I am in pain yet I still paint. This is the narrative that we find in Frida Kahlo’s work. But it’s wrong. The wrong story, according to this new book. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg, Emily Rapp Black (Notting Hill Editions). This is my Book 5 of #20-Books-of-Summer-21 Hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books
So what is the correct story? It is not about therapy. It is about value creation. During her lifetime Kahlo created enormous value with her immense spirit and her work. She was criticised for allowing her illnesses to ‘to displace her maternal drive’, this despite the torment she went through, often strapped to machinery to straighten her back, having to use a special contraption to hold a sketch book above her head when she was bedridden so that even supine she could continue to paint. She endured numerous operations and bone grafts, some of which were unsuccessful.
Kahlo gave us images of bodies wracked and torn asunder by metal poles, of blood stained sheets and clothing, of dead children. She forced people to look at the realities of her body as it was during the life she lived – and especially as those related to women. That is why we still look at her paintings and that is why we flock to films and exhibitions about her life.
The author has set down in this work the myriad ways in which she has been inspired not just by Frida, but Rebecca Solnit, Simone Weil.
Frida the artist was a woman who ‘lived dying’ according to Hayden Herrera’s biography. She suffered from polio as a child and then as a teenager the devastating effects of a bus collision in which she was horrifically injured and needed medical interventions constantly throughout the rest of her life – including later on, undergoing the amputation of a leg.
Frida and her art and life have inspired millions; she has been the subject of biographies and a number of films starring famous people who probably had no real clue what she went through, no more do any of us. In 2018 the V&A Museum in South Kensington held an exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s clothing and personal items including prosthetics called ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’. Is it possible to understand the life of another? It is in fact a struggle to understand our own lives. We make ourselves up out of the raw material of a cultural upbringing, a physical embodiment, a mental resilience. Human beings are infinitely complex. Yet sometimes despite that -or because of it – it can seem the universe has an infinite variety of pain and torture saved just specially for us. It must have seemed that way to Kahlo and to Rapp Black who searched desperately for her own way forward as an amputee and having lost her son to Tay Sachs disease.
The world is judgmental. There is, Rapp Black writes, ‘ an inescapable game of looking, and ranking and sizing up’ and she has been on the receiving end of that game all her life, forced to suffer the physical pain of being an amputee – which is constant, the prosthetic rubbing raw and bleeding against the skin of the leg – the slurs and ignorant attitudes with which she has been assailed. We think we know about racism but perhaps think less about what disabled people have to endure.
There were elements of this story that I found shocking, in particular the attitudes towards disabled people, which seemed to come most especially from places where you least expect to find those attitudes, in the medical profession. Ironically, just as Frida was criticised for allowing her illnesses to ‘interfere’ with her societally percevied raison d’etre of motherhood, Rapp Black gets opprobrium for daring to want to be a mother. ‘Must you have a child?’ she is asked. ‘Are there not other ways of being a parent?’
Critics have sought to break Frida Kahlo paintings into categories representing real pain and imagined pain. As if anyone else is in a position to know that. There is no such thing as imaginary pain. Surely, pain is pain. Whatever its source, mental or physical and it can obscure so much else. It takes over – becomes the great obscurer of the light, our own personal sandbag of doom, grief, anxiety and dread. A poisonous recipe.
Rapp Black sought release from her own pain in art but learned early on that she could not paint. She could however write. And oh boy can this lady write! This is an unflinching look at physical incapacity and the death of a child. Challenging of course because of its subject matter but an extremely worthwhile read.
Compassion required. Pity definitely not.