Columbian idol made to receive sacrificial offerings, Rivera's aesthetic ideology controls the attempted balancing act.

[20]   Rivera's authority unearthed behind the hand that grasps the tightrope "Memory" (1937). Paris, Collection Michel the key to understanding Kahlo's self-representation as the entangled Tehuana: trying to perform the balancing act within Rivera's cultural ideology has led to her death. But at the same time, the image of the displaced dress that drifts away from her dead body refers us to a whole set of works in Kahlo's oeuvre in which the displaced or abandoned Tehuantepec costume takes on a central iconographic significance. In "My Dress Hangs There" (1933; see Fig. 8), a work completed when she lived with Rivera in New York City, Kahlo places her empty Tehuantepec costume on a clothesline hung in the midst of New York City's urban landscape. In "Memory" (1937; see Fig. 9), painted as a remembrance of Rivera's affair with Kahlo's sister Cristina, she represents herself as an armless woman in "neutral" Western dress situated between her displaced Tehuana costume and a schoolgirl uniform, her huge bleeding heart lying at her feet. Eighteen months after she completed "What the Water Has Given Me," she painted what is arguably her best-known work, "The Two Fridas" (1939; see Fig. 10), a painting that "The Two Fridas" (1939). Mexico City, Museo de Arte Moderno.dates from the year-long period when she was divorced from Rivera. In this image she represents herself twice–once dressed as a Tehuana and once in a conservative nineteenth-century blouse not unlike the garment her mother wears in her wedding portrait (see Fig. 11). Particularly in the last two of these works, alternative manners of dress become metaphoric vehicles for articulating the conflicting structures of performative social identity in Kahlo's lifeworld. And in "What the Water Has Given Me," the same apocalyptic explosion that has revealed the skyscraper, killed the bird, and unearthed a monumental head has also revealed the impossibility of performing successfully at least one of these roles.

The Second Balancing Act: The Accidental Ballarina

[21]   As I mentioned above, the Tehuana's balancing act is only half of the tightrope's story — and it is to the tale of the ballerina, the Tehuana's alter ego, that we now turn. Wedding photograph of Frida's parents (1898). Mexico City, Museo Frida Kahlo.Extending from the Chacmool's hand to the offshore rock, the rope continues back to a second formation located on the island's far side. Appearing as the Tehuana's distant double, the ballerina, accompanied by a line of insects, successfully executes a second balancing act on the rope's far section (Fig. 12). Herrera has suggested that each of the two rock formations on which the rope is suspended represents a set of male genitals (1983, 257; 1991, 127). Taking Herrera's insight as a starting point, I suggest that aside from the fact that Kahlo had many love affairs during her life (with persons of both genders), these two rock formations represent the two definitive relationships she had with men, relationships that were bound up with the alternative social identities her lifeworld made available to her as a woman. The most prominent of these two men was, of course, Diego Rivera. But the first, chronologically, was Alejandro Gómez Arias, Frida's preparatory school colleague and lover in the years before, at age twenty- two, she married Rivera. Gómez Arias was Frida's companion in the first of the "two grave accidents" she suffered in her life–the devastating 1925 bus/trolley collision which left her with life-long injuries. ("The other accident," Kahlo went on to say, "is Diego" [Freund 1].25) Reading the Frida who loved the staid and respectable Gómez Arias (an intimate conection that lasted throughout her life) as the tiny ballerina on the distant tightrope, one can see the tightrope's second balancing act as a reference to the urban, middle class values of the class from which she came and against which Frida-as- Tehuana constructed herself.

[22]   The first key to reading the ballerina image and its corresponding phallus/rock formation as a figuration of Kahlo's relationship with Gómez Arias is to be found in his account of the accident that left Kahlo permanently disabled. Detail, "What the Water Has Given Me" (1938).As recounted in Herrera's biography, Kahlo and Gómez Arias were riding a bus when an electric trolley car collided with it, forcing a metal handrail through Kahlo's back and out her pelvis. One of the macabre features of the accident was the fact that someone on the bus was carrying a container of gold glitter, which scattered all over Kahlo's bloody body. According to Gómez Arias, when people at the scene of the accident saw the horrible wounds on her glitter-covered body, they assumed that she was a performer who had been dressed in costume, and yelled, "The ballerina! The ballerina!" (Herrera 1983, 48- 50). This linking of the ballerina on the tightrope to Gómez Arias and the accident is further corroborated by the fact that the ballet dancer is accompanied by a sort of "insect dance of death." The significance of these insects is one of this painting's elements that have yet to be explained satisfactorily; they may be associated with death and decay.26 But just behind the Ballerina, Kahlo's ulcerated foot reminds the viewer of the accident's permanent after-effects. Similarly, the broken shell that will hold no water, placed to the left of the tightrope, references the accident's permanent damage to Kahlo's reproductive system. As the ballerina and her companions go marching forward, the viewer is reminded that the body that was wounded in the trolley accident with Gomez Arias is destined to decline. Indeed, the painful after-effects would stay with Kahlo for the rest of her life, and eventually precipitate her death.

