Yasumasa Morimura’s Dialogue with Frida Kahlo: A Manifesto of Gender-Bending

by Emma Tilden

Last spring I got the opportunity to tour California with a singing group that I am a member of, and afterwards I spent a few days in San Diego, just sightseeing and wandering around.  One evening on my way back to the hostel where I was staying, I stumbled across San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It was closed for the day, but I saw a sign through the window that placed the admission price for “museum-goers 25 and under” at the low price of free. As I am not one to turn down an afternoon of free activities, I resolved to stop by the next day. 

Now, we all know that San Diego is beautiful, and after as long a winter as we had this year you’d think that I was ready to just lie on the beach for days, but I have to tell you: I went to that museum every day until I left San Diego 4 days later… 

One of the most striking images in the museum was a self-portrait by Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura. It was a part of his series ,“Self-Portraits: An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo,” in which he pays homage to the amazing artist by recreating Kahlo’s artistic process upon his own body. 

An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (Collar of Thorns) by Yasumasa Morimura

The piece that I saw in San Diego, An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (Collar of Thorns) is Morimura’s enactment of Kahlo’s 1940 piece Self Portrait with Necklace of Thorns.  It is perhaps more striking than Kahlo’s painting, because coming to understand the photograph, with all its layers, is an experience unto itself. 

An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (Flower Wreath and Tears) by Yasumasa Morimura.  

I must admit, I was surprised to learn that the photograph’s subject was a man.  Of course, Morimura was dressed in clothes traditionally worn by women, but Kahlo herself challenged gender roles enough that I should have just thrown away my assumptions altogether. Our culture of hyper-sensitive masculinity—the slightest hint of a feminine implication on a guy has the tendency to spur a 20 minute swagger-fest of masculine assertiveness lest he be compared to something so shameful as a woman!—has left me unaccustomed to the idea that a man might embrace a feminine aesthetic as a, “fierce and intense manifestation of human sentiments and universal themes, such as joy, anger, sorrow, happiness, beauty, life, and love,” themes from Kahlo’s work which Morimura cites as inspiration for his collection. 

An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (Hand Shaped Earring) by Yasumasa Morimura.  

Morimura has transformed himself into the Mona Lisa as well as various movie actresses as part of a self-portrait series that he has been working on since 1985.  The series challenges our gendered conceptions of beauty, at once subverting it and paying homage to the beauty present in both the original piece and his subsequent reworking of it. In a world as dominated by media conceptions of beauty as ours is today, that kind of challenge is exactly what we need. 


Images courtesy of carearts.com and brooklynmuseum.org.  

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