The following essay will deal with Frida Kahlo’s work A Few Small Nips. The analysis of the piece of artwork will be the main focus of the essay including a brief biography of Kahlo’s which will be used in interpreting the purpose of the paining. Other art critics will be used in this analysis so that a broad spectrum of opinion is introduced and debated in the paper in order to come to a conclusion about this piece.
Kahlo’s work has been interpreted as bordering and often times delving into the grotesque; but typically there is a reason of politics or personal pain behind the works created by Kahlo. In Mencer’s article The Trouble with Friday Kahlo this point is well elaborated,
Among all the Kahlo tchotchkes now on sale at the NMWA gift shop, only her self- portraits adorn the fridge magnets, not “My Birth,” or “A Few Small Nips,” a disturbing image of a bleeding woman lying on a bed with a man standing over her wielding a stiletto. Kahlo’s visage has become a symbol in its own right–a trend evident in the number of artists now creating tributes to her.
Chicano artists in California have been incorporating her image into their murals since the 1970s in celebrations of their heritage. But the practice has become so common that the Japanese performance artist and drag queen Yasumasa Morimura recently did a show called “An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo,” in which he painted himself as Kahlo self-portraits.
This iconographic status of Kahlo was only more dully emphasized with the grotesque paintings she did after her miscarriage. It was this point in her personal life which gave rise to much of what is recognizable Kahlo’s own style of art as is seen in A Few Small Nips in which a brutal scene is emphasized with diagonal viewpoints.
The truth behind Kahlo’s painting A Few Small Nips resides with the act of a man brutally stabbing his girlfriend and killing her. In court the man professed he only gave her a few small nips. Thus, above the painting itself is a banner, and in Kahlo’s own sentiment she often feels that she is murdered by life. At this point in Kahlo’s life she was separated from Diego Rivera, and so those emotional feelings of abandonment, jealousy, guilt, and love all coincide to create not just a real life portrait of an event but the echoed feelings of Kahlo while being separated from Rivera (Smit).
This real life portrayal used by means of expression for personal pain is typical of Kahlo’s work, as Muna writes, In A Few Small Nips (1935), Kahlo paints a dead woman on a bed, naked but for one shoe and stocking, her body slashed and bleeding, while a man, fully dressed, stands calmly at her side. The painting was inspired by a real-life murder story – the defendant told the judge that it was only a few small nips – but it also stands as wider commentary on the gender inequalities within Mexican society, as well as echoing the hurt she herself endured at the hands of her husband, Diego Rivera.
The fact that Muna wrote the gender inequality in Kahlo’s work is important. This crucial piece of evidence is what gives rise to the portrayal of Kahlo’s self portraits done in a dichotomized fashion, as well as the focus of the treatment of women.
Frida’s own heritage and gender have a lot to do with her style of painting as has been seen in A Few Small Nips. Kahlo’s father was a Hungarian Jew born in Germany and her mother was Spanish and Native American. Thus, her nature of birth could also lead her dualistic approach to painting and her strong sense of preservation for women. In A Few Small Nips Kahlo presents the viewer with a woman who has just been stabbed to death and yet the killer is standing feet away from her, and thus, even in death she is denied company. This type of disturbance in the ritual of a passion crime tells the viewer that Kahlo is interpreting her own loneliness into the painting.
Kahlo’s imagery and her ‘eclectic blend of ancient Aztec to modern Mexican, religious metaphor and fantasy, and penetratingly observed reality (Muna) is what draws the viewer into this painting. The fact that the painting was based on a real event, and the feelings of the man and what he said in court as his defense, ‘just a few small nips’ allows Friday creative interpretation of that event to rival her own misplaced identity and hatred so much so that the viewer becomes a part of the story in that they are witnesses to the event. Bearing witness seems to be the role placed on the audience in order to keep the honesty of this woman’s death alive. In fact the purpose of much of Kahlo’s art is for the viewer to bear witness to a travesty, inner demons, or brutal and graphic deaths.
This concept of memory or of bearing witness is designed in Kahlo’s work A Few Small Nips as collective memory for a town or witnesses or even participants together but also as individual memory. These different definitions of memory are the purpose of Kahlo’s painting. While it uses a force to ensure that Kahlo’s own identity and separation from Rivera is expressed the event of the drunk man killing his girlfriend is still intact. The joint purpose of these two sentiments is to ensure that the memory of the event does not relapse and thus prevent progression or the politics of the painting express Kahlo’s wish that the town, country and gender which this occurred does not forget such a transgression.
Memory however can quickly be wiped clean and thus it becomes important to mark tragedy with artwork as A Few Small Nips has done, so that there is a physical reconstruction of an event that is witnessed in the public eye that allows the elusive memory to remain sharp, “Inevitably every act of memory carries with it a dimension of betrayal” (Huyssen “Present Past Palimsets”; 4). In the act of constructing war memorials and citizen monuments the procession of remembering is occurring. In the act of construction is insurance that the past is not repeated.