[23]   But the allusion to the horrific accident and its afterlife in her own body is not the only aspect of Kahlo's relationship to Gómez Arias relevant to the painting. As was already mentioned above, next to her relationship with Rivera, Kahlo's connection with Gómez Arias constitutes the most important bond that Kahlo maintained with a man. The extensive correspondence that began when they were both students at the National Preparatory School, and which continued throughout her life, evidences the depth of her attachment to him. For even after objections from her lover's family and her marriage to Rivera altered the tenor of their relationship, she continued to write to Gómez Arias, especially at significant junctures in her life (such as the day her 1938 New York exhibition opened, the event at which this painting was shown).27Gómez Arias, scion of a prominent Mexican family, was everything that Rivera was not– traditional, respectable, stable. Kahlo's placement of the ballerina and the second phallic rock as foil to the Tehuana alludes to a second system of demands exercised upon her as a Mexican woman–those of urban bourgeois respectability. Commenting on "The Two Fridas" (1939. Fig 12) Sarah Lowe has argued that the display of "Frida as Tehuana" and "Frida as traditional Mexican woman" represents alternative systems of social identification available in Frida's lifeworld, systems that she assimilated and manipulated (59). The importance of the Tehuana and the Ballerina in "What the Water Has Given Me" is that it schematizes these two identification systems in a way that places them self-reflectively in the larger framework of Mexico's national/transnationl cultural politics. Subtending the roles of Tehuana and traditional woman represented in "The Two Frida's" are tightropes suspended precariously between alternative phallic formations.

The Return to the Private Origins: The Yellow Rope and the Family Romance

[24]   The images that populate the disrupted "island paradise" and its offshore rock formations figure the affective cost of Kahlo's "entanglement" in Mexico's public cultural politics–a cultural politics that she represents, by way of the volcano/skyscraper, as inextricably linked to transnational cultural authority. But while life on the island and its tightrope schematizes the story of Kahlo's entanglement in the politics of Mexico's public culture, the space that opens to the painting's lower right figures the story from the "private" perspective of her own family. Rather than seeing the history of Kahlo's body as an objectified figure within the indigenist mîse-en- scène, this part of the painting revisits the birthplace of her affective and biological life itself in the complex multi-cultural origins of her family (see Fig. 13). Detail, "What the Water Has Given Me" (1938)This "private" space not only presents Kahlo's production as a multi-ethnic gendered subject, but it likewise articulates the psychic demands that compelled her to find a place for herself within Mexico's public imaginary–for the yellow rope around her father's neck leads us to understand that she has become heir to her father's entanglement within Mexico's public visual culture. And what is significant about this figuration of the Kahlo family romance is that it helps us to see that, while Frida became entangled with the island and its tightrope by way of her German-Jewish father's value system, it is by returning to the world of the mother–and her mother's biological links to native America–that she seeks refuge from the island's exoticizing disaster. In a watery space next to her mestiza mother, and surveyed by a skeleton known popularly as a calavera, the nude ex-Tehuana, now resuscitated, has found (at least) temporary safety on a life- raft/sponge, lying on the lap of an indigenous woman who strangely resembles her.

[25]   The multi-ethnic family dynamic that produced Kahlo as a gendered subject unfolds in the differences between her immigrant photographer father Guillermo Kahlo (with whom she deeply identified) and her traditional mestiza mother Matilda Calderón. Two years before completing "What the Water Has Given Me," Kahlo painted "My Grandparents, My Parents, and I" (1936; see Fig. 14), "My Grandparents, My Parents, and I" (1936). New York, The Museum of Modern Art.her most elaborate treatment of her familial origin. In the 1936 image, Kahlo represents herself as a naked toddler standing in the patio of her family home in Coyoacán, holding in her hand the blood-red ribbons that link her to her family lines. Above her father to the right we see her Hungarian-German Jewish grandparents, whom Guillermo left behind in Germany when he migrated to Mexico at the age of nineteen. Behind Matilda Calderón on the left we see Matilda's Spanish mother and indigenous father, the grandfather through whom Frida is descended "by blood" from America's native peoples. Kahlo has placed her parents in the image by way of their wedding portrait (see Fig. 11), translating the photograph into the medium of painting. And it is this same photograph that links "My Grandparents, My Parents, and I" to "What the Water Has Given Me," for an altered version of this same double portrait–in which the position of the parents is reversed–emerges from the island's offshore plant life to the painting's lower right. The key to understanding the topography of "What the Water Has Given Me" lies precisely in Kahlo's self-conscious alteration of this photograph, for in reversing the position her parents occupy in their wedding photograph, she links Guillermo Kahlo to the public world of the island and its tightrope, and Matilda Calderón to the private world of the life-raft/sponge where the ex-Tehuana finds refuge.

