Welp people, we have seen her everywhere, that stern uni-brow face is as ubiquitous as a Che T-shirt. I could never understand how (mostly white, middle to upper-middle class) HIPSTER art girls worship FRIDA with such a passion, having those tote bags, wearing designer Tees of her smoking with tumblr-style sleeve tattoos, etc. I did not understand until i actually looked up her body of work, and was quite surprised at the authenticity of them, in combination with her life story.
What i want to focus on her with this painting in particular, is the topic of chronic pain, a topic I am a bit familiar with, being someone who has dealt with leg issues and Sciatica on and off for awhile. Of course my pain really pales in comparison to the life-long agony, both physically and emotionally, that Frida Kahlo suffered, pain that the vast majority of “art-hoes” and tumblr girls could not even begin to comprehend. In a way, that powerful feminist mystique (or perhaps feminine mystique might be a better word, for even the image of Frida has now been politicized), that aura of towering feminine iconography is in large part originated from the immense suffering, and triumph through suffering by turning it into beautiful artistic self-reflection, that Frida went through in her life.
I often tend to shy away from artists that indulge too extensively in the self-portrait, for what better way to “know thyself” then to have your own intimate image interpreted through the eyes of the other. In a way, Frida is a truly modern artist, not in terms of the deconstruction of representation and style, but because of her ability to take her self-image, and the image especially of her body, and use it to convey artistic commentaries on various subjects, from the personal, cultural, and political. Now a days, this seems like a sign of latent narcissism in a lot of artists who indulge in their self-image as a conveyance for higher subjects, take for example….TRACY EMIN; As to whether or not there is a direct line between Frida, O’Keeffe and others, and the abominations of modern artists that make lurid and grotesquely voyeuristic displays out of the narcissistic self image, this is a question I remain agnostic on.
This is of course dangerous territory from the reactionary or conservative perspective, not only in terms of the obsession with one’s self, but of the modern literary and critical theory obsession with BODIES. The almighty body (if one reads a lot of modern critical theory) seems to be a replacement for the image of God in certain regards, how pain, lesions of marginalization and “othering” effect the BODIES of the oppressed, etc. I however, do not mean to belittle this work, because certainly a good deal of critical theory that focuses on the body has merit. But when it becomes the thin intellectual gruel of “think pieces” pumped out by journalist/Soc majors, Ta Nehisi Coates-style op eds that never cease talking about BODIES, and all this BODIES-talk is absorbed by coastal middle-to-upper-class white pseudo-sophisticated boomers, you get the picture. There is an inherent banality in this year of our lord 2018, when talking about the topic of the BODIES of certain demographic groups. However, I am going off on a tangent; My point is this, there is a deep need and longing for Frida Kahlo to use her body as an artistic space of exploration, a warranted space. Furthermore, her approach to her own body as we will see, has inspired generations of artists in this regard, some of them good, and some of them terrible. now on with it…
There is quite a good academic paper that details the hair-raising, mind-numbing, nerve-shredding pain Frida went through during her tumid and tragic life, pain of death metal proportions. I do not mean to make light of it, but reading the various trials and sufferings she went through, it almost seems like it was written by a death metal musician in its seemingly unreal voracity; Frida went through a life of chronic and spontaneous pain that added up to be debilitating and never-ending, even without stimulus. First, a child suffering from Polio that resulted in a life-long limp and eventual leg amputation from progressive leg-muscle atrophy. She then went through a severe car accident that let her with chronic back pain, a crushed pelvis, multiple extremities being dislocated, shattered ankles, and severe nerve damage. Adding to this a number of failed bone graph and lumbar back surgeries. She then spiraled into drug and alcohol addiction, suffering miscarriages and clinically induced abortions due to her medical history. This all led to terrible emotional torment as well as constant physical agony from Allodynia nerve pain, or pain that is triggered from normal pressure and activities due to severe nerve damage, even the touch of cloths on ones skin can be enough to trigger severe pain.
Pain in all its forms eventually became a main vocal point in her body of self-portraiture, and “The Broken Column” (1944) stands out as a stark and visceral allegorical representation of her very real suffering; In it we see Frida being surgically gutted of contents, this is a metaphor for her whole being turned into a clinical-body, a body of surgical dissection, normalized into a life of clinicization (Qua Foucault); Only a rough corset strap apparatus is holding her together, like stitches barley being able to seal of torn wound. Frida after one surgery also suffered a gaping and infected would that caused her immense discomfort and illness.
Frida is then exposed and medically splayed out, like a postmortem autopsy, revealing herself and her medical suffering for the world to see. With tears streaming down her face, she is being held-up by a broken and crumbling roman column, a strong and proud woman crumbling under the weight of inner turmoil. Her body is broken, and often suffers of chronic pain have a very distorted body image, as their body becomes a Cartesian foreign entity, a battlefield between what the mind can sustain, and the never-ending nerve shred produced by a failing and contorted body.
All throughout her body are nails meant to represent the nerve channels and pressure points of pain. When one sustains pain long enough, nerve signals in the body change, become narrower, miss-fire more often, and light the brain on fire with signal disruptions. One will notice the purposeful arrangement of the nails that stands out is that both her legs are covered by a robe, but one leg (the right leg, which is the one effected by sciatica more often than the left leg) is covered all the way down in nails.
In a letter, Frida talked of her severe sciatic pain in her leg and pain around her genitals (some feminist symbolism there with other works, but let us focus on this piece); Having periodically suffered sciatica myself, i can only imagine what it would be like to suffer from its more severe and chronic form caused by degenerative discs in the spinal column- The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in your body that begins as nerve threads in the lower vertebrae. It then goes around the hip and glute muscles, crossing the piriformis muscle (which irritation can often be the cause of temporary sciatica) and then turning into a single big nerve that runs all the way down the leg and wraps itself around the heel, being about the size of your pinkie finger. Sciatic pain feels like stabbing, burning pain in various regions of the leg, from the thigh, calf, and even pain within the knee and ankle. It is often called the toothache of muscle pain, for it never goes away in its raw beginning stages, and it seems like there is no end in sight.
With chronic Sciatica, you cannot sleep, seldom eat, you cannot even think about anything besides the never-ending severity of pain, even walking up and down the stairs becomes a herculean feat of withstanding suffering. It is no wonder why Frida symbolically used nails to represent her leg pain, for it actually feels like someone is hammering in nails all up and down your leg, or as if someone has opened up your leg with a straight razor, and is gliding it across your ham strings; Most of all, what Frida is trying to represent in this piece, especially with the barren and desolate wasteland behind her, is that pain has a massive psychological effect on you. It distorts you thinking like a deceiving daemon, causing you to think terrible thoughts about yourself, hurling all of your insecurities at you in a rushing mental storm.
Frida is the symbol of “powerful women” today because of her narrativizing of pain and suffering, and the transmigration of agony into artistic beauty, overcoming suffering and living a life of creativity and dignity. This is one of the rare pieces of art that may not have the force of archetypal poetics behind it, but is a personal poetic of suffering transformed into overcoming. It may appear “lewd” to some because it is meant to be lewd in the sense that it is out in the open. All of Frida’s experiences are out in the open, and the mental and physical lacerations on her body are painted there for the world to see. Often times it is hard for sufferers of chronic pain to function and express themselves, becoming shut-ins, reclusive, hidden away like so many other medicalized populations, such as the mentally ill. Frida’s art exposes the very real life of the most vulnerable in society, and instead of wallowing in the pain and anguish, Frida breaks through it with her art.