Pain, Pleasure & Death: Finding Understanding in the Paintings of Frida Kahlo

Written by Maia Mathieu.

“Pain, pleasure and death are no more than a process for existence. The revolutionary struggle in this process is a doorway open to intelligence.”                     ― Frida Kahlo 

Alan Bennett once wrote, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thoughtspecial and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”  I’d had that experience through books, poetry and words, but had been struggling deeply with an ineffable reality of constant pain.

A week before I turned twenty, I was involved in a workplace accident, and was struck on the back of my neck and shoulders; the incident left me in a great deal of pain, and, startlingly, it didn’t go away like the other bumps I’d taken to that point. Six, eight weeks later, I received a diagnosis of Fibromyalgia.  They called it a ‘diagnosis of exclusion’, as in, ‘we ruled out everything else’; I called it ‘we don’t know what’s wrong or why you’re in pain but you are, so.’  

Eloquence fails in the face of suffering, and the inability to articulate my experience was as devastating a thing as the pain itself.  

I didn’t know anyone else with chronic pain, had never met another twenty year old who walked (slowly) with a cane — and the utter subjectivity of it was completely isolating.  I’d had a doctor look me in the face and tell me it was all in my head, and it was only pride that kept me from furious tears until I was out of his office.

And then I encountered Frida — originally through an issue of Curve, a North American lesbian magazine, actually.  I was coming out as bisexual around this time, and consuming what queer women’s popular culture I could get my hands on, and there was a feature article about the upcoming movie version of Frida Kahlo’s life, starring Salma Hayek.  It was a passion-project from one Mexican icon about another, and first version of Frida I encountered was the bisexual artist that Julie Taymor was committing to film — a bold woman who loved men and women alike, defined her own aesthetic (including the famous mustache and unibrow) and lived with chronic pain due to a terrible accident in her youth.  She leapt from the page like a patron-saint or queer guardian angel sent to guide me just when I needed her — and I began devouring anything I could get my hands on about her, including the massive Hayden Herrera biography.

The idea of Frida was a comfort to me, that someone like her could have existed, could have lived her life without shame, but it was her work that stopped me in my tracks.  She’s become much better known in the last fifteen years as a self-portraitist, the proto-selfie, sharing her inner world.  Her husband, Mexican painter Diego Rivera, commented, “Frida is the only example in the history of art of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings” — and that’s what made her so essential to me.

La Columna Rota, or The Broken Column, is a 1944 self-portrait that became my visual aid to speak about Fibromyalgia for a very long time.  It’s a startling piece — a solitary woman standing before a cracked-open landscape and a deep blue sky.  She’s nude to the waist, except for the straps of a metal corset holding her together and the sheet at her waist, and her torso is split from throat to that sheet with a cracked and crumbling Greek column in place of her spine.  Her carriage is proud in spite of that, in spite of the tears on her face and the many, many nails piercing her flesh.  She is wrecked and ruined and still standing, in spite of it.  Of all her art, this is the piece that took my breath away and saved my life.  

Words had failed me completely, but the stoic demand in the eyes of that portrait connected to me in a way nothing else had.  The lacerated flesh, coupled with the image of the column — if the body is a temple, she seemed to me to be saying, this temple has been violated, and yet it stands.  Everything I’ve ever learned about endurance, I learned from from that painting, and those lessons have served me better than most as I learned to live with, and later, recover from chronic pain.

Centuries of Catholics have drawn comfort from the bleeding, broken body of Christ on the cross, or St. Sebastian pierced with arrows: I found my embodied, feminine experience better reflected in the proud tears of a bisexual, communist, Mexican artist.

 

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