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Confirming claims and investigating identities : Frida Kahlo and American feminism in the late 1970s Melnychuk, Sue


In the summer of 1991 full fledge "Fridamania" hit New York. Backlit billboards exhibited self portraits of the 20th century Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo (1904 -1954) and it seemed that KahIo had onc e again been re-discovered by the United States public. This scenario of re-discovery is one that KahIo has been constantly subjected to. And it is for that reason that she is a n excellent candidate through which to examine processes of reception implicit to art history. Her candidacy is particularly appropriate when one considers the dramatic transformation of her status from that of heroine for American feminist art historians writing in the 1970s, to the existent explosion of near cult status in 1990. It is not Kahlo herself who is the subject of this thesis, rather it is her reception by the American public. To consider such a "public" is an overly broad task; therefore I will focus on Kahlo's reception by American feminist historians in the late 1970s. This focus highlights my interest in feminist art history, and provides an opportunity to consider the claims of that seemingly distant and radical era. Kahlo's significance for feminists will be explored through an interrogation of the interpretive strategies used by feminist historians writing on KahIo. The purpose is both, to recognize the historical challenges feminist art historians encountered, and to elucidate the underlying issues that ideologically bound American feminism together. In consideration of these ideological connections this thesis contends that many of the challenges feminist historians faced were in fact discursive pressures which functioned to limit and contain their feminist practise. Each chapter within the thesis examines a specific feminist interpretive strategy that characterized how issues of biography, the canon , and nationalism structured feminist writing in the instance of Frida Kahlo. The main thrust of this investigation is not so much the conclusions of feminists, but rather how their strategies describe a struggle for interpretive power in the cultural economy of the United States in the late 1970s. The method I am using seeks to grapple with both the historical contingencies of the period, and limitations enforced by art historical discourse. This will be done by examining sites of contradiction and patterns of absence inherent to the historical narratives feminists have built around Frida Kahlo's personae and practise. It is at these sites of conflict and absence that insights are gained into the historical discursive pressures encountered by feminists. The political and historical choices feminists made are quite clear, what is not, are the needs, agendas and pressures behind those choices. My contention is that strategies of American feminist historians were informed not only by a feminist-politic, but by an American cultural-politic which acted as both screen and frame for their investigations. Moreover, that politic served to establish a n d maintain viewing positions from which a feminist art historical identity could b e formed. Ultimately this paper suggests that the feminist reception of KahIo, served the needs of an American viewing position, both through its ability to confirm the claims, and enforce the identity, of its own position.

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