The portrait art of Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman reveal depths of the female psyche in both similar and contrasting styles. This dominant theme of the image of ‘woman’ prevails through both artists’ works. Sherman uses her very self and body disguised in her photographs whereas Kahlo paints images of her self. Both of their self-portraits illustrate various expressions of women’s self image vacillating between the sensual, the painful, and the gruesome, for the most part. This fascination with using the woman’s body and self image seems to be a prop itself hiding a visceral humanness, a sometimes volatile nature living underneath a superficial layer of symbols. Both artists’ works show a range of intense emotions as the female is shown as: demure, seductive, devilish, haughty, vulnerable, controlling, sad, angry, resentful, distraught, and scared.
Only a few of the works speak of peace and happiness such as some of Frida’s portraits where her eyes look a bit more restful, instead of the usual tight, penetrating gaze. The female complexity shows in the crafted Sherman scenes, especially in the positioning of her body, mood of the environment and lighting, plus the ‘elsewhere’ looks in her eyes. In Kahlo’s art, the eyes also very powerfully show different emotions along with other elements and symbols in the picture. The way that Sherman portrays women stereotypes leads you into a retro dream world where the woman in the artwork is assuming her ‘role’ and not fighting against it. Some of the pictures give the image of submissive surrender against one’s will, whereas, Kahlo’s art seems to show an attempt to break free from personal confinements of emotional and physical pain. Both artists’ works project both universal and personal meaning for women in general through their use of symbolism. Sherman’s work evolves into more cold sexuality as seen in the dismembered mannequin series, whereas Kahlo’s work stayed more sensual than sexual.
The big difference is that Sherman’s art is photography and Kahlo’s is painting and drawing. Sherman uses real life props to re-create reality whereas Kahlo paints in more of a magic realism where reality and surrealism merge. Sherman herself is not revealed in her work as she is kept hidden behind her props and wigs, yet Frida seems to be so exposed in her gutsy self-portraits staring right at the viewer that she is anything but hidden from the viewer, except for under strokes of paint. Sherman uses a lot of black and white, and some color, but her color ranges seem muted and Kahlo’s paintings are composed of mostly vibrant colors. Many of Frida Kahlo’s portraits are composed in a more traditional format posed from the waist up, whereas Cindy Sherman’s stills are always of her averting her gaze somewhere off in the distance, or to some unseen part of the picture.
Both artists are telling a story through symbolism and mystery that compels one to look more deeply into the complexity of the art. In Sherman’s photos you wonder what has happened, or what is going to happen, or what time period it is, as you observe her posture, facial expression, clothing, angle of planes, focused lighting and surroundings. In Kahlo’s paintings and drawings you wonder what some of the symbols mean, while some are obvious, some are not. I think that the nebulous female portrayals in both of the artists’ works enable the viewer to derive personal meaning according to how they can relate to the symbolism, or not.