[26]   Kahlo identified strongly with her father, an identification that manifested itself in their shared aesthetic and intellectual interests, and in the fact that his suffering from epilepsy became a kind of analogue to her own physical disability.28 Not only was it through his professional involvement in photography and his amateur interest in painting that she first developed her strong visual gifts; it was also through him that early in her life she developed a cosmopolitan viewpoint through access to both German and Jewish cultures.29 One of the major secondary effects of the Frida Kahlo revival during the last two decades has been the interest generated concerning her father's work, as well as a resulting re-evaluation of Guillermo Kahlo's achievements as a public artist. Specializing in monumental architectural photography, Kahlo received important public commissions during the first decade of the twentieth century (the last stage of the Porfirato), including work documenting both the major architectural monuments of Mexico City and Mexico's enormous patrimony of colonial architecture.30 But in spite of what is now recognized as an important body of work, executed mostly during the decade during which Frida was born, the fall of the Porfirian regime, the decade of revolutionary instability, and shifts in taste led to Kahlo's public marginalization and perhaps to his private melancholy.

[27]   Kahlo's placement of a second yellow rope around Guillermo's neck marks a powerful insight into the complex web of relationships among her, her father, her father's professional aspirations, Diego Rivera and the Mexican public sphere. In these terms, her attraction to Rivera might be seen as a sublimated repetition of her attachment to her father, as well as an attempt to realize vicariously his failed public aspirations. On the one hand, Diego is the artist her father aspired to become; in loving him she cathects on her father's professionally successful substitute. "Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair" (1940). New York, The Museum of Modern Art.But on the other hand, if full subjectivity is achieved through realizing her father's idealized objectives (the reproduction of the Mexican public imaginary), she must also in a sense become her father rather than simply marry his surrogate. It is within the protocols implicit in this psychic demand that we should understand Kahlo's cross-dressing. Before she married Rivera, she said, she "dressed like a boy." Moreover, in one of the self-portraits she executed during the year-long period of her divorce from Rivera, she imagines herself as beingRivera. In "Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair" (1940; see Fig. 15), she represents herself, after a haircut, dressed in Rivera's baggy suit, indicating, at least at one level, a yearning to occupy the authority of his subject position. But within the context of her marriage to Rivera, her access to the public sphere is as a famous man's appendage. This access to the public sphere "by marriage" dictates that she occupy a static role within the indigenist culturescape's symbolic economy, an economy that compelled her, as she said, to "put on a Tehuana outfit." Within this latter identity formation she is not a representing subject, but a represented object, precariously balanced within the constitutive contradictions of the nationalist antinomy. And because she is unable to maintain her balance within this psychic complexity, she has, like her father before her, been "strangled" in the island's tightrope.

[28]   While the reversed image of Guillermo Kahlo marks the origin of the affective demand that compelled his daughter toward the tightrope of Mexico's cultural politics, the image of Matilda Calderón in her wedding dress leads us to the space of female refuge that opens to the painting's lower right-hand side. Commentary on this imagery–especially on the indigenous woman and the ex-Tehuana lying on her lap–has emphasized that the raft is a figuration of Kahlo's return to the comforting embrace of an indigenous woman–a reading that links the image to "Two Nudes in a Forest" (see Fig. 16),
 "Two Nudes in a Forest" (1939). Private collection.completed the following year.31 Among the painting's commentators, this image is read either as Kahlo's way of affirming her affective and erotic relationships with women, or as a metaphoric vehicle for representing her own geneological descent from indigenous America. But regardless of which is the "correct" reading, this the same-sex, mixed-race couple seems to be an attempt to envision a space outside of masculist and nationalist schemata. Lowe suggests that the two women represent an "affirmation of Kahlo's homosexual relationships"; furthermore, she sees the image as Kahlo's vision of a "retreat from patriarchal Mexico and an imagined sanctuary from the vicissitudes of her relationship with Rivera" (26).32And while Herrera's recent commentary on this imagery somewhat parenthetically mentions its link to Kahlo's "bisexuality," she emphasizes that the image is related to "aspects" of Kahlo's own racial "duality, the Indian and the European, the comforter and the comforted" (1991, 127). Del Conde's perception of Kahlo's duality goes even farther; she refers to the two women as "the white Frida and the dark Frida" (un-numbered page facing plate IV).

