The Female Self-Portrait in Mexico During the First Half of the 20th Century

Música Acuática Bajo la Regadera Sensual | Marinela de la Hoz | 2001

by  Dina Comisarenco Mirkin
The creative productivity of Mexican women, in the Mexican School as well as in the rest of the artistic movements of the first half of the 20th century, is one of the more notable cultural accomplishments of the great artistic renaissance of this era.
Patrons of the arts such as María Asúnsolo, Pita Amor, Lupe Marín and Dolores Olmedo; painters like Nahui Olin, Frida Kahlo, María Izquierdo, Olga Costa and Rosa Rolanda; as well as photographers like Tina Modotti and Lola Álvarez Bravo, are just some of the many artistic promoters and visual creators who, through their diverse and complementary works, enriched the already valuable and miscellaneous national artistic horizon.

Feeding on the struggles of the 19th century in favor of social and cultural rights for women, as well as on the profound changes brought on by the revolution, during the first decades of the 20th century the artists and benefactors previously cited contributed to the creation of a more favorable environment for feminine artistic creation. In fact, many of them established important bonds of solidarity between them, something that proved essential toward strengthening the resistance to a society that was particularly reluctant to change its ancestral and restrictive patriarchal structure in relation to their professional development.

Although most of these women created a sundry of important works in several artistic genres—mainly through traditionalist works, such as Olga Costa’s The Fruit Seller (1951); works of social critique, such as Lola Álvarez Bravo’s The Dream of the Poor (ca. 1940); or allegorical still lives, such as Tina Modotti’s Guitar, Sickle and Ammunition Belt (1927)—it was the portrait, and particularly the subgenre of the self-portrait, abundant and diverse in its artistic production, that offers us a privileged window into some of the creative secrets of the extraordinary women artists of Mexico in this era.

The 1920s

Following the watershed moment that was the Mexican Revolution in relation to the profound societal transformations, specifically in relation to the widening of the range of women’s activities, during the 1920s women began leaving their home to work. As his great mission, the Secretary of Education, José de Vasconcelos, incorporated many women into Mexican education, primarily as teachers. These women achieved a very important social function, acquiring at the same time more notoriety and public recognition. This favored an understanding of the importance and necessity that women be allowed to serve in different areas of the cultural, social and political worlds.

Between the years of 1925 and 1926, the presence of Alexandra Kollantai, the feminist Soviet ambassador to Mexico, stimulated the formation of several organizations exclusively related to women’s rights, which the young Mexican feminists consulted frequently. These women continued to try to develop action plans that would permit them to advance in their struggle, but this was difficult to achieve when being integrated with unions and political organizations.

The growing international influence, especially of the American way of life, that penetrated the country through Hollywood’s flourishing film industry, fashion magazines, and newspaper ads, had an impact in the diffusion of the new ideal type of liberated woman. This woman was free and less attached to the restrictive rolls traditionally ascribed to females, who increasingly occupied new places in labor and sports.

In the field of literature and the visual arts, a notable case of a Mexican artist of great talent and a feminist conscience was Carmen Mondragón (1893-1978), known popularly as Nahui Olin, as she was nicknamed by Dr. Atl. Olin was a true modern woman who defied the social mores as well as the artistic conventions of her time. Although currently she is more known as the muse who inspired numerous Mexican artists of the pre-revolutionary period, during her youth, Nahui Olin was a very active artist who created numerous avant-garde poems and paintings, more specifically self-portraits.

Each of these self-portraits possesses different symbolic connotations, from the one in which she appears as a young student, titled Self-Portrait as a Schoolgirl in Paris (n.d.), in which she represents herself as serious and demure; to the ones in her series of double self-portraits, in which she appears with her lovers, like in Nahui and Lizardo in Front of the Acapulco Bay (1921); and, finally, the ones that form the series that takes place in New York, where it is said that she had a passionate romance with a boat captain, in paintings such as Nahui and Agacino in Front of the Island of Manhattan (n.d.), in which the artist openly alludes to her sexuality with an unusual radicalism.

In some of her poems—such as “Under the Shroud of Snow Sleeps the Iztatzihuatl,” “The Cancer That Steals Our Lives,” or, more specifically, “Je pose aux artistas”—Nahui was able to explain her clearly feminist conscience. At the same time, she was also able to establish an interesting intertextual dialogue with the images created of her by some of her male colleagues, especially with the photographs of Antonio Garduño, such as Nahui Olin, Naked with Manila Shawl, or Nahui Olin. She also maintained a dialogue with portraits of her made by Gerardo Murillo “Dr. Atl,” such as Portrait of Naui Olin (n.d.) and Naui Olin (ca. 1922). In this way, in her self-portraits, the artist not only challenged and broke with some of the visual codes of the female nude in art that traditionally objectifies women’s bodies, but she was able to express a new and alternative image of herself as an active being, in charge of her own body and with the artistic means to express it.

