Monday, August 13, 2012

Lucia Hartini & Frida Kahlo - Inspiring Female Artists

Lucia Hartini

Lucia Hartini is a female Catholic Javanese artist living in a Muslim dominated society, and where men power over women . From the beginning of her career in 1970s until 1993, she paints works which include powerful symbols to convey a complex narrative to her viewers. Her art is an interpretation of herself and her surroundings. Hartini's earlier paintings depicted cosmic landscapes and humans(children and later, grown-ups). In later paintings, Hartini often painted female figures which reflects her current situation. Her figures often look powerless, vulnerable, passive and obedient. In 1986, when Hartini painted this painting, she was struggling to be herself, so she has decided to depict her sense of terror in Spying Lens. This is a quote from Lucia Hartini:
 "It tells of my obsession with eyes, especially human eyes, which frighten me very much. They follow me wherever I go and they always want to watch my business."
SPYING LENS(1986) - Lucia Hartini

Principles of Design, Elements of Art
The orange-red brick walls that zig zag like a maze and the blue, fluid drapery cloth both dominate the whole composition, suggesting the notion of infinity and endlessness. The brick walls extend out of the frames of the whole painting while the cloth extends out of the composition after looping over the walls. In the foreground, an Indonesian woman clad in dark royal blue cloth can be seen. She is lying down, curled up in a fetal position,looking helpless and tired, seemingly engulfed by her threatening surroundings. She floats among the clouds, defying the usual notion of gravity. In the middleground, there are a few eyes shooting beams of light at the woman, scrutinizing her, watching her every move as if a surveillance camera. The glare of these few eyes have caused the woman to cower in fear and she close her eyes in a submissive pose. In the background, purplish red clouds can be seen. The clouds look ominous and foreboding due to the unusual surrealistic colors that the clouds are painted in. The clouds seem to be travelling into the maze, occupying the space inside the maze and they encroach towards the woman, suggesting the approaching danger. The composition of the painting is quite nicely balanced as each symbol contributes an equal weight to the whole painting.

Lucia Hartini has painted this painting using realistic, fine and detailed brushstrokes. She depicts the forms in a photorealistic manner, capturing every detail and tone of each and every form to portray an accurate looking, but fantasy-like world. However, as much as the forms are photorealistic, the forms are also very subtly exaggerated and "distorted" in a way. The folding of the woman's cloth is heavily exaggerated, which distorts the usual form. She also uses complimentary colors of bright orange and blue to contrast the woman and the brick walls, juxtaposing them starkly, so that they seem to be placed together in harmony on the surface, but a sense of tension is hidden underneath this seemingly harmonious setting. The complementary colors also serve to bring out the fact that the woman is most probably different from others as she stands out, which contributes to the tension in the work as it suggests that she is a misfit in society. The rigid and angular brick walls also contrast with the fluid, flowing lyrical quality of the woman's cloth, which also serve to emphasize the point that this woman differs greatly from her surroundings and this also creates a sense of uniqueness in the work as it means that every form is important and different from the other. The background, which is dominated by dark clouds is in a darker tone as compared to the foreground and the middle ground. This serves to bring out the presence of the brick walls and the woman, thus drawing the viewer's attention to the main subject matter of the work. The darkness of the clouds suggests the notion of approaching danger, contributing to the ominous presence of the clouds.


Lucia Hartini is unable to directly portray her frustration towards the oppressive nature of her Indonesian society as by expressing her feelings directly, she will only be subjected to increased scrutinization from the society. That is why she must hide her intended message cleverly in her paintingss. That is why she employs the clever usage of various symbols, and due to the juxtaposition of the symbols and the heaven-like setting of the work, her work is being categorized as a "Surrealistic work".

The symbols in the painting relate to the personal life history of the artist, but the symbols are actually based on imagination as they are not commonly found objects that we will see in our daily lives, which contrasts to the symbols used in Rene Magritte's Personal Values. Nevertheless, these symbols are juxtaposed together to reflect Lucia Hartini's terrified state of mind, her status in society, and the nature of the oppressive Indonesian society.

Her symbols are relatively accessible as they together, tell a story - Lucia Hartini's life story. The symbols that she use actually have a literal meaning. For example, eyes relate to spying and the foetal position of the woman relates to the idea of being helpless and scared. Due to this fact, the viewer is able to decipher the symbols rather easily and be able to read the narrative behind the painting.

