Surreal, feminist, progressive – these are the adjectives that describe the artwork of Frida Kahlo just as accurately as they can describe the artist herself. A true visionary with immense talent and a fascinating life story, Kahlo has reached the status of an icon, particularly in the Latino community. One of her most well-known masterpieces is Moses, painted as a miniature mural depicting the birth of Moses as well as the creation of life itself. This 1945 composition is thematically and symbolically reflective of Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. Jose Domingo Lavin encouraged Frida Kahlo, a good friend of his, to transfer her impression of the book onto the canvas.
The following essay aims to apply a variety of artistic theories to investigate Kahlo’s Moses in much detail. However, the primary focus lies in examining the link between the painting and the artist’s reception of Freud’s work. Based on Stuart Hall’s reception theory, the essay posits that Frida Kahlo’s Moses is her interpretation of Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism rather than a product of pure creativity. The purpose of this work is to uncover Kahlo’s attempts at decoding the notions described in Freud’s work, influenced heavily by her use of symbolism and personal motivations.
In order to examine exactly how Kahlo approached the process of interpretation of Freud’s book, it is crucial to take a closer look at the circumstances of the painting’s creation. Through the imagery used by the artist, it is evident that she tried to express Freudian ideas surrounding the origin of religions in her work. Central images are thematically and symbolically tied to religious philosophy. However, it is important to note that, unlike Freud, Kahlo encompassed an array of various religious traditions, and not just primarily Judaism.
From the psychoanalytical theoretical perspective, the artist’s background might explain her choice to include Hebrew, Christian, and even Aztec religious traditions in her work. Childhood years spent observing what is believed to be the climax of the revolution led to Frida Kahlo becoming “deeply inspired by the resurgence of national pride and the spread of progressive ideas that followed” (Grass para. 3). Another reflection of Kahlo’s inclination towards progressive ideas is the feminist imagery in the painting. In the center, Moses features female reproductive organs, which are equated in status with the Sun and the rain as ultimate creators or life-givers.
Kahlo chose to disregard some of the central ideas encoded in Freud’s text. An in-depth interview with her revealed that two of those neglected stresses in the book were “that Moses was an Egyptian and that the religion he transmitted to the Jewish people was based on the cult of Iknaton” (Ankori 137). This signifies that, in its essence, Kahlo’s Moses is an intersection of Freudian notions and the artist’s own artistic vision. Her reception of the work is imaginative and fluid, which asserts the argument that the painting is a depiction of Freudian ideas within the context of Kahlo’s opus.
Despite Moses and Monotheism serving as the primary inspiration and contextual source for Frida Kahlo, Freud’s text was merely a “springboard for Kahlo’s subjective and eclectic thoughts and feelings about heroes, religion, and history” (Ankori 136). The book provided inspiration for further creative digestion of Freud’s notions and pondering. Although the origin of Moses is undoubtedly the work of Freud, it is also undeniable that the artist’s experiences and unconscious attitudes are a part of the origin of the painting’s creation.
Another important aspect of Moses is Kahlo’s use of iconography, which can be examined using Freud’s psychoanalysis theory. The symbolism embedded in the artist’s creative interpretation of Freud’s book can be categorized as psycho-iconography, revealing the meaning behind Kahlo’s imagery. At first glance, the painting is nothing but an intricate composition with baby Moses in a basket in the center. Nonetheless, Kahlo manages to include numerous emotionally and symbolically-charged elements in Moses. For instance, a bivalve above the infant, which pours rain, is symbolic of love. The Sun, which shines brightly on everything and everyone depicted in the painting, symbolizes godly power extending far beyond one religious tradition. Finally, all of the people at the bottom of Moses, including a number of historical figures, such as Stalin, Hitler, Gandhi, and Lenin, are a representation of humanity in general. The masses depicted in Kahlo’s painting serve as “a symbol of human and societal evolution” (Grass para. 3). Notably, the power of the masses Kahlo so masterfully demonstrates in her artistic work is a reflection of her personal Marxist beliefs.
In conclusion, Moses is a true masterpiece of a world-renown artistic genius that is Frida Kahlo. The painting depicts Kahlo’s version of the creation myth. In accordance with the reception theory, as a reader, Kahlo first decoded the ideas in Freud’s Moses and Monotheism and then encoded her own reflection upon a selection of these notions in her own work. Despite that, the artist’s interpretation of Freudian philosophy is undoubtedly unique. Feminist, Marxist, and a variety of other progressive ideas attached to Kahlo’s painting are a direct reflection of her experiences, vision, and personal beliefs.
Ankori, Gannit. “Moses, Freud and Frida Kahlo.” New Perspectives on Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, edited by Ruth Ginsburg and Ilana Pardes, Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2012, pp. 135-148. Web.
Grass, Kacper. “Marxist, Nationalist, Feminist: The Art and Politics of Frida Kahlo.” Daily Art Magazine, Web.