Another female modern artist important for the rich Mexican scene of the 1920s was the Italian photographer Tina Modotti (1896-1942). A student of Edward Weston—who drew her in many works, such as Tina Modotti on the Roof (ca. 1924)—, Modotti didn’t take long to assimilate the aesthetic lessons of her teacher. She put her refined technique to the service of social causes in notable works such as Peasant Rally (1926) and Elegance and Poverty (1928). Modotti also created numerous portraits, not only of some of the most prominent figures of the Mexican art scene of the time, but of many anonymous women, which she made during her trip to the isthmus of Tehuantepec, where she developed a particular iconography of great sensibility and empathy toward working indigenous women, motherhood and childhood, as well as the different problems of that place.

The 1930s

During the 1930s, in accordance to the international trends of the era, Mexican society began to live through some very meaningful societal changes that would affect the social role and political participation of women. More and more of them started to join the labor force. They began having access to better educational and professional opportunities, which, in turn, led to a widening of their social, political and cultural spheres.

The progressive government of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) created a very favorable environment for political participation, mobilization, and for the demands of a better standard of living and women’s suffrage. Cardenas’s wife, Amalia Solórzano Bravo, was a fervent defender of women’s rights and, during her husband’s mandate, many women occupied important positions in the government. Palma Guillén, for example, was chosen as a foreign relations representative, first in Colombia and then in Denmark. Women mobilized to demand better working conditions and the right to sex education in schools. The latter was part of a controversial education reform known as “socialist education,” which was enacted by the new government. Unfortunately, the demands in favor of women’s suffrage of that era didn’t get the expected results.

A very important moment in the feminist struggle of the 1930s took place in 1935, with the launch of the Single Front for Women’s Rights (FUPDM in Spanish), a large group made up of women of different social classes and political orientations. The Front combined the opposition to fascism and foreign intervention with a wide list of demands in favor of women’s rights: the right to vote, equality for indigenous populations and the less favored, and reforms to the labor laws and the civil code.

Mexican women also participated in important actions of the political and artistic arenas. In this way, for example, the visual artist and writer Aurora Reyes, who was also an important fighter for women’s rights, created The Attack of a Rural Teacher (1936) in the Revolución Educational Center of Mexico City, rightly considered the first mural created in the country by a female artist.

It was also in this decade when Frida Kahlo had her first individual exhibit at a prominent New York gallery, the Julien Levy Gallery, and another one in Paris, at the Renou et Colle Gallery. In this way she consolidated her international recognition, which was to become the first step toward the respect she would receive in her own country much later.

During the 1930s, a large group of female artists surged in Mexico. In their works they manifested a surprising conscience of gender that, in turn, influenced the environment of struggle characteristic of the era. The surrealist esthetic—with its profound vision of human beings and its vindication with the world of fantasy, with which its artists aspired to reconcile dream and reality with the role of art in society—found in Mexico very fertile land.

In the area of photography excelled another couple of Mexican artists, Lola (1902-1993) and Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902-2002). During their lives, including after their separation in 1934, the artists continued sharing models, such as the painter Isabel Villaseñor, something that gave way to extraordinary images from both artists such as Manuel’s Portrait of the Eternal (1931) and Lola’s The Dream (1941). The couple drew portraits of each other, like Manuel’s Box of Visions (1938) and Lola’s Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1980), and they established rich visual and thematic dialogues with many other works.

In Lola Álvarez Bravo’s Mermaids in the Air (ca. 1935-36), one of the artists poetic photomontages, two mermaids seem to leave their traditional song behind—a song that, according to mythology, enchanted seafarers—to utilize instead a gargantuan typewriter. This was a symbol not only of the sudden interruption of technology in the modern world, but also of the new employment options open for women of the 1930s, which were referenced above. The photomontage, the convulsive beauty of the image, as well as the contrast between two unequal realities (so loved by the French movement), acquire in this manner in the work of Lola a novel meaning that highlights a commentary about the social reality that she lived, in this case in focusing on the situation of women.