[29]   But while at one level it is easy to define the life-raft/sponge as an idealized space of escape to the embrace of either an indigenous lover or the native woman that lived (however partially) in Frida's own body, it is at another level important to see this space as shot through with semiotic instability. This instability becomes apparent when the relationship between the women is read in conjunction with the images of Matilda Calderón and the grimacing skeleton situated above and behind the raft. This instability is linked in the first place to Kahlo's contradictory relation to her mother. Matilda Calderón's petty-bourgeois conventionalism and dogmatic Catholicism exemplified the colonial culture Kahlo and her contemporaries on the "island paradise" self-consciously rejected. On the other hand, however, it is through hermestizamother that Kahlo actually laid claim to biological descent from America's native peoples. The tension between her mother's conventional "colonial" morality and her biological ties to native America is marked in the image by her dark-skinned mother'sVictorian wedding dress, a wedding dress that is very similar (as was mentioned above) to the blouse the "conventional" Frida wears in "The Two Fridas." Indeed, Matilda Calderón is a kind of anti-type to Kahlo the Tehuana, for in her the mestiza performs as European bride rather than as indigenous love object. And regardless of whether we read the two women on the raft as Kahlo's quest for refuge in the caresses of an indigenous lover, or as a figuration of her yearning to love and be loved by her "indigenous self", the significance of the two women on the raft lies in the fact that a relationship between Europe and America is figured in terms of a nude chromatism that abandons the over- coded social determinants of dress. The bathing viewer gazing at the nude ex-Tehuana takes comfort in the caresses of the indigenous woman; and this same "other" woman lives on (however partially) beneath Kahlo's "colonized" mother's European wedding dress.

[30]   The affective processes that link Matilda Calderón to the life-raft's indigenous woman is the gendered analogue to the sequence of displacements that link Guillermo Kahlo to the island's disrupted fantasy of seamless continuity. And in the same way that the eruption has revealed the discontinuity between the island's human actors and its indigenous iconography, so the space of women's refuge is marked by discontinuities. But beyond mere differences between identity and iconography, the disjunctures among themestiza Matilda Calderón, her European wedding dress, the now-naked ex-Tehuana, and the indigenous woman who comforts her are lifted to a refined state of irony by thecalavera, the trickster-like skeleton figure from Mexican popular culture who gazes down on the life-raft from a nearby knoll. Thecalavera, a traditional image of satire and death,33 seems to recognize the yearning to escape from the contingencies of dress; at the same time, its own fleshless and sexless state underscores the fact that bodies themselves–even naked ones–are also subject to the social codes of race and gender. At one level, it is quite funny that Matilda Calderón's daughter has found comfort in the arms of a "real" indigenous woman–especially after having walked a tightrope controlled by a masked Chacmool pretending to be "Indian." At another level, however, the two women are nevertheless still subject to the island and its protocols, for the raft, figured as a refuge drifting to the island's side, is not autonomous. For the Kahlo of 1938, the grimacing calaveramarks not only the fact that bodies themselves are always-already subject to socialization, but also that the only definitive escape from this social reality is death.

Re-Envisioning the Socio-Cultural Topography: Can the Subaltern See and Be Seen?

[31]   In "What the Water Has Given Me," Kahlo engages post-revolutionary Mexico's cultural politics with a topography of two sets of theoretical issues–problematics that are very much alive in contemporary cultural studies. First, the work gives us an image with which to envision the interdependence of indigenous nationalism and transnational modernist aesthetics, displaying Kahlo's personal entanglement in this system's antinomies of gender and authenticity. Second, it articulates the difficulty of imagining a space outside of this structure by working back through the origins of Kahlo's own affective life, translating the tension between nationalist cultural politics and mestizaje into the psycho-social history of her own family. In constructing a vantage point from which her own body's entanglement in Mexico's post-revolutionary cultural project can be seen, she gives us a powerful visual image with which to think the complex relationship between the national/transnational cultural problematic, on the one hand, and the processes of gender and multi-ethnicity, on the other. For in spite of the claims exercised by a cultural nationalism that would establish a seamless continuity between a revived pre-imperial utopia and the state, subjects and the families that produce them are constructed within the impure cultural intersections that have been bequeathed to national formations by modernity. And within these complex cultural intersections, the politics of self-perception and self-representation are likewise always-already impure.

