The Surrealist Feminist of Frida Kahlo’s “The Love Embrace of Universe”
The name “Frida Kahlo” is arguably one of the most famous in art history. Intertwined with dramatic tales of illness, infertility, and infidelity, Frida Kahlo’s self-image, beginning with her artistic works and continuing as it morphs over time, is entirely comprised of constructs. Kahlo was notorious for the meticulous crafting of her personal and national identities as a means of communicating messages. Her 1949 painting, “The Love Embrace of the Universe,” is no exception to this tradition (Figure 1). Within this painting, Kahlo is creating multiple layers of symbolism regarding the feminine roles expected of her. This becomes especially intriguing when the painting is viewed through the lens of surrealism, the primary artistic movement to which Kahlo is ascribed.
In this paper, I will argue that Frida Kahlo’s painting, “The Love Embrace of the Universe”, works to create a feminist reality that contradicts the strong masculine influences of the Surrealist movement. Alongside her celebrity as an artist, Frida Kahlo was particularly known for her marriage to the preeminent painter in Mexico at the time, Diego Rivera. Kahlo and Rivera had a tumultuous relationship, and Rivera often cheated on her. They eventually divorced, but they quickly reunited. However, their new marriage was different— Kahlo severed sexual relations with Rivera, and requested that they both equally contribute to the household income. Margaret Lindauer, in her book “Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo”, explains that Kahlo’s logic behind these decisions was rooted in the fact that she was: “determined to resist the stereotypically dependent female role.” “The Love Embrace of the Universe” is Kahlo’s physical representation of the same progressive feminist narrative she attempts to construct in her personal life. In this work, Kahlo is depicted as a central figure. She is shown sitting upright and cradling another figure (Diego Rivera), who is curled up in a fetal-like position.
This visual of Kahlo physically nurturing an infantile version of her husband serves to craft not only the idea of Kahlo’s independence from her husband, but conversely his dependence upon her. In addition to this, Kahlo and Rivera are being cradled in the arms of two other female figures. The green-hued figure is shown to be lactating, with a singular drop of milk dripping from her breast. For Kahlo to include this image adds to the feminist narrative, as breastfeeding is an incredibly nurturing/maternal action, and one that is uniquely female. The same figure is also depicted with her arms positioned in the same cradling fashion as Kahlo’s, and the figure also has one of her hands resting on Rivera’s thigh. This visual lends to the idea that it is not only the responsibility of Kahlo as a wife to nurture Rivera’s artistic development, but also the responsibility of this feminine, “mother Earth”-like figure as well. Lindauer writes: “the feminine gender, Kahlo and Earth (Mexico), literally carries the burden of nurturing, supporting, and producing male knowledge and creativity.” In this painting, these three female figures are all working in conjunction with each other to foster the growth of this single male figure; and portraying Rivera in such a vulnerable position puts him at the mercy of these powerful feminine forces, resulting in the creation of a matriarchal space.
As previously stated, Kahlo was famous for using her art as a platform through which she could express herself and subsequently create constructs surrounding her those expressions. To achieve this, Kahlo often drew from the raw, painful experiences of her personal life. It is intriguing then that Kahlo became associated with surrealism, a movement that was known for the stylistic production of dream-like, bordering on imaginary, art. In his essay, “Surrealism and Misogyny”, Rudolf Kuenzli writes: “Surrealist art and poetry are addressed to men; women are only means to bring about these works…Women are to the male Surrealists, as in the longstanding traditions of patriarchy, servants, helpers in the form of child muse, virgin, femme enfant, angel…or erotic object.” When considered through this interpretation, then Kahlo’s “The Love Embrace of the Universe” stands out as a bold statement in a sea of hyper masculine artistic production. In this work, Kahlo is doing exactly the opposite of what Kuenzli accuses the male Surrealists of doing in their work— she creates this piece to communicate to the viewer her strong sense of independence within her marital relationship, and Rivera’s placement in the work serves to represent this ideology.
In this matriarchal environment that Kahlo has created within the painting, Rivera, the only male figure depicted, operates as sort of the “child muse” that Kuenzli describes. This too adds to the feminist narrative— Kahlo is making a statement in regards to a movement that is dominated by masculine influences, and by means of contradicting the traditional Surrealist techniques, she continues to sculpt her feminist narrative. In her essay, “Culture, Politics, and Identity in the Paintings of Frida Kahlo”, Janice Helland says: “she [Kahlo] turned to herself and her own peculiarly feminine obsessions and dilemmas for subject matter.” What Helland describes here is exactly what is at work in this piece— “The Love Embrace of the Universe” shows Kahlo’s active engagement with her own experiences of marriage and the expectations placed upon her as a women of Mexican society at the time. Much like the male Surrealists, Kahlo was painting with a feminine muse— herself.
However, unlike her male counterparts, Kahlo turns the female figure not into an servant or a sexual object, but rather into a figure of strength and independence and individuality, without whom the male figure wold not survive. “The Love Embrace of Universe” encapsulates a moment in Kahlo’s life while making a significant political/gendered statement. Kahlo uses her work as a means to communicate messages about feminism and personal freedom within her relationship to Diego Rivera, and also to society writ large. At the same time, she is also making a statement to surrealism— that the gendered space of this movement can and should be explored instead of simply limiting women to one specific type of role within the works.