Without a doubt, one of the more notable works of the 1930s was The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), extraordinary artist who, throughout her career, gave an important place to the self-portrait not only in quantity, but also in relation to the iconographic complexity and depth with which she imbued it. Her plentiful and detailed self-portraits, seen through the lens of her dramatic life, marked by physical and spiritual suffering, are well known. This is why in the framework of this text I am more interested in underscoring another dimension of the images of herself, which is not very known, but is equally important. It derives from a contextualized reading of her life in relation with the strongly politicized environment in which they developed.

In previous texts, I argued the hypothesis that Frida’s self-portraits could be read as metaphors of the revolutionary process: My Birth (1932) as an expression of the violence of the revolutionary outbreak; My Nurse and I (1937) as a metaphor for the indigenous roots that fed the revolutionary movement, personified again through her image, in this case as a baby with an adult face being breastfed by her masked nurse; and Frida and Diego (1931) as a symbol of the surge of the muralist movement incarnated in Diego, romantically animated by the revolution, personified again by the vital and petite Frida dressed with the colors of the Mexican flag.

Likewise, The Two Fridas—besides the autobiographical notes in relation to the childhood fantasies of the artist toward a friend, to the pain she experimented in relation to her then recent divorce to Diego Rivera, and to her bisexual orientation—speak to us of the difficult reconciliation in Mexican culture between its pre-Hispanic past, represented by the Frida wearing a Tehuana dress on the right of the image, and the modern world personified by the Frida wearing a white, western dress on the left. The open hearts and the constant and apparently unstoppable flow of blood represented in the image, speak of not only the individual and subjective pain, but also of the social dimension of miscegenation, a process that to this day lives painfully in the acute social differences that characterize Mexican society.

The 1940s and 1950s

During this period, the Mexican movement for human rights experienced a pause, referred by the distinguished academic Esperanza Tuñón Pablos as a “dead time” for feminism. Even though in 1947 then Mexican president Miguel Alemán gave women the right to vote in municipal elections, many specialists agree that it was more a strategy to get the popular support of a sector that was considered traditionally conservative than a real and profound recognition of the long years women’s struggle for their rights. In 1953, Adolfo Ruiz Cortines, president from 1952-1958, extended this prerogative nationwide. Even if the right to vote opened new legal possibilities for women, the spectrum of their activities in the public spheres remained limited. The official discourse of the time still insisted in the necessity to remind women that their “essential” and principal role resided in maternity and the home.

However, in culture and arts, Mexico continued producing extraordinary women artists for which the portrait and self-portrait continued serving as arenas where they could make not only individual or autobiographical statements, but also social and political ones, many times with profound and avant-garde gender connotations. An outstanding work in this sense was Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), in which the image of the artist, clad in men’s clothes, incites reflection upon the social mores of the time. Many of these social conventions are still felt to this day, like those in relation to gender identity, their expectations, and their often unfair and discriminatory social assessments.

In fact, the text and notes of the popular Mexican song inscribed by Frida in the upper part of the painting—“if I loved you it was for your hair, now that you’re bald, I don’t love you”—and the image that reiterates the many tufts of hair ripped by the violent scissors, speak to us of the renunciation of an element generally constitutive of the female gender, the long hair, and its pernicious affective repercussions in love and in the social esteem of women.

In many other works of that decade, such as Lucha María or Sun and Moon (1942), Double Portrait Diego and I (1944) and Sun and Life (1947), selected for the present exhibition, Frida continued putting to the test and defying the dichotomous dualities that permeate modern society. She particularly focused on Mexican society around the sexual heteronormativity and the constitution of subjectivities, reiterated once and again by the artistic traditions and customs throughout time.

Rosemonde Cowan, known by the artistic pseudonym of Rosa Rolanda (1895-1970), was an accomplished American professional ballerina, excellent choreographer, photographer, actor and painter who lived a lot of her life in Mexico. Married to the artist and cartoonist Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957) from 1930-34, this talented and beautiful woman was portrayed frequently by various visual artists and photographers of the era, from her husband and Diego Rivera, to Roberto Montenegro, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Nickolas Muray, Carl Van Vechten and Man Ray. Consequently, once again, her self-portraits offered the artist not only an opportunity to express the vision she had of herself, but also to enter into a dialogue with the images that had been created of her by other artists.

