PL Henderson

PL Henderson

PL Henderson is a writer, reviewer, art historian/researcher, feminist activist and artist. She is creator/curator of #WOMENSART, see

Marxism will give health to the sick, Frida Kahlo, 1954
Tuesday, 20 February 2018 13:04

'Marxism will heal the sick': Frida Kahlo and Karl Marx

Published in Visual Arts

To mark the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx, PL Henderson offers an appreciation of one of Frida Kahlo’s greatest paintings, which was heavily influenced by Marx's creative thinking.

One of the last paintings Frida Kahlo ever created was entitled ´Marxism will heal the sick` (1954). On the 200th anniversary of the birth of Marx, it is perhaps fitting to explore an artwork inspired by the influential revolutionary socialist thinker. Analysis of the painting, however, necessitates an understand of the artist herself, her motivation and personal context within an intriguing life and artistic career, culminating in this work which would be one of her final messages to the world.

Frida Kahlo was born in 1907, into an early 20th century global era of political upheaval, bloody revolutionary uprisings and world war. In turn, the artist´s native country did not escape such instability and in 1910 Mexico was plunged into revolution. Kahlo´s childhood progressed therefore, amid a backdrop of armed rebellion against the suppression of the peasant classes, calls for land reforms and nationalization of resources. The rebels also rejected a European-style cultural template as the ideal, in favor of promoting indigenous Mexican culture. The political fervor and reclaiming of a more authentic national identity not only informed Kahlo´s own political perspective but, in turn, would have a major influence on her later artworks.

By the time Frida was twenty years old she had already joined the Mexican Communist Party and here her relationship with Diego Rivera, a painter of revolutionary murals and fellow member of the Party (later expelled), intensified. To describe Rivera as the more politically influential partner, citing the difference in age and experience, is to do Kahlo an intellectual disservice however. Kahlo was from a middle-class family and therefore benefitted from an education including a wide range of resources and reading. The artist´s father also encouraged his daughter in gaining full advantage of an education only made possible by the recent admittance of girls to preparatory schools during the revolution. Here the teenage artist was heavily involved with a group of socialists known as the Cachuchas. This small society of young intellectuals were known not only for their adolescent pranks, but also for their sharing of ideas on history, philosophy and the political theorizing of Marx.

While the revolutionary events of the era, an informed education, in addition to politically motivated associates, all aided the formation of Kahlo´s Marxist ideals, it was perhaps her personal circumstances that created an extra dimension to her perspectives. As a child Kahlo had suffered from polio, contracting the disease at the age of six and as a result was forced to spend nine months in bed. As part of her recuperation, Kahlo fought back against both her disability and gendered expectations of the era by taking part in sports such as boxing, to strengthen the weakness created by her illness. The artist´s later only partial recovery from a catastrophic tram accident not only heavily impacted on her physically, but also aiding in forming her character and beliefs. Her ability to survive the tortuous aftermath of multiple devastating injuries emphasized her resilience in the face of extreme personal adversity. Both her pain and endurance were also often themes and motifs within many of her artworks, forming an empathetic link between Kahlo and all those who struggle and yet must fight to survive.

A metaphorical relationship between Kahlo´s own disability and her politics is clearly evident in her painting ´Marxism will heal the sick´. The artist presents a self-portrait in orthopedic leather corset, as an embodiment of the suffering of the masses under the oppression of US capitalist forces. As the artist portrays herself as gently embraced by the reassuring, god-like hands of Marx however, she is reflected as able to throw away her crutches, promoting an evangelic-like message regarding the healing properties of Marxism for society. Kahlo´s use of symbolism and iconography communicate as if a political poster with rather simplistic reading. The divided ´good and evil´ composition of the canvas with use of opposing and familiar icons of war and peace, in addition to the saintly Marx and the strangling of the US eagle, are clearly illustrating a specific political agenda.  Even Kahlo´s dress and commonly adopted naïve, brightly coloured folk style of painting, reflect the promotion of indigenous arts embraced by the Mexican Renaissance movement, and is symbolic of a cultural identity freed by revolution.

