Frida Kahlo: Trauma, Abjection, and Affect


The theoretical framework chosen is the embodied nature of perception and looking specifically through the lenses of affect which, in this case, works through the visual portrayal of the abject and trauma. According to theorists of affect and embodied perception – ‘non-representational’ theories – meaning unfolds through the embodied encounter with images and events. First discussing the viewer’s response to particular aspects and identifying themes in artworks allowed for an interpretation of the works in favour of the theoretical framework employed. 

The contribution of this study utilised trauma and abjection as a foundation for understanding affect in selected works by Kahlo. The literature dealing with her work had shown that trauma and the abject are depicted in Kahlo’s work. This study proved that these concepts are fundamental to understanding the way in which her work affects the viewing subject. The first of the sub-aims is to explored theories surrounding trauma and how it is expressed in Kahlo’s work. The second sub-aim explored the abject and how it is represented in her work. The third sub-aim looked at theories surrounding affect in order to understand how affective responses surface when looking at Kahlo’s work. The fourth sub-aim found the link between these concepts and related it to selected examples of Kahlo’s artworks.

An emphasis on the role of embodiment and somatosensory perception provided a way in which to explore the affective potential of images on the audience, who was, in this case, the researcher of this study. It proved necessary to understand how Kahlo’s paintings affect the viewer especially because intense experiences are involved in viewing the work. In order to grasp the theory written on this subject, a personal analysis of selected artworks created by Frida Kahlo was given. The research mainly followed a compositional interpretation of the selected artworks, specifically analysing their expressive content. The abject and trauma were brought into a dialogue with theories of affect which showed how they are the means through which affective responses are evoked in a viewer of Kahlo’s paintings.
Limitations of study

On the notion of weaknesses in the study, subjectivity seems to be a major clause. The general ideas of a selective individual cannot justify the entirety of this study, thus not giving much foundation to the work provided. By using a larger quantity of people, and utilising a qualitative and quantitative research approach, a better understanding of the embodied response to images will be provided along with an audience study that could prove a lot or in fact little of what one person might have concluded. In addition, six paintings of an artist is not enough to prove that any of the suggested theories can contribute to understanding her work whether trauma, abjection or affect. Also, the minimal amount of artworks cannot account for a general idea of said artist’s paintings, nor can it identify a specific theme of her work as this study has suggested. In order to prevent such assumptions, further research needs to be done that would include a wider variety and a larger quantity of artworks rather than the carefully selected few which, it could be argued, might have been selected in order to form the theories around them.
Suggestions for further research

Increasing the amount of people and their responses to visual imagery will provide a better understanding of the embodied response to images: a questionnaire for instance. If qualitative and quantitative research approach is used to further the research, along with an audience study, then more accurate information will be obtained regarding affect and embodied perception and could provide a more detailed account of the artworks. Including a wider variety of Kahlo’s artworks, as well as a larger quantity of her artworks will allow for a more accurate depiction of what the theory could add to her art. Using so few of her artworks provides an inaccurate and bias opinion that needs to be threaded out and extended so that there can be a conclusion as to how many of her works do indeed fir the criteria for the critical analysis of trauma and abjection as foundations for understanding affect in selected works by Frida Kahlo.

Many contemporary studies can be carried out following this research including an investigation of more recent examples of trauma, abjection or affect. Once a study has been made in place of Kahlo’s artworks, these works could be combined and written in comparison to one another proving similarities and differences. An example of contemporary abjection, trauma and affect could be the American Horror Story series. Essentially what would need to be arbitrated is the abject in Frida Kahlo and trying to put it forward to make it relevant in today’s society with the help of a popular television series that could be labelled as the epitome of understanding and portraying the abject – American Horror Story.  The research could try to convince viewers that the abject image portrayed in some of Kahlo’s paintings, as well as using herself as an image, can be recognised in the characters, architecture and even themes of American Horror Story. In effect: hypothesising that Frida Kahlo and her paintings implicitly (or perhaps subliminally) influenced the creators of American Horror Story, and used her imagery as the foundation of their art.

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