Self-Portrait (ca. 1945) is a very synthetic and expressive image that reveals the plastic and iconographic originality of the artist. A clear background highlights Rosa’s symmetric and oval face, framed by her collected hair. Her enormous eyes and tiny closed mouth do not even hint at a smile, a characteristic feature of many of her portraits, but instead reveal an introspective, reflexive and painful attitude attuned to the many self-portraits of her friend Frida Kahlo. Her only ornament is the orchid in her hair, with which the artist again evokes her numerous portraits with a ballerina’s outfit, as well as the ones she and Covarrubias painted during their trips to the island of Bali at the beginning of their romantic relationship. On the left side of the composition, on the white wall, Rosa represented a fly with great realism, perhaps as a reference to the popular Mexican phrase “to be like a fly,” which means to feel distrustful, maybe in relation to the problems that she then experimented in her sentimental relationship with Covarrubias.

After some years, when said relationship was decidedly deteriorated, Rolanda painted Self-Portrait (1952). In this work she continued to go into depth on her feelings of desolation and abandonment, metaphorically amplifying them until they transformed into a commentary on the social character on Mexico, the country she loved so much. Clad in the green and red of the Mexican flag and with a belt that girded her thin waist with a buckle of the national seal, the eagle and the serpent, Rosa again represents herself with a solemn expression in the face of pain, even though her hair is loose and agitated by the wind, and her posture—especially her raised arms that form irregular angles, and her hands with which she seems to try, uselessly, to hold her head over the asymmetric axis of her body—denotes an intense anemic agitation. In this case, the background is not neutral and populated by a single, small fly, but rather the motifs of distrust seem to unfold and be made explicit until they fill all the space through the contrast between several of the happy and painful events of her life in Mexico, especially those related to the world of dance that originally brought her together with Covarrubias and would eventually separate the couple. On the right side of the painting, the Mexican flag again situates the place of pain, while a very Mexican skeleton tries to offer her some comfort by giving her slight taps on the forehead.

María Izquierdo (1902-1955), another one of the great Mexican post-revolutionary artists, also produced many self-portraits throughout her life with different expressive and symbolic connotations. In her Self-Portrait (1946), the artist represents herself frontal and solemn, with her beautiful indigenous traits and dressed as a national idol, with her braided hair interlaced with red and green ribbons, giant earrings and a necklace (both worked in silver), a black blouse with a square collar that contrasts with and highlights the perfect and harmonic oval of her face. The background is red, just like her mouth and a small bun adorning her collar.

This work seems to be in dialogue with Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace (1940) and Self-Portrait with Braid (1941), both by Frida Kahlo, in that in the three self-portraits by the two artists, the collars, the pre-Hispanic as well as the Christian, seem to symbolize the many contradictions that act, in these cases, against women’s liberty, even when they are of great beauty or are disguised as religious customs or nationalist ideals. Izquierdo’s expression in the 1946 self-portrait, made a little after her terrible professional disappointment (when a Central Department of the Federal District commission, which she’d already began, was cancelled), shows her frontal and very serious, with very marked expression lines, as if it were a mask hardened for pain, a feeling she repeatedly tried to dominate in order to endure that and many other impediments that still acted against the professional development of women. The Indifferent Girl and Dream and Foreboding, both of 1947, continue elaborating these feelings and reflections toward the difficult social situation of the female gender in mid-century Mexican society with a surrealist language of great originality and expressive potency.

Olga Kostakowsky Falviant, of Russian origin, known by the artistic name she adopted in Mexico of Olga Costa (1931-1993), created the notable Self-Portrait in 1947, which enriches the Mexican artistic tradition in a notable way. Along with her husband, the accomplished painter José Chávez Morado (1909-2002), Costa was a leading figure in the cultural and artistic environment of the era, something that, added to her great physical and spiritual beauty, allowed her to be selected as a model by many talented artists, mainly her husband, but also Raúl Anguiano, Francisco Gutiérrez, Francisco Zúñiga, Lola Álvarez Bravo and Flor Garduño, among many others.

In her own version of herself, she decided to portray herself in the garden of her house, a true oasis in the city of Guanajuato, full of different types of plants, where she and her husband also had their respective workshops. In the painting, Costa appears in a three-quarter pose as if giving a sidelong glance to a mirror, highlighting her green eyes. Her reddish hair draws a curious asymmetric composition that harmonizes with the compound shape of the only visible earring

Costa is sitting on an equipal, the traditional chair of pre-Hispanic origin—of the type that appeared in so many photographs and portraits of post-revolutionary Mexican artists in their workshops—holding a brush, elements with which she symbolically affirms her identity as an artist of the Mexican School. The artist is framed by a half-point arch of brick and stone, behind which is represented an asymmetric background: on the left side, a wide, gray wall which underscores Costa’s figure, while on the right, another brick arch, but more distant and narrow, behind which we can see a tree with a leafy crown whose green leaves harmonize and create a dynamic rhythm with the eyes and the artist’s artisanal embroidered blouse. Deep in the painting, the door to the house is open to the street and through it we can see the branches of another tree, once more with green leaves. Through the contrasts of the different green nuances with the red compliments of the lips and the brush, and also of a careful composition in which straight lines and curves are in equilibrium, Costa expresses her particular vision of a world in which her love and empathy for nature is evident.

