I’m wrestling with a few related concepts after being immersed in the wonderful show at the Art Gallery of Ontario Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting. They revolve around the degree to which Frida Kahlo was in some respects hidden or latent. There seems to be some sort of powerful parallel between the hidden aspects of her life and her emerging reputation, coming out of the shadows (after being forgotten at her death in the 1950s), as though one reinforces the other.
Kahlo’s recognition over the last few decades came about at least partly because of changing attitudes. In the 1950s women weren’t understood the way they are now, nor was there a fascination with aboriginal images interfacing with or blended into high art.
At least some of that dynamic can be attributed to the travesty of disability, and excuse me if that phrase is cryptic; I’ll have to unpack it somewhat. We live in a world that expects and assumes competence. When a person can’t cope they are slotted into other categories. Competence is at least part of this. If I can’t walk as well as the average person, I have a few options:
- Limp visibly, and perhaps suffer whatever looks, attitudes and comments are elicited by my behaviour
- Obtain aids such as crutch, cane, wheelchair, again, suffering whatever looks, attitudes and comments are elicited by my behaviour
- Avoid human contact to avoid those looks or comments, in order to be accepted as “normal”
- Fake a normal walk, to avoid those looks or comments, in order to be accepted as “normal”
Travesty is a word that I invoke to encompass the various ways a person may invoke another category, with varying degrees of success. I wrote a lengthy and rambling piece about this at the time of Amy Winehouse’s death. I was struck at the time by the ways some experiences challenge our understanding. Atypical people may be stigmatized, forcing them to either seek out a subculture where they’d feel more welcome or simply to sequester themselves indoors. I believe one reason we have so many marvellous self-portraits from Frida Kahlo is because she was often indoors, living with her pain.
I am making a huge set of assumptions of course, not having more to go on than the paintings & Julie Taymor’s film.
I am haunted by the experience of standing in front of Henry Ford Hospital, particularly the moment when I watched a woman look and shudder visibly, as recognition hit her bodily.
This is a picture not just of a woman, but of a kind of travesty. Kahlo had a miscarriage in Detroit, perhaps at this hospital (I am not sure, but suspect it’s so). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she invokes the name of the inventor of the assembly line process that’s used in car assembly, that the hospital bed is shown with other factories on the horizon, because this bed is more factory than organic site of birth. Kahlo was unable to conceive, had been through multiple operations after her bus accident (aha, another automotive connection that just occurs to me), including the accidental piercing of her body by a metal pole, and later procedures involving spinal fusion with a metal rod. In a real sense, she must have felt that her humanity was conflated with machines. Had she known the modern word “cyborg” – the hybrid of human and machine as in science fiction—she might well have applied it. The picture shows her bed as a kind of assembly line, that the various images at the ends of the series of umbilical cords vary between an organic foetus and something obviously mechanical, as if she were giving birth to machines, or her organic process were actually more like an assembly line. Kahlo went through over 30 different surgical procedures in her life, eventually losing part of her right leg via amputation due to gangrene.
At times Kahlo holds up a very harsh mirror to herself. Kahlo had intended to become a physician, which is likely part of the background for her fascination with anatomy and the workings of the human body. A woman whose life was one of pain & suffering left a very different sort of testimony in her work. Most of her paintings celebrate life & nature, even if she must have felt that she lived at the boundary between life and death.
I suppose that I am not alone, that the reason Kahlo’s works have been noticed and re-evaluated is precisely because the latent element is hidden but manifest. A powerful spirit couldn’t be contained or held back just as these sites of oppression have emerged from obscurity to be understood and even appreciated.