[32]   Although it stops short of holding up an image of what woman's communicative agency might look like in the context of Mexico's post-revolutionary cultural space, Kahlo's image at least maps the system of value-laden identifications within which agency might move beyond the the metaphorics of the life raft's "refuge" And in its function as cognitive map, it should be placed next to Gayatri Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?" as an attempt to articulate the theoretical viewpoint from which the system of identifications can be seen. In this seminal essay, Spivak enters into to the problematic of gender and cultural nationalism through the case of Sati, the Hindu practice in which (in some regions of India) a new widow would demonstrate her piety by committing suicide on her husband's funeral pyre. And in analyzing the way in which the cultural practice functions in both imperialist and cultural nationalist contexts, she opens the door toward considering the complex ways in which the discourses available to subordinated women leave them unable to articulate their own location between imperial and indigenous patriarchies without becoming complicitous with one side of this binary opposition. If the Sati bride were to speak against the practice of widow sacrifice (for example), she echoes the imperial discourses that ratified British rule; if she were to defend the practice on the grounds of "cultural tradition," she becomes complicitous with the voice of piety within her own mind that commands her self-immolation.

[33]   As one example of a woman who took up this practice and refashioned it so as to be able to "speak" from within this complex communicative location, Spivak cites at the end of the essay the story of a young woman who, within the history of India's revolutionary insurrection, attempted in 1926 to occupy and displace the semiotics of Sati. When the revolutionary activist Bhuvaneswari Bhadari found herself unable to carry out the political assassination that her revolutionary cadre had assigned to her, she committed suicide. But in order to foreclose the reading of her suicide as a response to an illegitimate pregnancy, she waited until the onset of menstruation. Spivak calls the waiting for menstruation a "displacing gesture" (308), for at the same time that it asserts that Bhadari's suicide was linked to anti-imperial politics rather than hiding the result of violated chastity, her "self-immolation" violates a tenet of Sati (the "legitimate" self-sacrifice Bhadari displaces). The pious widow was required to wait until after menstruation and the subsequent period of "purification" had passed before claiming what Spivak calls her "dubious privilege" [308]. Bhadari's suicide is both a gesture of nationalist self-immolation and a denial/displacement of the codes of Sati's imprisonment of women's passion. In other words, she simultaneously invokes and violates–thereby displacing–the protocols of widow burning. And of course Spivak's point is that Bhadari's message remained unread. She cites a progressive intellectual acquaintance of hers, as well as family members of Bhadari herself, who mis-read the suicide of "the hapless Bhuvaneswari." To these readers, it seemed to be a case of illicit love.

[34]   Like Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?," Kahlo's autobiographical representations in "What the Water Has Given Me" is an articulation of the way in which women who bear the legacy of colonialism are bequeathed with a set of over- coded social roles. For in the bathing viewer's reflections on the untenability of balancing like a European Ballarina or an indigenous Tehuana on a precarious tightrope, Kahlo represents a map of systemic social identifications that might be productively generalized so as to be read as roughly homologous with the contexts articulated in Spivak's essay. Kahlo could either immolate herself as a good wife in toe shoes, or she could entangle herself in post-revolutionary Mexico's cultural politics, hoping to re-write the social text. (And the image of the strangled Tehuana and the ease with which the Tehuana's image was assimilated to the Surrealist canon underscores another difficulty in the success with which this entanglement met.) Although Matilda Calderon'smestiza daughter may at one point have wanted to don a European wedding dress, the demands of the psychic identification with her cosmopolitan father compelled her to "go see Diego." In the very same year (1926) in which the "hapless Bhvaneswari" was attempting to re-write the social text through her revolutionary self-immolation, it became clear to Kahlo that Gómez Arias would not make her his bride. By 1929, she had married Mexico's de facto national painter and put on the Tehuana costume–a costume that she would still be wearing in 1954, the year when she was cremated. But unlike Bhvaneswari, she did leave a highly lucid representation of the context in which her social performance was situated: "What the Water Has Given Me." And in this lucid elaboration of colonialism's violent displacements, she is much more like Bhvaneswari's explicator than the would-be revolutionary Sati herself.



