Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) one of the most influential Mexican spinal injury artists of the middle twentieth century. Frida Kahlo painted images of the disabled female body. Striking self portrait’s of her own spinal cord injury and trauma. As a teenager in 1925 a tram car accident left Frida Kahlo with multiple injuries. She would endure a long and painful recovery.

Broken spinal column vertebrae, collarbone, ribs and pelvis, eleven fractures in right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and dislocated shoulder. An iron handrail from the tram also pierced her abdomen and uterus. In Frida Kahlo’s paintings these injuries and her now seriously impaired reproductive ability transcend from the canvas.

Born in Coyoacán, Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón. Frida Kahlo’s artwork interweaves traditional Mexican votive painting and technical images of the body. Modern medical science (x-rays, surgical implements, hospital experience) fused with Christian icons of redemption through physical pain and suffering. In this way, Frida Kahlo painted an entirely new depiction of the female experience and form.

The Broken Column a painting by Frida Kahlo
The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo Artwork

Frida Kahlo’s ground breaking artwork is among the first, and perhaps the most daring, to render a portrait of transparent, explicit, bodily trauma. Prior to her artwork pain was shown through gestures of agony. Scenes of crucifixion or martyrdom, as in the work of Kathe Kollwitz, Picasso’s Guernica. Or explicit gore in battle scenes and beheadings the likes of Salome, Jose Posada’s dancing skeletons, or any number of other mythological illustrations.

“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” – Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo’s artwork is particularly of interest to disability studies. Not only for the auto-biographical renditions of her spinal and other injuries, illnesses, and surgeries, but also because of the nature of the body she invents. Often the interior of the body is visible and continuous with the exterior. In a kind of psychic Mobius strip they become one.

Frida Kahlo Greatest Artworks

In her greatest artworks The Broken Column, The Two Fridas, Roots, The Tree of Hope, and Without Hopes, there is no clear division between inner reality and outer appearance. Thus the un-shareable nature of individual pain becomes explicit and felt. To look at one of Frida Kahlo’s greatest artworks is to punch yourself in the face. Her paintings scream a raging agony. A visible pain taken and shared in empathy.

Frida Kahlo the Movie

My jaw dropped when I saw the movie Frida. Played by Salma Hayek, the only woman who could make a mono-brow sexy. In the opening scene of the movie Frida suffers a chilling spinal cord injury, in a tram car accident. The movie clip below follows with her drug induced hazy dreams of dancing x-ray skeletons. Dreams that are very familiar to me. 

Nightmarish visions dancing skeletons plagued my spinal cord injury recovery. All my life I’ve also seen dark shadowy figures like those in the movie Ghost. None bother me though. I get the feeling they are not out to hurt me. This video clip from the movie Frida is a little graphic. Any realistic life-like portrayal of a spinal cord injury accident will make you wince. And so I warn you this video clip from the movie Frida featuring Salma Hayek is very realistic.

Frida Kahlo Spinal Cord Injury Video Clip

Frida Kahlo Spinal Cord Injury Treatment

By the 1930s, x-ray technology had been in public use for some time. X-rays ended the concept of the opaque body. Public hospitals had also been established as places of collective community experience. Frida Kahlo demolishes the idea of a disabled body in pain being a shameful and hidden thing after her arduous spinal cord injury treatment.

Frida Kahlo bravely offers her body up in many taboo contexts. Her spinal cord injury and images of pain are never separate from her life at large. Never represented as a different sphere of experience in kind or degree. Her illnesses are fully in context with the rest of her life.

The examinations of marriage, sexuality, cultural patrimony, and family are the same visual icons as those in mainstream disability. Her paintings in the context of traditional images display the female body as a mysterious, irrational, and secretive vessel. It’s when Frida Kahlo’s spinal cord injury comes in fusion with her life on canvas she parts from, and directly opposes, mainstream disability paintings.

The baring of her body inside and out is more than a simple nude self-portrait. Her body is small and doll-like. It appears as a toy in the grip of immense forces. Not as a mythical goddess-like being. Embedding the matter-of-fact details of her medical experiences within a highly emotional language. Frida Kahlo demystifies disability and presents it both inside and out of mainstream. To open oneself to a Frida Kahlo painting is to feel the vulnerability of one’s own body. To immediately experience its transcendence through art.

Frida Kahlo Paintings Gallery

Frida Kahalo Fire in the Machine

Another aspect of Frida’s disability paintings is the mutability of her body (a factor of chronic but unpredictable illness). Symbolized in her portrayals of her body in partial trans-mutation with animals, partners, or the natural world in general. One can align her pairing with monkeys, Diego, and the Little Deer, with the way disabled people must render control or custody over their bodies. This is also evident in paintings of her doubled self as a reflection.

A kind of permeability arises, a thinning of boundaries that enables her to see herself as an amalgam of parts. History, love, and culture build her self-portraits. She depicts herself or others in isolation only when in a state of deep emotional pain and despair. Disability is often imagined as a state of weakness and withdrawal. Frida Kahlo gives us a world in which pain becomes a fire in the machine. A state of wild ferocity. A disrobing to reveal a body in full communion.

“I hope the exit is joyful and I hope never to return.” – Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo Final Days

Frida Kahlo died on July 13, 1954. The official cause of death was given as PE (Pulmonary Embolism, a blood clot in lungs). Some suspect Frida Kahlo died from an overdose that may or may not have been accidental. An autopsy was never performed. Frida Kahlo had been very ill throughout the previous year. Her right leg had been amputated at the knee owing to gangrene. Frida Kahlo also had a bout of bronchopneumonia near that time. In her final days Frida Kahlo was said to be ill and frail. Barely a shell of the once vivacious artist. With such a strong embodiment in her paintings Frida Kahlo will always loved by her fans.

Resources 

  • Agence France Presse, Yahoo News (2007). Largest-ever exhibit of Frida Kahlo work to open in Mexico.
  • Cruz, Barbara (1996). Frida Kahlo: Portrait of a Mexican Painter. Berkeley Heights: Enslow.
  • Gonzalez, M. (2005). Kahlo –  A Life. Socialist Review, June 2005.
  • errera, Hayden. (1983). Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo.

 
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