The French artist Alice Marie Yvonne Philippot, known also as Alice Rahon (1916-1987), was already recognized as a poet within the surrealist movement when, upon her arrival to Mexico in 1939, she began to experiment with painting. In her original Self-Portrait and Autobiography (1948) she uses primitive downstroke figures and other symbols that resemble ancient pictograms to build her image of a form not mimetic, but symbolic. The great liberty and playful spirit and lyric of her strokes take us back to some of the works of Paul Klee and Joan Miró. The trips she made along with her husband, also an important artist, the Austrian Wolfgang Paalen (1905-1959)—through Britain, Greece, Altamira and Alaska, all the way to Mexico—in search of primitive societies, magic and the essential harmony of human beings and nature, are all represented by the artist in the form of totems, staircases, pyramids, stars, animals and people. In this way, Rahon seems to trace, symbolically, her own interior development that led her to become an artist that mixed the real and fantastical with very original surrealism of great philosophical depth.

In spite of her different expressive languages, Rahon developed a very significant friendship with Frida Kahlo, to whom she dedicated a painting titled The Ballad of Frida Kahlo (1952). The artist herself described that painting as the figure of “a flying fish in space.” It is conformed by various symbolic elements such as a Ferris wheel, a pyramid, a procession guided by comets and a great city, all of which reference activities, trips and fantasies she shared with her dear and admired friend, and also the customs and traditions that she encountered along her in Mexico.

We will conclude this text with a brief mention of another great Mexican artist and promoter, Lola Álvarez Bravo, whom we discussed in the 1930s section. In spite of her traditionalist formation, or maybe because of it, with time, Álvarez Bravo developed into a strong conscience of gender that allowed her not only to earn a living as a photographer, but to also undertake other cultural projects through which she supported the artistic production and promotion of her friends and artist colleagues in a solidary and visionary way. In fact, Lola Álvarez Bravo founded one of the first art galleries in Mexico City, the Contemporary Art Gallery, which in 1953 mounted the only Frida Kahlo exhibit in Mexico, and in 1954 mounted another significant exhibit that was dedicated to the work of another great Mexican artist, Isabel Villaseñor.

Throughout her life, Lola Álvarez Bravo created numerous photographs charged with social content and many portraits of some of the most important characters of Mexican culture in that era. She also created numerous works like the one previously discussed, which show her interest and deep reflection referring to the social situation of the female gender and its profound transformations and resistances throughout the 20th century. In this way, for example, In Her Own Prison (11 a.m.) (ca. 1950) is one of her notable allegorical portraits, an eloquent metaphor of the condition of oppression in which many women still live to this day, a lot of times due to external social and cultural circumstances that are difficult to break, but also, many others, for their own fear of confronting a fuller life and their vulnerability to the danger of the outside world.

In Conclusion

In this brief panoramic synthesis of the artistic visual production of women in Mexico during the first half of the 20th century, we can conclude that the feminine gender has played a very active role in society and in the history of art. Women participated in all artistic mediums and genres, and in all of them, but particularly in the portrait and self-portrait, they found the necessary opportunities to express their own vision of the world and of themselves in a very eloquent and creative way. This was in tune with the social struggles in favor of women’s rights of their corresponding eras.

With different styles and diverse aesthetic sensibilities and intentions, their artistic productions establish an interesting pictorial dialogue with the themes and conventions characteristic with the artistic language of different periods. This is particularly evident in the portraits that were painted of them by their male colleagues, making a visible difference of each genre in a very rich and revelatory fashion.

Certain highlighted iconographic constants underscore the important role of women in the art world, mainly in their self-affirmation as artists in their own right, strongly contrasted with the impression left by exclusively analyzing the passive images that represent them as muses or as personifications of several concepts and notions more or less abstract, like nation, the working mother, or the soldaderas following their men to the revolutionary struggle.

The strength of women artists resided in their solidarity as creative companions, in their perseverance to fight against deep gender prejudices that acted against their professional development, and a great creative talent, through which they contributed an alternative voice to the rich panorama of Mexican art and their many renaissances during the first half of the 20th century which we are finally beginning to notice.