Historical memory is important because it allows the people who have survived a devastating travesty to recall the event in loving memory of the family members of people they lost, as Huyssen states “Historical memory today is not what it used to be. It used to mark the relation of a community or a nation to its past, but the boundary between past and present used to be stronger and more stable than it appears to be today” (Huyssen “Present Past Palimsets”; 1). This however does not mar the memory of the event that initiated Kahlo’s work. Although Huyssen writes that historical memory is fading into the past and events are not being recognized or remembered but instead are falling into demise over time and being forgotten this is what Kahlo’s work strongly against.
The repetition of trauma is precisely why this painting is such an important piece of work in Kahlo’s collection. She painted it intended that such an event would not transpire again,
The focus on trauma is legitimate where nations or groups of people are trying to come to terms with a history of violence suffered or violence perpetrated. But the transnational discourse of human rights may give us a better handle on such matters than the transfer of psychoanalysis into the world of politics and history. For it is precisely the function of public memory discourses to allow individuals to break out of traumatic repetitions. Human rights activism, truth commissions, and juridical proceedings are better methods for dealing with historical trauma. Another is the creation of objects, artworks, memorials, public spaces of commemoration…Huyssen “Present Past Palimsets”; 9 Urban space that is the Tate museum which houses Kahlo’s work should be utilized in commemoration for a traumatic event so that healing may begin in a national capacity.
Both of these days serve as an embodiment of an event. This in itself allows the past to be tangible. In both the memory of the event and in the survivors the day becomes a cultural history; it becomes real, fact as is done in A Few Small Nips. The past has a tendency to become mythical, and memory has ways of faltering, but to make memory real these days add the cementing of the past events (Huyssen “Present Past Palimsets”; 15). There can be no collective amnesia involved because the painting allows people on an international scale to become part of the remembrance.
The horror in Kahlo’s painting is not only the brutality of the event, as blood is smattered in every direction of the space, but also in the facial expressions of the two bodies. While the woman is lying on the bed, killed, naked, and in flaccid immobility, the man is fully dressed, with a small smirk on his face. That smirk is the true horror of the piece. The fact that the woman is completely nude while the man is fully dressed is also a point of interest. This signifies that the woman trusted the man to get fully undressed while the man kept his secrets, his disguise as a killer, on. That is the point of the contrast between the two figures; the man keeps his secret identity.
This secret identity of duality as mentioned prior is a key focal point in Kahlo’s work but in A Few Small Nips she is attributing this dualism to the mal figure instead of the female (albeit, this is not a self portrait, at least not in the typical Kahlo fashion). The point here is that Kahlo was enduring separation anxiety with Diego and so painted him as the killer giving him aplomb of secrets, and a smirk over the dead woman’s body. If this painting is taken as a self-portrait then emotionally, Kahlo is telling her audience that she is dead, murdered in fact by this smirking man, her lover, Diego.
Although such an interpretation may be considered to be extreme, it still does not become drastic following the line of paintings which Kahlo further immersed herself into later in life. Although the painting is a brutal scene the fact that the banner with the works murdered by life written on them is carried by a dove says a little more about metaphor in the work. The dove is typically the bird associated with peace and hope, a scene in this painting obviously says there is none in this room, if the interpretation is taken to represent the real event of the day. However, if the painting is on an allegorical level a representation of Kahlo’s emotional state between her Diego’s separation, then the painting with a dove means that a resurrection is not completely unexpected.
In this interpretation the notation of the blackbird on the opposite side of the banner from the dove also states another level of allegory. If the dove is representational of Kahlo’s hope, and indeed it resides on the part of the painting harboring the woman’s dead body, then the blackbird which holds the banner on the man’s side of the painting could be representational of doom, or lack of hope and rebirth. Also, the lighting which Kahlo placed in the painting is brighter around the woman’s dead body, and the shadows envelope the man which further suggests that if any hope is to be born from this brutal scene then its transgression is from the man and its livelihood rests with the woman’s flaccid body.
Thus, Kahlo accomplishes the dual side of human nature and her own feelings with these two birds: hope and travesty. Although the intention of the painting was to represent the events of a brutal murder by a drunk boyfriend, in other allusions of the painting the viewer may find Kahlo’s own harboring of love and death with her relationship with Diego as well as the identity of a woman whom she felt a kindred spirit and in painting this work Frida perhaps wanted to make the nation, and finally the world aware of the brutality which was occurring in her home town.
Thus, Kahlo’s painting may be considered a piece of feminist work which allows for the viewer to bear witness to a travesty. The painting also serves as a national identity for the state of Mexico in showing the reality of the everyday in such a deplorable scene, but all too real. The purpose however, for Kahlo in creating this work was not only for her own identity but for the identity of the murdered woman and to give her justice in allowing for the world to see how she did and by whom.
Huyssen, Andreas. Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford University Press, 2003.
Lindauer, M. Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo. Woman’s Art Journal. Vol. 22, NO. 1. (Spring-Summer, 2001). pp. 53-54.
Mancer, S. The Trouble with Frida Kahlo. The Washington Monthly. 2002.
Muna, S. Frida at the Tate Modern. Socialism Today. Issue 93. Jul-Aug 2005.