ann arbor history

A sublimated murder: A Visual Analysis of Frida with Globe (1938)

Frida Kahlo sits with her arm on the table holding the head, slightly lifting her jaw, looking at us with a hint of contempt and ineffable sadness, as if losing in thoughts. There is a wooden table on her left side with a globe carefully placed on a pedestal which at first reminds me of the magic power of her paintings—the madness and extreme emotion expressed in the vibrate colors, themes of pain and death. The globe here, together with Frida herself, more or less make me relate her to the figure with magical power, which also reminds me of one of her quotes, “Take a lover who looks at you like maybe you are magic.”

The photo was taken in the photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s studio, which implies that the interior is more or less arranged on purpose by the photographer. He tactfully takes advantage of the globe—whether as a prop or a metonymy to reflect the whole interior of the room without which we could not see in this photo. Now through the curve surface of the glassy globe we can tell the void interior of the room—a small door, two windows, almost no furniture, empty ceiling, empty wall, empty space, as if totally exposed to the spectators. However, we could see, through the photographer’s lens, what Frida wears—the long cotton dress with rich layers and different patterns, the shawl, assorted necklaces made of wooden beams, earrings—are the exact opposite of the “exposed”, as if she wants to wrap herself up through layers of the thick material on her body to feel secured. The surface of the table is also covered with the soft striped tablecloth so that her arm would not touch the coldness of the wooden surface, making the possible expose to the outside world out of the question.

What I read through Manuel’s photo is that Frida tries to cover herself by separating from everything in the outside world, in the attempt of protecting herself from the unknown danger and pain. He rendered her as a figure who looks vulnerable and feminine through the comparison between emptiness and fullness, the physical implications—the flowery pattern dress, earrings and necklaces, and also the gesture, which, to some extent, totally challenges the figure what Frida see herself in the self-portrait she painted. In her most famous Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940), she portraits herself almost looking more like a man, or to say, a king in his own kingdom through the thick coal-black eyebrows, the light moustache, the sharp eyes, and the majestic looks. By using the huge contrast between the “covered” and the “exposed”, the photographer successfully kills the figure that the artist see herself.

The photograph also reverses the spectators’ impression of the artist through most of her paintings, which always relates to madness, extreme passion, bold expressions and daring styles. Say, A Few Small Nips (1935), which was based on the most heart-broken event for Frida—her husband Diego’s affair with her young sister Christina.

In the painting, a naked woman lay on the bed, with blood and knife wounds all over her body, totally exposed to the out world. A man stands besides her, holding a knife in hand with a slightly evil smile. The blood on the scene even goes out of the painting—the shocking red deliberately being painted on the frame of the painting, which in some way suggests that the reality is equivalent to the picture, that she is a painful suffer in the real life like the woman being murdered. As she said, ”I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” The title of the painting A Few Small Nips originated from a news report about an unfaithful woman being murdered, and the murderer defended himself by saying “but it was just a few small nips.” The giant contrast between the subject depicted in the picture—the severed wounded woman and the ironic title A Few Small Nips intensifies her emotional wounds and pain, almost like a murder.

While in Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s Frida with Globe, Frida seems strangely calm and introverted out of the way, with a kind of detached look on her face, covered heavily with rich layers of clothes, with one hand on the knee and resting her chin on the other hand. A woman just likes a typical middle-class madame, mild and normal, who we would probably feel quite comfortable to sit with, without feeling any threat, roughness or aggressiveness, which is actually penetrated in her paintings. Again, the photographer challenges the figure of Frida in audiences’ minds by portraying her as a harmless, mild, and gentle woman.

These two gaps—one between the subject which the photographer captured and the figure Frida see herself, and the other between what photographer try to shoot the artist and what the third part—audiences see the artist—reminds me of the famous words in Susan Sontag’s On Photograph, “ To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as them never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have…Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder.” (Sontag, P11-12)

Here, Manuel Alvarez Bravo successfully completes the duel “sublimated murder” by capturing the artist in his own words through constructing contrast between the “exposed” and the “covered” and other detailed implications, killing both the figure artist see herself and the image of the artist in our mind. He “intervenes” the picture rather than simply served as a recorder. (Sontag, P10)

And I, as a third-person narrative, also achieve this “sublimated murder” by deconstructing the photograph through my visual analysis, trying to interpret something may or may not intended in my own words.

Written by: Mo Zhang

Works Cited: Susan Sontag, One Photograph. London : Allen Lane, 1978. Print.