|Frida Kahlo: The Wounded Body as an Edge of Experience|
|Congresses - 2004 Barcelona|
|Written by Matilde Hemsani Cassab|
Matilde Hemsani Cassab
Violence experienced by the artist’s psyche is expressed as the dismemberment that compels to create
Frida Kahlo’s art is a creative rebellion, an expressive revolt against her physical and emotional pain. The astonishing number of self-portraits in her work reveals her struggle with physical dismemberment and psychological fragmentation. It is through her physicality – the image of her own body – that her art resonates and is able to transmit her painful yet fascinating inner world, the complexity of her feelings, emotions, and vision. Frida’s self-portraits starkly mirror her physical and psychological states; her words “I am disintegration”1 echo her feelings about her fragmented yet powerful body.
In her paintings, tension generated by pain is revealed as the organizing force of her psyche. Tragedy and excision constitute the center of her life and work, as she states in her Diary, when she paints herself as a broken vase, shouting, “Don’t cry over me!” followed by another drawing, “I certainly cry over you!” thus responding to her own defiance with a certain amount of empathy. Both drawings show her ever-present duality: the first shows her as a strong and confrontational woman, a warrior who loathed being treated as an invalid; the latter acknowledges her self-compassion at her pain and wounds.
Through her work, Frida transmutes her physical and psychological suffering into meaningful art forms. As the Argentinean writer Dorra suggests, “It is by means of perception that the world becomes meaning; our body acts as a semiotic receptacle; as a transformer, which receives and processes sensitive perceptions and turns them into signs and messages.”2 Since the link between body and psyche operates as a channel for meanings, symbols become the substance that expresses the otherwise inexpressible.
Our body is the locus, the place to hold our psyche since early childhood. The psyche is rooted in bodily experience,3 and our ability to create images and symbols is a result of this experience and of the images printed on our psychological skin. According to Anzieu, the skin-ego provides the first representations of the ego within the psyche apparatus; it is both the receiver and container of the processes that generate psychological life. In Frida’s art, her body image was the channel for her creativity through which her intense physical experience flowed.4 Thus the importance of recreating her own body image as the key element to construct a visual language; her body seems to embrace and permeate her paintings filling them with a biological rhythm, giving them life. Through the use of her physicality, Frida unveils her soul, which, in turn, reaches out and captures the viewer’s soul. Her talent and her psychological strength seem to emerge from her ability to make her body a receptacle of meanings; hence her physical representation on the canvas shows a pain-ridden dismembered body and psyche. The intense and intimate view in her art expresses her personal tragedy, with her canvases acting as multiple mirrors to reflect her searing suffering while, at the same time, they are profoundly and essentially archetypal. She used her devastating pain as a key to open an inner dialogue between her dismembered body image and the Other shown in her self-portraits; and in revealing her inner world, Frida is able to explore the unfathomable territory of archetypal suffering.
Through this link to the inner Other, Frida’s perception of her wounded body became the detonator for her creativity and for her growing consciousness about her feelings of dismemberment, and perennial agony. Such attempts to redeem pain by transforming it into art may be seen as an effort toward an integration of the ego-self axis. In fact, Frida’s art was her strenuous revolt against a life in constant struggle with death.
Frida was born in 1907, during the pre-Revolutionary years, in a turbulent country where life was challenged by constant upheaval. Through the collective dismembering experience of the 1910 Revolution, Mexico was compelled to face its own abyss.5 Women became a force, a power struggling for better conditions, side by side with men. The environment of strength and freedom of the post-Revolutionary days – enthusiastic and passionate times when social change was pursued – and the subsequent flourishing of the arts, to the point of being justly called the Mexican Renaissance, also had a strong impact on Frida as a woman and as an artist. Just as modern Mexico was born from bloodshed, so did Frida’s paintings emerge from deep suffering. During the readjustments that followed the disruptive violence of the Revolution, Frida became committed to the political challenges of her times, and throughout her life she remained an active militant fighting for radical causes.