  1.  This painting is also known as "Lo que el agua me dio," ("What the Water Gave Me"), but I choose to follow Teresa del Conde's usage. See Frida Kahlo: La pintora y el mito, plate IV of the "16 obras comentadas."
  2. . For a discussion of Breton, Kahlo, and Surrealism, see Herrera's Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo 215-66; Rodríguez Prampolini's El surrealismo y el arte fantástico de México 60-62; Lowe's Frida Kahlo 75-116; Ades's "Orbits of the Savage Moon: Surrealism and the Representation of the Female Subject in Mexico and Postwar Paris" (107-27); and Lindauer's Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo 86-13. (Although it doesn't deal specifically with "What the Water Has Given Me," Lindauer's recent work on Kahlo's relationship to Surrealism is dynamically innovative.) For more general accounts of Surrealism and Breton in Mexico, see Andrade's Para la desorientación general: Treces ensayos sobre México y el surrealismo and Bradu's Breton en México.
  3. I take the notion of colonial and imperial "legacy" from the title and critical introduction of the recent collection edited by M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures (1997). The term moves beyond notions like "third world women" or "post-colonial women" to include the complexities of transnational migration and the continuing internal colonization of Euro-U.S. women of color within the aftermath of world historical imperialism.
  4. In their analysis of the various ways in which women–and their images–are related to the forging of nationalist culture and social relations, Yuval-Davis and Anthias have pointed out that women function as a principal "focus and symbol in ideological discourses used in the construction, reproduction and transformation of ethnic/national categories "(7). Writing in a similar comparative vein, Heng has noted that "with few exceptions, women, the feminine, and figures of gender have traditionally anchored the nationalist imaginary–that undisclosed ideological matrix of nationalist culture" (31).
  5. Gayatri Spivak has been the scholar who has made the most consistent assertions about the persistance of colonial discourses into the post-colonial age in the guise of a benevolent "third worldism." In the translator's preface to Mahasweta Devi's "Draupadi," for example, she indicates that the representation of Third World women in Euro-U.S. academic contexts is part of a vast web of information retrieval that is complicitous with the exploitation of the women who are represented (179). The question of a paternalistic Third Worldism in First World contexts is the central thematic in the now classic "French Feminism in an International Frame".
  6.  Even before publishing the definitive biography, Hayden Herrera published an article specifically dedicated to Kahlo's self-presentation as a Tehuana. See "Portrait of Frida Kahlo as a Tehuana," 1978. For additional commentary on Kahlo as a Tehuana, see Herrera 1983, 101-13; Debroise 168; del Conde 35; Schaefer 24-26, 31-32; Rico 96-97, 114, 138; Mulvey and Wollen 94; Lowe 51-57; and Sierra 52-53.
  7.  In 1992, the National Gallery of Art in Mexico City sponsored an exhibit that traced the visual representation of Tehuantepec's women in nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting and photography. Of particular relevance for the present study is Aída Sierra's contribution to the exhibition catalog: "Geografías imaginarias II: La figura de la Tehuana." Also, for a discussion of the relationship between the traditional costume of Tehuantepec and the assimilation of this costume by Mexico's urban bourgeoisie, see Campbell and Green, "A History of Representations of Isthmus Zapotec Women," 1996.
  8.  For an in-depth study of the shared intellectual projects of Miguel and Rosa Covarrubias, see Ariana Williams's Covarrubias(1994). Judith Alanis is the scholar who has devoted most attention to Gabriel Fernández Ledesma and his wife, Isabel (Chabela) Villaseñor. See Gabriel Fernández Ledesma (1985). Furthermore, Chabela Villaseñor: Exposición Retrospectiva(1998), a biography/catalogue growing from a touring exhibition of Villaseñor's work as an actress (Eisenstein's "Que Viva Mexico!"), visual artist, and writer, includes materials relevant to her self- presentation as a Tehuana (72-75, 85, 104).
  9. The classic ethnographic account of Tehuantepec's traditional culture is Miguel Covarrubias's Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec (1946).
  10.  For extensive discussions of primitivism and the visual arts in the context of Modernism, see Susan Hiller's collection The Myth of Primitivism: Perspectives on Art (1991). For the specific way in which Latin America's version of this structure of feeling has played itself out in relation to U.S. hegemony, see the "Introduction" to Frances Aparicio and Susana Chavez-Silverman's collection Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations ofLatinidad (1997).
  11.  For a discussion of the circulation of images of Mexico in the U.S. during this period, see Helen Delpar'sThe Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican (1993) and James Oles's South of the Border: Mexico in the American Imagination 1914-1947 (1993).
