Frida Kahlo and Joy Hester
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Frida Kahlo and Joy Hester
During the 1940s and 50s a emergence of strong female artistic influence can be seen using the examples of Joy Hester and Frida Kahlo. While Kahlo was recognised during her life as a brilliant independent artist for her ground-breakingly personal style, Hester was not. It was only after her death in 1960 that her art was truly celebrated in Australian exhibitions.
Hester and Kahlo both attended art schools through the 1920s and 30s; because of this they share many of the same basic artistic influences. Surrealism played a big part in the development of their art, especially in Kahlos works that are often associated with surrealism. Expressionism was another influence they shared but it played less of a role in their art as it only began development in the 1950s. Both of these movements and those preceding them were male dominated and as such, it was male conditioning of the time that dictated the inappropriateness of women to paint their own lives yet this is exactly what these women did. It is this autobiographical nature of their work that makes them not only similar but also innovative artists, challenging the conceptions of the time. Their husbands were both influential and successful artists however these women maintained their independence and these common influences created two artists that made headway in the womens art movement.
As far as the art world is concerned, Hester and Kahlos influences were very similar however in the geographical world they couldnt have been further apart, and these local influences are evident, especially in Kahlos use of Mexican and Aztec symbols. Self Portrait with monkeys, 1943, demonstrates the heavy use of traditional symbols typical of Kahlo. This painting shows a combination of intricately braided hair, the Bird of Paradise flower, monkeys and traditional blouse. Kahlo carefully considers all elements of her work, including the colours used. This is evident in her choice of symbols to convey a very intricate meaning. In this particular painting the natural elements are heavily integrated into the composition; surrounding Kahlo are vines linking her to nature itself. Kahlo was unable to bear children and her link here to nature, especially with the presence of so many monkeys (a traditional symbol of fertility), may represent her desire to be a part of this aspect of nature. Fertility has a huge presence in this painting as the flower, the white of her shirt, and the lush green vines all symbolise health, fertility and purity, none of which Kahlo herself possessed. Through her symbolism Kahlo created meaning and added emphasis on particular aspects of her life. Critics have likened her tendency to do this to a method of self-creation rather than self-expression. She places herself within a scenario she wishes to be in or a person she recreates herself as, in this painting for example, she would be using her engulfment in fertility symbols as a way of showing herself as fertile. Either way, the painting speaks very strongly of Kahlos link to motherhood, through the local, Mexican symbols.
Hester also drew on symbols in her daily life such as her doll gethsemane and various domestic birds but instead of using specific objects to convey the messages in her work she placed a new level of emotion and meaning onto the objects through light, texture and other artistic techniques. This can be seen in Girl with flowers, 1956,in
which Hester shows a girl with tense shoulders, drawn up defensively toward the face. The girls eyes are large and timid with the brow tense like the shoulders. The eyes look up and to the side, suggestive of a larger demanding threat; this makes the flowers a modern symbol of romance and happiness become something of a shield as they are clutched to the face, hiding all features besides the eyes. The intense emotion of the submissive female and the suggestion of a greater action outside the canvas make the flowers the focus point of the audiences attention as they hold the connotation of friendliness, if not romance, an emotion so contrary to the expression of the girl. In this way, Hester has added meaning and weight to the bouquet in a way completely different to the methods of Kahlo. While Kahlo composes a story through combinations of symbols, Hester composes hers through a manipulation of the symbolic elements.
Kahlo has been likened to La Lorona; the Weeping Mother of Mexican legend; and this is a title that could just as easily fit Hester. Other than afore mentioned externalities, these women shared many similar personal difficulties such as severe illness, problems with motherhood and dysfunctional marriages. They women used these as stimuli for their art yet their method of expression is completely different. They painted many self-portraits yet Hesters are often unrecognisable as being herself. Kahlo on the other hand always appears with the same mask-like expression, staring out of the canvas without a smile, without a trace of the messages the painting contains. One point of anxiety for Hester was her children. Shortly after the birth of her son Sweeny, Hester was diagnosed with Hogkins disease. Proceeding this was a chain of event that lead her to leave her husband, well known Australian artist, Albert Tucker and move to Sydney with another man, to whom she had two more children. Her first son Sweeny however, was adopted by her good friend Sunday Reid, an event that emotionally tormented Hester, even with the birth of her subsequent two children. She shows this in her painting Mother and Baby, 1955, painted shortly after the birth of her second child. This painting includes Hesters trademark-enlarged eyes and strong contrast. The mother and baby here look like the same form as the babys head doubles as the mothers breast. This shows the dependence of a baby on his mother yet the protruding eyes and the awkwardness of the mothers hand holding the baby suggest a discomfort within the relationship. The baby appears to be cradled by the mothers hair and although this should be a comforting image it is hardly sentimental. The image has a certain sinister note due to the lack of colour and heavily outlined features of the mother combined with the faint features of the baby. This