Matilde Calderón, Frida’s mother, was a stern and meticulous woman who conceived her while suffering from a deep depression, still mourning a son who had died shortly after birth. She had little energy for Frida and, unable to breast-feed her, she hired a wet nurse. We know through Frida’s biographical recount that there was a pattern of coldness, distance and rejection in Matilde that constellated a negative mother complex. This experience created a deep wound in Frida’s sense of her own worth and identity. Her relationship with Diego and her lesbian experiences were predominantly angst-ridden. It could be said, on one level, that through her intimate relationships, Frida was longing for her mother’s affective bond. However, what was constellated was a reenactment of the initial trauma.
In contrast, Frida was her father’s pet. In Guillermo Kahlo – a shy Jewish Austrian photographer who suffered from epilepsy – Frida found the necessary warmth and acceptance to develop a feeling of self-containment; it also increased the maternal archetype; the development of the inner Other helped establish the ego-self axis bond. According to Chodorow, “this axis is perceived as a treasure in each stage of childhood, it is … a series of numinous moments [leading to] synthesis and reorientation.”6 This axis fostered Frida’s adaptation to her physical and psychological reality; an adaptation that became more demanding after she contracted polio, which hindered the growth of her right leg and left a profound narcissistic wound in her physical image. As Neumann writes: “One of the main difficulties in the child’s development is the necessity of gradually ‘migrating’ so to speak, into its own body, a process that runs parallel to the development of the ego and explains the extraordinary importance of physical experience in early childhood.”7
The wounds of polio were partially mitigated by her father’s affection and loving interest. He nursed her during her illness, and later challenged her to practice sports in order to recover full movement. He guided her curious and independent nature towards books and taught her how to retouch and color photographs, thus stimulating her creativity. This close relationship supported the emergence of a positive animus, activating an inner authority sense manifested in her life and art.
Confined and isolated in her convalescent bed, Frida sought refuge in her inner world where she created an inner Other, personified as a dancing imaginary friend.
The imaginary friend acted as an inner agent that made the reality of the objective psyche available to her. From this bridging experience, Frida brought back boundless joy that compensated her unbearable suffering.
As a high school student, Frida cherished dreams of studying medicine, but her dreams were frustrated when a streetcar crashed against the bus where she was traveling. As a result she was turned into an invalid. A tube pierced her uterus, and ruptured her stomach; she suffered multiple fractures: spinal column, pelvis, both legs, two ribs and a dislocated shoulder. The accident brutally reinforced her mutilated body image in two crucial areas: her spine and womb, and ultimately imposed thirty-five surgeries and two miscarriages, all of which dramatically changed her life. Frida was again confined to bed and eventually to a wheel chair, and had to wear an orthopedic corset that both supported and suffocated her. Her physical and psychological dismemberment continued throughout her life. During the last eight years of her life, Frida depended more than ever on alcohol and painkillers, as a response to both her deep self-destructiveness and her need to numb pain and anguish. A few months before her death, her right leg was amputated, and morphine had to be substituted for alcohol.
After the accident, paralyzed for months, she began to work on a series of paintings, creating and recreating her own image, as she worked with her reflection on a mirror placed on the canopy of her bed. As Frida looked at herself in her paintings, the Other emerged to bear witness and reflect on her own being and her life in a back and forth canvas-to-life process of trying to integrate and heal herself.
Frida’s art and her painful physical experiences helped repair her self- image. Through her art, she linked her own process to an archetypal dimension in an attempt to transform and give meaning to her life. Her artistic interest in her own image and in human anatomy derived from the need to repair her own body imago. Perhaps her truncated medical studies would have given her only a passive stance, with no emotional reparation. However, by actively mastering the creation and re-creation of her own self-image, Frida found an active reparative stance. Painting her self-portraits was Frida’s way of reclaiming her own sense of life, as Mexican writer Carlos Monsiváis writes:
While most children grow up seeing themselves through their mother’s eyes and their empathic response, Frida’s predominant relationship was with her father; there she found the maternal provision that supported her in the process of discovering the good aspects of the arquetypal mother to express her psychological reality; it provided her a bond between her fragmented body and her inner world that helped her survive and adapt.
