For the series Forty Fridas Ellen Heck represented women and girls dressed as the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Kahlo is of course best-known for her own series of compelling self-portraits. Indeed she made an art-form of the carefully-constructed public presentation of a considered self-image, an assertive and self-possessed character who engages the viewer with a direct unsmiling gaze. In an essay about her, written in 1977, Kahlo’s first love, Alejandro Gómez Arias wrote “Who was Frida Kahlo? It is not possible to find an exact answer. So contradictory and multiple was her personality that it can be said that many Fridas existed.” It is this multiplicity that Heck has so eloquently exploited, with her forty sitters offered as variations on this theme. Each portrait is strikingly individual and each sitter is identified by name, but seen together they reveal echoes and correspondences that amplify their impact and resonance. Identity is shown to be a mutable state, a game we can all play as we style ourselves for different audiences. Each sitter is both herself and an imagined ‘other’.
Kahlo’s self-portraits are well-known and have been widely reproduced and it was this familiarity which both inspired and enabled Heck’s project. The unifying feature of the series is that each of the sitters is dressed or accessorized to evoke Kahlo’s iconic self-styling. In part the resemblance is achieved through the pose of the sitter: a turn of the head, the steady regard. Some of these Frida impersonators wear shawls, scarves, bold pendant earrings, or embroidery, with dark centre-parted hair pulled back or put up. Eye-brows are emphatically expressive. All wear head-dresses of flowers, feathers, or twists of cloth.
Heck is not alone, of course, in adopting – and adapting - Kahlo’s self-portraits. Her fellow American Miriam Schapiro has in her own words ‘collaborated’ with Kahlo, representing herself as Frida in several prints and paintings directly modelled on the self-portraits. For many women, Frida is a heroine, someone with whom they can identify, and her portraits of herself have a universal appeal grounded in her defiantly unconventional beauty, and her assertion of an independent identity both as a woman and as an artist.
Heck’s project progressed in different phases, and she has described how the images can be divided into three groups, each with slightly different goals, but each involving a kind of collaboration with the sitters or models. The earliest prints were developed from images Heck found on the internet (where images of women in the guise of Frida are plentiful), and she emailed the people concerned asking for permission to use their image in exchange for a print. Portraits from this group include Rory, Davina and Margaret. Next she decided to focus on the faces, and invited family members and friends to pose, but she also put out a call for participants on her web site. These sitters include Eden, Chayito, and Kate. In the later works the younger models predominate because, in the artist’s words, “dressing up can be read as an aspirational activity, and among the younger models, this act brings with it a sense of promise, and hopes for the future”. Finally she took faces in isolation and added the ‘Frida’ accessories to the portraits herself. The portraits of Jasmine, Abigail and Trimita were arrived in this way. Heck also introduces some playful variations to the formula: the solemn wide-eyed Rory features twice, Frida herself is re-imagined as Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine (Cecilia Gallerani), with a bold gaze out towards the viewer instead of the averted gaze of the original, and in a companion print Cecilia impersonates Frida, with a parrot in place of the ermine. There is even a Frida as Frida.
There is an intense intimacy to all of the portraits, however derived, as the sitters make eye-contact, and engage the viewer. The effect is enhanced by the shallow indeterminate pictorial spaces against which each sitter is silhouetted. Whilst some are engagingly informal, others such as Ava, have a hieratic formality which recalls Renaissance portraits.
What strikes the viewer seeing all the prints together is the variety that the artist has introduced despite the apparent constraints of her project. There is no template, no standard formula; each print has been approached afresh, and each is an experiment with process, colour, pose, and effect. Indeed Heck has described her process as “a slippery hybrid of the scientific method and intuitive play.” The prints reflect and reveal her working methods, and the process is essential to the effects. Drypoint, in combination with colour woodcut are the techniques she has chosen; both are challenging and labour-intensive, their effects innately fugitive and hard to control or predict. It is these characteristics which animate these images, enlivening surfaces which can appear flat, or inert in reproduction. In the flesh, we discover a subtle layering of colour, the use of translucent and metallic pigments which shimmer and glow, giving each portrait the aura of an icon. This resemblance is emphasized further by a patina of marks – scuffs, grazes, faint lines - which complicate the surfaces, confirming the hand-made hard-won character of the prints, and suggest something precious, much-loved.
Portraiture is freighted with a particular significance in this age of self-consciousness, an age in which the ubiquitous ‘selfie’ is the defining means of self-presentation for an ever-expanding audience. In using Frida Kahlo’s self-crafted likeness to structure her portraits of others, Ellen Heck has found a novel means of refreshing a stale genre. Without resorting to stylistic gimmicks or descending to pastiche she has found a new model for the age-old collaboration between artist and sitter in which each has an active part and a distinct identity.