Sandra Barba‘s engagement with the issue of gender-based violence and the idea of art as counter-narrative in this piece reflects the research interests of genderjusticememory.
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Unos Cuantos Piquetitos is not a predictable self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, but rather a crude visual recording of a femicide. Fortunately, how we understand a work of art is not limited to the artist’s state of mind, and even less so to interpretations based on hearsay.
Unos Cuantos Piquetitos is not a predictable self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, but rather a crude visual recording of a femicide. None of that matters because the common interpretation of the canvas believes it to be no more than a projection of the vexation Frida felt when she realised Diego had an affair with her sister. Not even the most famous female painter of the nation escapes gender discrimination.
We know that Frida read about the brutal murder of a woman at the hands of her partner – her husband, her boyfriend? – in the papers. But we believe ourselves to be Kahlo’s close friends. We feel like her confidants. They say she confessed to a friend that she had painted the scene because she felt that murder reflected her own suffering. This suggests that this painting does not represent a femicide, but that it is instead a personal allegory where Diego’s wife conveys how his infidelity made her feel wounded, like she was dying. As such, Frida is construed not as an artist, but as a woman hurt by her husband’s actions.
Fortunately, how we understand a work of art is not limited to the artist’s state of mind, and even less so to interpretations based on hearsay. I want to suggest that it does not matter why she painted it, but rather that she did, and how it was that she did: we have to forget what we know of her romantic biography and look again.
This is important because it shows that the feminists of today are not the first to have popular culture resonate with us and the particular violence we experience. The theme of Unos Cuantos Piquetitos sprung from there, from sensationalist journalism – far from academic painting and the Fine Arts.
It also shows that we were not the first to respond to the prejudices embodied in popular culture by reclaiming it for ourselves. If Unos Cuantos Piquetitos was inspired by a newspaper, it was elaborated in the form of an exvoto. I feel like Kahlo could not have chosen a better medium through which to represent femicide: these paintings, as religious offerings, had been a popular method of recording every-day violence since the viceroyship and going back to the 19th century.
There are exvotos of transit accidents, of a derailed train that has flung significant numbers of dead bodies and a few survivors from its carriages; one such survivor took charge of painting the tragedy in which he was spared. He then diligently brought the work to a chapel to give thanks to the divine intervention of some saint or the Virgin Mary. There are exvotos of illnesses believed to be incurable, such as cancer, and others of assaults, because these also end in misfortune. This medium could not be more appropriate for representing femicide.
But unlike the other examples, there is no hope for the woman in Kahlo’s piece. Kahlo implies by not painting saints or virgins coming to the rescue. What is left, then, is a popular representation of violence, but devoid of hope or salvation, an uncensored image.
The large bloodstains on the floor hardly equal the number of stab wounds. A man murdered a woman. He still has the weapon in his hand (when I observe this detail I imagine the description: “he attacked her with a sharp object” from the newspaper article). With stab wounds to her heart, one above her breast, several more to her stomach and some as far down as her legs, this naked woman is not erotic, but gruesome. This is not a clean homicide. You don’t need to stab someone that many times to kill them: excess is one of the characteristics particular to femicide. That same image seems incapable of containing that disproportionate violence, dripping blood all over, overflowing and splashing the frame.
Thanks to Dina Comisarenco, we know that a contemporary of Kahlo’s also engaged with the representation of femicide in popular culture. “Isabel Villaseñor collected corridos (Mexican ballads) as Kahlo did exvotos. The genre has different variations – some with better rhymes than others–, but La güera Chabela (Blonde Lizzy) always tells the story of Jesús Cadena who shoots a woman – his girlfriend, his wife? – when he discovers her dancing in the arms of another. As Kahlo did, Villaseñor took this reference and responded to it through popular culture: the corrido was recorded in the cheapest form of producing and reproducing images.
La güera Chabela, Isabel Villaseñor, 1929. Tomado de http://miguelangelmoralex-bitacora.blogspot.mx/
An art historian or critic would be ridiculed for insisting that Villaseñor chose to represent that corrido because she shared the name of its protagonist, Chabela, being a rendition of Isabel: this is what constantly occurs with Frida Kahlo.
But actually, these works understood femicide as the consequence of a virility which “would not leave anyone be”, that interpreted sexual liberation as promiscuity and requires women’s monogamy, but not men’s. A virility which imagines the acts and decisions of women as a painful and personal affront which must be punished in order to restore authority and honour.
But Unos cuantos piquetitos and La güera chabela do not celebrate the courage of Jesús Cadena. On the contrary, Kahlo concentrates on femicide as massacre. The title of the canvas, which can be read on the inscribed banner, supposedly a direct quote from when the accused addressed the judge – “but they were only a few small nips!” – it denies, it rejects and it ridicules the brutality of the scene. And as Comisarenco observes, Villaseñor confronts the woman’s corpse and her family’s suffering. The men are responsible, but they are not the protagonists of femicide.
I cannot say that such responses to popular culture which reclaimed various popular mediums of representation were commonplace in the art produced in the first half of the last century. However, like Comisarenco, I am interested in how these women, by engaging with post-Revolution pop-culture through their art, conveyed something that was, as of yet, undefined.