The “skin-ego” receives and contains the processes that generate psychological life; when the body suffers an alteration, a shock or a trauma, the physical perception of the body image changes.10 It is thus the first boundary between outer and inner worlds. Feldman suggests that our skin “provides the first container of psychological experience both personal and arquetypal.”11 That is why in her paintings of dismemberment, Frida created a liminal space between the real and the imaginary body.
In The Broken Column (1944), Frida depicted her spine as a cracked Ionic column; she is held by an orthopedic corset that, symbolically speaking, could be a representation of her skin-ego, which gradually became part of her body. The creative ego strived to heal the inner damage by including Frida’s corset (her skin-ego), as a way of containing her devastating inner fragmentation.
When Frida paints her self-portraits she both creates and re-creates an inner double, and in doing so she reunites her psychological fragments in an attempt to restore her damaged body. The Broken Column can be understood as the outcome of an inner duel between her physical and her imaginary body, a defensive construction against angst. Monsiváis says: “She is the creator who, at the same time, ignores and recognizes herself on the canvas; the owner of a body that can only express life when broken, full of pain, nails and scars.”12
Through the images emerging from her psyche, Frida establishes a dual relationship between the fragments of a tormented body and her psychological wounds. She uses elements in Nature in her attempt to symbolically repair and rebel against her self-destructiveness; hence, healing forces from her unconscious are awakened to generate guiding images and healing symbols in her artwork. This restorative channel and her extraordinary ability to symbolize are also shown in the painting The Earth Itself (1943), where Frida paints a feminine body to connect to the source of her emotional life, while her attempt to connect to her wounded femininity is represented by the cracked soil in the landscape.
Through her art, Frida redefined her relationship with her own body image, by creating boundaries between her inner and outer states. It was through these boundaries that she avoided states of psychotic anxiety. Her art was a self-created holding space, an extended “psychological skin” that wrapped her tortured body. In her Diary, she wrote: “Nothing is more natural than to paint what we haven’t attained;”13 to her, this meant integration, thus the multiple fragments of her dismembered body as inner reflections.
The references to the Great Mother in her work are predominantly depicted as a destructive archetypal force. Frida’s distance and ambivalent feelings toward her mother became evident when Matilde was dying: although, after hearing the news, Frida traveled from New York to Mexico, she never visited her in hospital. Shortly after her mother’s death, Frida painted My Birth, (1932) where she combines
beginning and end, surface and depth. In this numinous painting, a shroud covers the face of the woman giving birth in an inhospitable atmosphere. Frida gives birth to herself in an attempt to repair the deeply imprinted image of her own birth, while a depiction of the Virgin of Sorrow dominates over a sterile atmosphere of emptiness. Frida is both the baby with an adult head, and the mother she was never able to be.
Frida’s conflicts emerge from both personal experience and a constellation of the negative aspects of the archetypal mother. In pre-Hispanic mythology, Coatlicue, the goddess of life and death, symbolizes the archetypal image of the Great Mother. Upon conceiving her son, Huitzilopochtli, the Sun god, her daughter Coyolhauxqui, the Moon goddess, fearing her mother’s abandonment confronted her brother and was dismembered as a result.14 Frida experienced a parallel dynamic since she was born after the death of her baby brother. Her mother was absorbed by her grief over the loss of her son. The lack of this maternal affective bond, compelled Frida to constantly live on the edge of life and death; overwhelmed by the dark aspects of the inner mother imago, trapped in her passage between the underworld and the higher realms. Her work connected the symbolic legacy of two cultures (the pre-Hispanic and the Judeo-Christian), both of which link the human body to sacrifice. The Aztec deities demanded blood to maintain the order of the universe and to ensure the daily rebirth of the Sun. The Christian god also imposed the denial and punishment of the body to ensure admission to the kingdom of God.