Lucia Hartini includes herself in the work, and the surrounding symbols actually alludes to her personal life experience and her current feelings of the things that surround her in daily life.
The cowering woman represents Lucia Hartini 's state of mind and the woman's pose suggests that she is fearful, afraid of the evil watching eyes of the Indonesian society. As an aspiring female artist, she feels suppressed by society as in the Indonesian society, the common believe is that a woman should work in households, supporting her husband and children. She is also a catholic in a Muslim-dominated society, which just emphasizes her difference from others. She strongly believes that women can achieve so much more and that they have the rights to accomplish what they want, but she is unable to voice out her views directly as this may cause society to scrutinize her even more. Therefore, she employs the use of symbolism to convey her hidden message to the viewers.
The brick walls and the watchful eyes represent the society and its fixed mindset. The walls are zigzagged in a way that they seem to form a maze, an endless labyrinth, entrapping the helpless foetal like woman. This shows that as an aspiring female Indonesian artist, she is trapped and suppressed due to society's mindsets. The eyes represents society's watchful eyes on her, scrutinizing her moves, so she can only succumb to the eyes of society as she cannot face the society alone. The colors used also represent a certain message that Hartini hopes to convey.
The blue cloth represents Lucia Hartini's desire to become as strong and tough as the female warriors who protect the sultan. The female warriors are usually clad in blue and by allocating this color to the woman's clothing, she expresses her wish to become as brave as the female warriors, so that she can stand up to society to fight for woman's rights. The wrapped cloth is also symbolic of a safety net to hold and support her, like the umbilical cord for the foetal like woman. It protects her, which symbolizes her wish to be protected from the dangers that surround her, which includes her society and this also stems from her history of being a domestic violence victim.
The clouds represent the approaching danger as they seem to be crawling towards the helpless woman. It can also represent Hartini's fear of the unknown - she does not know what lies ahead of her and she hopes that all this horror is just a mere dream.
The use of colour also adds to the symbolism in the painting.
The strong and bold orange colour of the brick walls symbolises society's power over her. Orange is a brighter colour as compared to the dark navy blue, so it is like society exerting its power to suppress her. This shows the unbalanced powers of the woman and society, which shows that she is weak and powerless as compared to society. Through this painting, Hartini conveys her struggle for self-empowerment and  desire to attain freedom from the norms and judgement of her society.


I would say that Lucia Hartini has a distinctive style. She paints with photorealistic brushstrokes but in each painting, there is the notion of exaggeration and slight distortion. But I would say that her paintings are definitely surrealistic due to the unusual placement of symbols and the symbols themselves look out of usual context. Her painting is often dominated by a woman figure, who is most probably Indonesian as suggested by her skin colour. Hartini paints her paintings to convey a serious message like her current state of mind and in some, she criticizes the society in which she is living in. There is the repeated use of clouds too as clouds make the whole composition look surrealistic. She especially like to exaggerate and elongate the woman's clothing and the clouds that surround the woman. The cloud symbols in her paintings look bold, unlike normal clouds, which look soft and fluffy. In her paintings, the clouds look very solidified and outlined, suggesting a menacing presence.
Her paintings also have a common colour scheme - the widespread usage of the colour blue. And in most paintings, she contrasts blue with other complementary colours such as orange. So I would say that her colour palette is somewhat more limited as compared to some other artists, such as...Frida Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo's biography(in 6 parts):

Both are self-taught female artists who have suffered a lot and they have gone through the turbulence of life. Lucia Hartini is an Indonesian artist while Frida Kahlo is a Mexican. Both artists show the clear influence of Surrealism in their works and both artists like to paint their personal reality in their works.
 Lucia Hartini paints often paints a woman(which seems to symbolise herself) in her paintings, among the clouds and other unusual symbols. This symbolises the suppressed female artist living in a male-dominated society. She, like Frida Kahlo, had suffered miscarriages and lost her child in the process, which had scarred her emotionally. Like Frida Kahlo, she has painted "self-portraits" to depict her pain of losing her child, which shows the motherly sides of both artists.
In this painting, which is titled "Communication Between Mother and Child"(1989), she depicts herself as a helpless mother who is searching for her lost child. She felt sorry that her child's life cycle had ended so quickly and that how she did not have a chance to hold her baby in her arms. She depicts her child as a baby who is now in heaven, but still protected by the amniotic sac and the umbilical cord, which shows how much she loves her child and how she longs for him/her to be born. She is portrayed as a mother who is chasing after her baby and trying to connect with it, but her efforts are futile as heaven and earth separates them. So now, she can only express her love and longing for her unborn child through this painting.

In "Henry Ford's Hospital"(1932), Kahlo depicts herself as a naked, bloodied and crying woman. She had just lost her child and she seems to be in severe pain while the rest of the world can only sympathise, watch and just move on. However, Kahlo herself was unable to let go of the jarring pain that she felt, which caused her to paint this self-portrait, so that the world will forever be reminded of her pain and her tortured existence. In this painting, she holds on to 6 red threads(which may symbolise the umbilical cord) which connects to symbols that are related to her miscarriage. For example, the baby that she was unable to keep, the cruel and cold machine that snatched her baby away from her, her pelvic bone which was damaged during the fatal bus crash, her injured uterus which caused her infertility and the snail, which symbolises her slow and painful recovery from this incident.