  12. Aída Sierra points specifically to the way in which Rivera himself tried to reconcile the Tehuana's "primitivist" and "anti-imperial" facets in the murals of the Secretariat of Public Education (46).
  13.  The way in which Kahlo's work interrogates the public/private binary is one of the most persistent features of Kahlo criticism. For examples, see Mulvey and Wollen 91; Rico 20-29; Schaefer 31-32; Meskimmon 79-84; Lowe 10-11; and Grimberg (especially 87- 92).
  14. Rivera placed Kahlo dressed as a Tehuana in two of his major mural projects, both times in proximity to his own self-portrait. In the "Panamerican Unity," executed for San Francisco's Golden Gate International Exhibition in 1940, Kahlo appears next to Rivera, both of them situated beneath the half-machine, half-stone image of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue. Kahlo and her Tehuana costume mark the survival of a resilient, indigenous identity in contemporary America. In "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda," executed for Mexico's Hotel del Prado in 1947-48, Kahlo appears in her Tehuantepec costume behind Rivera's portrait of himself as a little boy, representing the maternal authority that Mexican culture exercises on the mischievous child.
  15. Herrera (1983) cites notes taken by Parker Lesley during conversations which he and art dealers Alberto Misrachi and Pierre Matisse had with Rivera in Mexico City in 1939, when Rivera took up a similar thematic. According to Parker's notes, Rivera insisted that Frida "was a person whose thoughts and feeling are unrestricted by any limitations forced on them by false necessities of bourgeois social conformity" (111).
  16.  "En otra época me vestía de muchacho, con el pelo rasurado, pantalones, botas, y chamarra de cuero. Pero cuando fui a ver a Diego me puse un traje de Tehuana." (A cite to this same interview, from the Mexico City daily Excesior, also appears in Herrera 1983, 109.) This article continues as Frida gives further commentary on her customary dress: "I've never been in Tehuantepec, nor has Diego ever wanted to take me. I have no relationship at all with that people, but of all Mexican dresses it's the one I like the most, and that's why I dress like a Tehuana" (Bambi 1). And although (as an anonymous reader has reminded me) Kahlo did wear these long dresses to also hide an injured leg that she considered ugly, it is interesting that she took up Rivera's "favorite" Tehuantepec costume as her primary "national" identity marker — in spite of the fact that she had "no relationship at all with that people."
  17.  For a recent discussion of the relationships among performance, clothing, and the construction of national/ethnic identity, see Karen Christian's Show and Tell: Identity as Performance in U.S. Latino/a Fiction (1997).
  18. Sarah Lowe points out that of Kahlo's 143 known paintings, fifty-five are self- portraits, a fact that indicates the significance of formal self-portraiture in Kahlo's work. (See Lowe 9.) Although "What the Water Has Given Me" is not generally considered to be a self-portrait in the strict sense of the term, it is my purpose here to suggest that its objective is to interrogate the grounds of self-portraiture itself.
  19.  Breton's reading of the work is significant not because of his actual commentary on the painting, but because of his attempt to assimilate it to the Surrealist canon–a process that precisely repeats the cycle of objectification and assimilation that constitutes the painting's subject matter. Instead of wanting Kahlo to masquerade as a Tehuana, Breton makes her into his Mexican Surrealist muse, a second Nadja. For a critical discussion of Breton's objectification of Kahlo, see Lowe 77-80.
  20. Indeed, Rico's and Lowe's respective discussions of several of Kahlo's works iconographically related to "What the Water Has Given Me" have been of central importance in developing the present study.
  21.  Another image of a cloud-enveloped skyscraper resembles that of "What the Water Has Given Me." Again, the story surrounding the image concerns a woman's death as a result of an inability to satisfy the demands placed on her by both gender and economics. Evident in "Suicide of Dorothy Hale" (1939) are Kahlo's "compassion for [Hale's] fall–literal and figurative–and her identification with her dead friend's plight," which "gives [the painting] a peculiar intensity" (Herrera 294). For the background on this painting, see Herrera 289-94.
  22.  The bird in Bosch's painting is a European goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), a European cage bird that made its way to the Americas in the nineteenth century as a domesticated pet (Wetmore 340). For pictures of both the male and female of the species see Makatsch (136). Thanks to Philip Bruner of the Department of Biology at Brigham Young University — Hawaii for helping me track down this information.