In Self-portrait dedicated to Doctor Eloesser (1940), Frida’s inner ...
... wounds are evident. In the background, dry twigs and leaves intertwine with white buds, denoting her inner desolation; pain and sacrifice as inner suffering, and also, as the hope for eternal renovation. Her martyrdom is symbolized by drops of blood around the thorn necklace she is wearing. According to pre-Hispanic traditions, thorns were used in self-sacrifice rituals, but in Frida’s case, they represent her inclination toward self-destructiveness, which is also present in other self-portraits.
In her work, Frida found the needed strength to confront the irreparable and to define herself to the world and to her own self. Her ability to deal with pain allowed her to build an identity and to explore the edges of experiencing life in a tortured body. Her scenes of inner drama can be understood as an attempt to repair her mutilated body image, there, the Other is always expressed as dramatic pain. Nurtured by this archetypal heritage – the pre-Hispanic and the Judeo- Christian – Frida’s work is permeated by pain, torture and sacrifice, as depicted in Tree of Hope (1946), where the artist recreates the experience of a painful operation that offered the hope of releasing her from pain. Both parts in Frida are represented as she divides the painting into two opposites: day and night. It also refers to Aztec mythology, where the Sun was fed with the blood of human victims. Frida’s mutilated sacrificial body lies on the cracked landscape while the moon reigns in the sky as an encompassing feminine symbol of her hope. Two deep incisions mark Frida’s back. It is as though her surgeries triggered a psychic earthquake that tore her apart. Her inner and outer wounds are a reflection of the cracked soil. Her red dress and the flower symbolize the return to a life free from pain.
Death as a recurrent motif in Frida’s life and work is both a personal and cultural expression. Her inferno of physical pain gave her the stark certainty of the closeness of death, which forged her character for creative battles. She lived by and with death, as a loved but hated friend and at the same time as a dynamic force nurturing her creativity. The symbolic familiarity with death imprinted in the Mexican culture was explained by Octavio Paz when he wrote: “Mexicans are close to death, they live in it, they scorn it and caress it; they sleep with it; they celebrate it; it is one of their favorite toys and their most permanent love.”15
Frida’s obsession with death led her to explore the nineteenth century tradition of painting portraits of dead children, surrounded by objects that would help them in their journey to the “other world.” Inspired in this tradition, Frida painted The Deceased Dimas (1937). According to Mexican syncretism, she painted the dead child on a humble straw mat but placed his head on a Spanish- style embroidered pillow. She included marigolds, the Mexican flowers of the dead that mark the soul’s path back to earth. With a trace of a smile and half-opened eyes, little Dimas seems to watch the viewer, revealing a simultaneous connection to the conscious and unconscious worlds.
In Thinking about Death (1943), Frida portrays death as a third eye. If the intangible can be seen through the third eye, death must be a constant presence. In Diego and I (1949), it is Diego who is seen in Frida’s third eye. He also has a third eye, as though Frida could become a visionary through Diego who, in turn, is capable of seeing the intangible in Frida. This third eye Diego is a Diego-Other; through Diego’s eyes, Frida felt she existed in a Diego-I (1949) state. The tears symbolize Frida’s sadness over her permanent wound: “Diego is inside me / I don’t have Diego”. Thinking about Death and Diego and I seem to say that Frida’s relationship with death is analogous to her relationship with Diego. Intertwining love and death, the lovers are both victim and victimizer. Frida expresses her obsession for and possession by Diego with the following words:
Nobody knows how much I love Diego […] If I had health I would give it all to him, if I had youth he could take it all. I am not only his mother, I am the embryo, the seed, and the first cell that gave him life. I am he since [the beginning of] the most primitive […] ancient cells that in time turned into “meaning.”16
While Frida often claimed that nothing was absolute, she nevertheless perceived Diego as her absolute, her diversity in unity: the Universe. Diego – the real Diego and the Diego invented by Frida’s obsession – became her religion; her god, ritual and temple were all called Diego Rivera:
Tenderly and passionately, Frida wrote in her Diary that the sole purpose of her open eyes, and all her senses was to perceive Diego and to cling to her projection of him. Her mangled being searched imploringly for Diego’s eyes to validate her, resulting in an emotional turmoil; in this state of mystical union, she was incapable of discriminating between her inner loves and hates and the outer projection of him. The relationship with Diego accentuated Frida’s inclination towards dismemberment.