Frida Kahlo often paints her self portraits, which are heavily laden with symbolism to depict the sufferings in her life. Kahlo has met with an accident when she was very young. Another major obstacle in her life would be the volatile relationship between her and her husband, Diego Rivera. Frida has also had 3 miscarriages and had gone through many operations which include knee operations and spinal operations. Both of them had affairs and the most devastating fact was that Rivera cheated on her for her sister. This incident had left Frida brokenhearted. They divorced and after one year, they got back together again. 

File:Frida Kahlo (self portrait).jpg
Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird(1940)

Both works are depicting the sufferings in life that the artists are going through at that point in time. Hartini is being oppressed as an aspiring female artist while Kahlo is suffering from a heartbreak. Kahlo's self portrait has a central focus and the central focus is the artist herself, while Hartini juxtaposes the woman against her surroundings. Frida Kahlo's style is more primitive and native as compared to Hartini's, which is more exaggerated. In Hartini's Spying Lens, complementary colours such as blue and orange are used and her colours are in darker tones as compared to Kahlo's self portrait. In Frida's self portrait, the colours are excessively bright. Both works contain the notion of exaggeration. Hartini exagerates the foldings of the cloth, contributing to its flowing fluid quality. Kahlo exaggerates the textures of the succulent leave, which reflects Kahlo's interest in native Mexican art. Kahlo places her face at the central focus of the painting, such that she dominates more than half of the composition, making her presence felt, whereas in Lucia Hartini's case, she places the woman as a small figure, surrounded by foreboding and overwhelming clouds and brck walls. Therefore, the focus of each painting is different, so as to convey each artists message more effectively.

In both paintings, each artist has employed the heavy usage of symbolism to convey their personal struggle. Hartini struggles from suppression of the society and aims to break free while Kahlo wants the viewers to see herself as a tortured existence. The symbolism they use to represent their state of minds are also different. Since I have already discussed the use of symbolism in Hartini's work, I shall just discuss the symbolism in Kahlo's work.
Kahlo's face and upper body dominates the whole composition and her face is the central focal point of the painting. Her hair is dressed in a traditional Mexican style, which reveals her strong sense of Mexican identity and her pride in being a mestiza, a Mexican of mixed European and Amerindian ancestry. She depicts herself as a combination of a Christ-like figure and an Aztec goddess here. In this painting, she is depicted as a strong, resilient woman who is broken on the inside, as her unwavering gaze suggest sadness but the desire to stand strong. She stares at the viewer with a strong and seemingly bold gaze, but on the inside, she is suffering, hurting as suggested by the thorn necklace that she wears. This suggests that she is suffering in silence and can only convey her emotional and physical pain through her paintings. The dragonflies and butterflies around her head are Christian symbols of resurrection, representing hope and her desire for rebirth, to free herself from her mental and physical suffering.
There is a black cat peering over Kahlo's left shoulder. It is traditionally a symbol of bad luck and it watches the dead hummingbird hanging beneath Kahlo's throat with unfriendly eyes, as if ready to pounce on it. On her right shoulder, her pet monkey is playing withher thorn necklace. Monkeys are mostly symbolic of the devil or lust, but to the artist, this monkey symbolises the love that she was not receiving from Rivera. The monkey looks playful, which may also represent the child she could not have because of her ill health and bad physical state. Frida Kahlo is wearing a thorn necklace which is piercing into her skin, causing blood to trickle down. This allude's to Christ's sufferings and also to her own pain, and it also reveals her roots and patriotism. A hummingbird hangs from the centre of her necklace. In Mexican tradition, a hummingbird represents luck in love, but hers is dead, which means that she has lost all her luck in love. The usage of animals as symbolism in her self-portrait also reflects Kahlo's love for animals. Kahlo had many pets to keep her company as she had sadly realized that she would be unable to bear children for a lifetime due to injuries in her uterus, as a result of the bus crash incident which has led to more than thirty operations in her life.

My personal preference

I would prefer Frida Kahlo's painting as I think that it is a very open reflection of her suffering and emotional pain. Lucia Hartini's work does not convey the strong sense of suffering as the woman in her painting is passive, weak and she is even wearing a smile on her face!  Both artists have gone through a lot of sufferings but I think that Frida's life story is a more painful and dramatic one, so I sympathise with her. She has been through physical sufferings ever since she was young - she has contracted polio at the age of six and met with a fateful bus crash which has left her with serious injuries in her uterus, spine, ribs, pelvis, collarbone and right leg. Later in life, due to gangrene, she had her right leg amputated in 1953. She then died of cancer at the age of 47. She has also been emotionally scarred throughout her life by her husband, the womanizing Diego Rivera.

"I was born a bitch. I was born a painter."
"My paintings carry with it the message of pain." - Frida Kahlo

No comments:

Post a Comment