  23.  For a discussion of the Chacmool figure from an archeological point of view that is more-or-less contemporary with Kahlo's painting, see Lizardi Ramos's "El Chacmool mexicano" (1944). For more recent information, see González Torres (56).
  24.  For Rivera's mature thinking about indigenous culture as the only viable foundation for Greater America's culture, see the two essays that grew from the lecture he gave on the occasion of his induction into Mexico's National College in 1943: "El arte, base del pan-americanismo" (Rivera 249-58); and "El arte y el pan-americanismo" (Rivera 259-63).
  25.  Herrera also cites this interview with Gisèle Freund (1983, 107).
  26.  In the 1997 issue of Artes de México devoted to insects in the Mexican tradition, Sylvia Navarrete briefly mentions "What the Water Has Given Me" in relation to her analysis of insect motifs in the twentieth century. Finding no continuity between Kahlo's work and other contexts, Navarrete simply mentions that Kahlo represents "mosquitos and spiders in the pose of tightrope walkers, revealing small details that engender symbolic significance in the prosaic, autobiographic and narcissistic narrative of which the artist was so fond" (68 [Spanish]; 96 [English]). That these insects represent a "dance of death" is simply a suggestion as to what Navarrete's "symbolic significance" might be.
  27.  Frida wrote to Gómez Arias frequently during the period of their romantic attachment, of course. But as Herrera's biography shows, she wrote to him for the rest of her life. For example, Herrera cites letters to Gómez Arias dating from 1938 (on the occasion of Frida's one-woman show in New York) and on into 1945 (on the occasion of a major operation Frida underwent in the U.S.) (1983, 232; 351-52). Further evidence of Gómez Arias's lasting intimacy with Kahlo lies in the fact that he knew (at the time) about a very secret love affair Frida had in 1939-1940, during the break-up of her first marriage to Rivera (Herrera 1983, 476-77). See also Zamora (22). For evidence of the disapproval of Gómez Arias's family, see Raquel Tibol 35, note 4.
  28.  For an entry-level account of the dynamics of Kahlo's relationship with her parents, see Herrera 1983, 10-21.
  29.  For an excellent study of the influence of both German and Jewish cultures in Kahlo's work, see Gannit Ankori's "The Hidden Frida: Covert Jewish Elements in the Art of Frida Kahlo" (1993-94).
  30.  The most ambitious and comprehensive collection that has yet been published on Guillermo Kahlo is the catalog that accompanied a 1993 exhibition of Kahlo's work. Of particular importance in Guillermo Kahlo: Vida y obra (1993) are, first, the essay by Juan Coronel Rivera, "Guillermo Kahlo fotógrafo, 1872-1941," which is a detailed treatment of Kahlo's career; and second, Alejandro Castellanos's "Guillermo Kahlo: Una visión en la encrucijada," which discusses Kahlo's photographic project in relation to the Porfirian state.
  31.  Furthermore, the painting's lower right section is dominated by images of female genitalia and pubic hair, while the upper left section contains numerous phallic images. The rock formations (as I mention elsewhere), as well as the flowering plants floating in the bay, look like male genitalia. In the section of the painting nearest Frida's mother, one notices not only the black vines, identified by Lowe as pubic hair (91), but also, among the tangled vines, four flowers, each of which resembles labia.
  32. Lowe makes these comments in connection with her reading of "Two Nudes in a Forest." When she turns to "What the Water Has Given Me," she notes the relationship between the two paintings (93). Also regarding "Two Nudes in a Forest" (see Fig. 18), Dolores del Rio (to whom Kahlo gave the painting) told Hayden Herrera that "the indigenous nude is solacing the white nude. The dark one is stronger" (1983, 198-99).
  33. The grinning skeleton that looks down on the two women from the knoll at the island's edge deploys the skeleton iconography ubiquitous in Mexican popular culture. More specifically, thesecalaveras were a favorite device of Mexico's most important caricaturist, José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), considered an important precursor of twentieth-century Mexican painting. According to Paul Westheim, Posada's use of calaveras in social critique implies "a criticism that doesn't rely on moral indignation, on pathetic protests, but rather on the wisecrack, on the ironic smile, on satiric jabs" (81). Instead of claiming a moral "high ground," the viewpoint held by a grimacing calavera enabled Posada (and in this case, Kahlo) to establish an ironic tension between life as social mascarade and the underlying level of sameness that subtends social appearances. Araceli Rico, in a discussion of Frida Kahlo's deployment of Posada-esque resources, calls Kahlo a "daughter of . . . Posada's irony and satire" (60). For discussions of calavera imagery in general, and of this imagery's transformation in the popular engraving of José Guadalupe Posada in particular, see Paul Westheim's La calavera(originally published in 1953); and a collection edited by Ron Tyler,Posada's Mexico (1979).



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