In 1935, shortly after discovering that Diego had been unfaithful with her own sister, Frida, inspired by a murder case published in the newspapers, painted A Few Little Snips. For years, Frida refused to show the painting and kept staining both canvas and frame with her own blood. Far from elaborating her grief, she seemed to nourish her pain, perceiving Diego’s betrayal as a murderous act. This personal tragedy, inflicted by Diego, increased her own ability to transform her painting into a religious activity, which she used to express a sense of constant torture, of victimization in the hands of a cruel god called Diego.
Ernesto Aguirre, with whom Frida was then having a love affair, said that when they rented a room, Frida used her sister’s name. This could be interpreted as Frida’s shadow projection on her sister as though by impersonating the dark side of her sister she could draw Diego back to her. She created The Two Fridas (1939), after Diego asked her for a divorce. It shows the materialization of that time as a painting and the deep fragmentation of her ego as a dialectic manifestation expressed in both personal and transpersonal wounds. On a personal level, this painting is Frida’s experience of a wounded body which compelled her to create a woman and her double as one and the same: one unfolding from the other, and a vehicle to restructure her fragmentation. The blood transfusion in the painting symbolizes the agony but also the nourishing substance that one Frida gives to the other. She creates a metaphor, an unquestionable tension between the woman and her double. A portrait of Diego depicted as a child gives blood to the other Frida, hence identifying him as the source of her own life. On a transpersonal and cultural level, in Frida’s psyche there is a constant struggle between two parts: The meticulous and patriarchal European aspect and the Mexican earthy and matriarchal side which nurtures her feminine essence identified with the Earth and her indigenous roots: it is through this identification that she is able to repair her maternal wound. The woman and her double are seen as I and the Other. Since Frida’s self-portraits reproduce her inner subject as a double, they represent the process that led her to heal the deep wound caused by Diego.
Frida’s relationship with Diego lasted twenty-five years with separations and reencounters; once divorced, her condition to remarry was to live in separate houses. A part of her psyche needed distance because she unconsciously identified with the destructive animus. It may also show how the strong bond with Diego was the balancing and unbalancing point in Frida’s psyche. It is evident that since the beginning of their relationship he became her focus in a journey called life, through which Frida expressed her dismemberment and her longing for wholeness. Their relationship confirms Jung’s notion that we are most powerfully attracted to those who are both similar and opposite to us.
A style frequent in Frida’s works is that of the ex-voto, a popular devotional painting tradition rooted in Mexico. Used to express gratitude for a “miracle,” these paintings are made on wood or metal and recreate the scene where the miracle took place; therefore, characters are usually depicted in pain or in critical situations. They often include an explanatory text that is as naïve as the painting itself (“I thank the Virgin for sparing me from jail,” or, “I thank Saint Rita for the death of my enemy,” are some examples). The believer revives the closeness of dying and the triumphant return to life. Henry Ford Hospital (1932) is Frida’s personal version of an exvoto; however, instead of a miracle it documents the artist’s physical and psychological pain after a miscarriage. Her bleeding womb is linked to a fetus, expressing her hopeless despair; an orchid and a seashell suggest fallopian tubes as desolate labyrinths. Factories and warehouses appear as a backdrop providing a cold atmosphere of barren surroundings. This ex-voto shows how Frida’s creativity emerged from her own grieving, “re-creating a transitional space”18 that enabled her to curb her inner lethal anguish. Life and beauty, such as the orchid and the shell, are a symbol of her desire to live: The sky is bright, but only to postpone the darkness of despair.