Having spent decades producing many groundbreaking and what may be described as feminist self-portraits examining the physiological and often painful areas of her own life, from the disintegration of her marriage to her miscarriage, Kahlo`s move to a more overtly political stance was a form of resolution for the artist. As Kahlo´s commitment to the Communist Party grew, so did her wish to create a greater connection between her art and her political beliefs. The artist´s home had been an open house to many radical thinkers and her involvement with Trotsky, who sought refuge there, has been well documented. In the last days of her life she continued to be politically active, demonstrating against US imperialism in her wheelchair, despite the recent amputation of her leg and a deterioration in her general health. Kahlo died in 1954, leaving her painting unfinished. A rousing chorus of The International was sung at the painter´s funeral and her coffin was shrouded in the red flag with the Communist emblem of hammer and sickle.  

Kahlo, as a woman who defied expectations of sex and sexual orientation, as a Mexican, as a survivor of great personal trauma and disability, knew only too well the meaning of the struggle to be free, an ideal she perceived was embedded in Marxism. Her political beliefs in fact, in addition to her art, her country and her lifelong endurance, defined the artist. Kahlo apparently finally found her own inner peace within the message of her last painting, in which a lifetime of personal pain and political struggle are united. Kahlo’s paintings (such as The Broken Column) are famous for their tears, but as her life ebbed away, the painter reportedly said of this work "For the first time, I am not crying any more". 

PL FK the broken column 1944

   The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo, 1944.

West End of Newcastle, 1981
Tuesday, 16 May 2017 14:18

Women's Art

Published in Visual Arts

PL Henderson introduces the #WOMENSART project, which demonstrates how women have continued to create art, often as radicals, rebels and pioneers, despite the social, cultural and economic restrictions placed upon them.

In 1972, Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT created a small manifesto entitled ‘Women’s Art’ in which she highlighted the cultural and social implications of Western male domination of the arts. The artist stated that such artistic authority created an all-consuming visual language both informing and shaping human perceptions. Whether by brush, camera or any other media, she concluded that this consequently produced a skewed and man-made reality. In an era of second wave feminism, civil rights activism, early post-colonial analysis and gay liberation, VALIE EXPORT’s writing aided a growing cacophony of confrontations with the elitist, white, male status quo.

The recording of history has always been used as a vehicle for projecting specific viewpoints, often as a means of political, social and cultural control. Western art history, as a product of Western white men, is perhaps unsurprisingly a chronological celebration of the European male. As a singular congratulatory narrative, it has been criticised for omitting acknowledgement of a pertinent subtext of systematic gendered exclusion and Eurocentric ideological domination. So embedded is the idea of an innate Caucasian and masculine capacity for greatness within the arts (and, of course, beyond), without a nod to the weighted relevance of context, that inevitably a lasting and biased cultural legacy still exists.

In the late twentieth century, feminist art historians and theorists began to highlight the insight that to understand the gendered assumptions reinforcing ideas of ‘art’, it is essential to explore the work women create in relation to their male counterparts. Rather than painting female artists into a (more) marginalized corner, a common criticism, naming women’s work is a means to recognise and reclaim it from an often hostile culture of invisibility and erasure. Art is art and artists are artists, yes, but there is also a gendered historical, social and cultural framework in which it is produced and received, which has ongoing implications on issues of value and recognition. The masculine term ‘master’, for instance, and the ideal of lone male genius, still underpin the omnipresent Western concept of ‘the artist’.

Intended to counter such pervasive mythology, EXPORT’s feminist evaluation created waves that would add to the growing tempest of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The artist highlighted male dominance in the arts as entrenching gendered norms in wider society, while stating that a lack of autonomy for women in representation was simultaneously insidious and normalised. For centuries notions of womanhood were presented to the world by artists who had no knowledge of what it is to be female. Linking the lack of autonomic women’s representation to more general female oppression, EXPORT argued that this has enabled ‘woman’ to become a vessel for male fantasy and control.