In Dream (1940), Frida is depicted asleep rising into the clouds under a skeleton with firecrackers: the coexistence of life and death. This double image suggests the threat of death, both the sleeping skeleton and the sleeping Frida will blow up in pieces. The absence of any sort of ground sug gests the lack of reality with which Frida ironically coped with the closeness of death.
Reminiscence (1937) depicts two hanging dresses, an integral part of Frida’s self-image loosely linked by a red string. The school dress is reminiscent of her childhood and the Tehuana outfit recalls her relationship with Diego; each dress has a dismembered arm attached to it. Two miniature- winged creatures are balancing on the pole that crosses a hole where her heart should be, while her own heart, ripped out and enormous, is bleeding. The winged creatures could symbolize Eros bringing balance and linking her tragic relationships. On the destructive side, Eros represents her obsessive attraction to Diego. On a universal level, her heart is bigger than her life: it is nurturing the dry soil with its blood as a symbol of repairing the maternal instinct. Once again, it is the tragic story of permanent fragmentation.
In Frida, her skin-ego was an edge, a limit, an abyss; the armor of an altered and wounded body image. Through her paintings she developed a deep relationship with her skin-ego as a reintegration and restoration mechanism; a contained body image as a possibility to transcend and repair her deepest inner pains.
In his article “Imaginal skin,” Feldman19 emphasizes the psychological importance of the skin in the development of an inner space during childhood. It is within this space that the symbolization process takes place and where the connection to arquetypal suffering can become a transforming element. Through her paintings, Frida attempted to transform her circumstances, and to show the uniqueness of her experience and her constant struggle to survive.
Frida’s relationship with her skin activated the transcendent function, representing a conjunction of an imaginary body and the real body. Her psychological wounds were imprinted on her skin-ego from the early stages of her development. Her feelings of fragmentation predate the accident and the multiple surgical traumas rendered to her psychological skin. Through painting, Frida’s psyche attempted to rebel against the destructive elements in her psyche, as though her painting had a purpose, a telos. Towards the end of Frida’s life, there was both a disintegrative and a transcendence energy, the latter depicted in the winged creatures.
In Self-Portrait with Loose Hair, Frida is capable of assuming pain as a constant compan ion. A vine called “everlasting” is growing on a wall, just as Frida seemed able to live in spite of being a victim of physical and psychological fragmentation. In brief, Frida’s frag mentation and the fact that she was trapped in the negative mother complexinfluenced her choices and personality, and compelled her to produce dismem bered images. Moreover, in cer tain self-portraits she depicted fragments of her body as though describing herself out of her own body, falling apart, little by little within desolated scenes, expressing a painful psychological and physical dissolution. “Life is a riot,” she ironically exclaimed when looking at her amputated leg, trying to tone down her sadness. Her negative complex led Frida the artist to explore the boundaries between the I-woman-mother and the I-fragmented-daughter. Her emotional wounds compelled her to a constant fight against pain, fragmentation and death, which was expressed in her paintings. The psychological wounds were reinforced by the multiple surgical traumas rendered to her skin. Her wounded self-portraits were, in her hands, the expression of arquetypal symbols that protected her and offered the possibility of relating to the outside, from the ego-skin element, the I-painting, covered with meaning.
In her work, the inner and outer worlds are merged at the edge of experience; personal and collective visions are fused into a unique and complex legacy. Her tortured self-portraits show the inner experience of living a broken, mutilated life where art was the vehicle for redemption. By living through her work, Frida opens doors to the fears of the spectator confronted by her paintings. The connection between her life and work never ceases to amaze us; and she made sure this connection was always established even in writings such as the following, where she used the style of the corridos, the old popular songs:
I leave my portrait behind