Over the latter part of the 20th century, academics and theorists continued to challenge the Western male viewpoint as the template for art history. The view that women’s absence from the canon is due to their incapacity for genius has been contested, citing a necessity to re-evaluate context, such as consideration of social structures, educational and economic access, patronage and resources. Examination of authorship and representation, reception and evaluation, utilising gender as a tool of analysis, has also explored how genres, conventions and techniques became associated with evolving cultural ideas of femininity and masculinity. All, in turn, have been considered in terms of the sanctioning of social power relations, and a lasting ideology surrounding the artistic production of both men and women.

flaten look again 2

Despite theorists challenging an inherent misogynic environment pervading the arts and its history, the ongoing activism of feminist pressure groups such as the Guerilla Girls, reflect that the 21st century has not yet fully addressed the sexism and racism of the mainstream art world. For example, of the major US museums criticized for giving zero solo exhibitions to women in 1985, each gave only one solo show to female artists in 2016. A legacy from EXPORT’s era of early post-modernist challenges to the establishment is one of organised self-sufficiency, as feminist groups, black arts movements and grassroots communities set out to create their own independent galleries, studios and publicity machines, thus bypassing the institutionalised and oppressive limitations of the established systems of art. Such inventiveness translated to the modern era, in turn, can be exemplified by the use of social media as an invaluable contemporary tool enabling access and promotion for those who have been unjustly marginalized by society.

My own online project #WOMENSART was created with the simple premise of raising the profile of women artists. By highlighting their diverse historic and global work, the project clearly reflects that ‘women’s art’ is not a category in itself, yet it does indicate genres to which women are more culturally and socially linked. #WOMENSART also creates an integral opportunity to promote women’s self-representation and to explore the female rather than much more scrutinized ‘male gaze’. Commonly women artists have employed strategies to support their own presentation as active subjects, as opposed to passive objects of male consumption. In a contemporary pornography-saturated internet culture, female-centric perspectives are still rare, still considered daunting or radical, and yet are an obvious antidote to androcentrism (a term introduced by early 20th century feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman to describe the normalized practice of placing male human beings at the center of culture and history).

In turn, specific exploration of the artwork of women has enabled insights into areas including capitalism, migration, class, globalization, ethnicity, disability and so on, from an unusual, uniquely female perspective. In doing so this has exposed a subtext of experiential and biological connections between women, as issues relating to girlhood, motherhood, abortion, body image, pregnancy, infertility, social role, violence against women and so on, are highlighted as common historic and global themes in their work. In addition, the #WOMENSART project has enabled consideration of genres such as textiles, ceramics, zines, crafts and street art rather than focusing solely on the Western definition of ‘high art’ (sculpture and painting), therefore challenging the hierarchical limitations of a system historically based on discrimination rather than ability.

Utilising social media as an outreach facility has, in turn, proved quite a leveller, as it provides access to/for artists, genres and audiences that the establishment may ignore. The autonomy of the format enables an online ‘curator’ to highlight (unashamedly) specific promotion. This avoids the accepted tokenism of space for a few female artists amongst a majority of males, so often the formula of contemporary mainstream presentation. Online galleries also do not necessarily require commercial success, in which case there is no reliance on the ‘blockbuster exhibition’ inevitably featuring established and safe ‘superstar’ (typically white male) artists. The relative success of such online initiatives, therefore, perhaps lies in the fact that they are free to challenge expectations and assumptions, generating genuine intrigue.

As the #WOMENSART project demonstrates, despite the social, economic and cultural restrictions imposed on them, women have continued to create, often as radicals, rebels and pioneers. VALIE EXPORT’s manifesto, however, remains a valid and relevant document in terms of ongoing white male control of the arts. Her rallying call for women to produce their own means of expression, thus influencing social consciousness, is being answered, as female artists, curators, filmmakers, media editors and so on are creating a growing impact on culture. In fact, in order to curb female erasure and their continuing struggle for human rights, enabling women’s own voices, whether by brush, camera of any other media, remains vital. The consequence of which could be to overturn EXPORT’s disturbing conclusions on the progressing construction of a male-centric reality, thus facilitating a culture of human truths.