Happy Birthday, Frida Kahlo—Poetry, Pain & the Healing Power of Art

Frida Kahlo & Chavela Vargas

Frida Kahlo with Chavela Vargas (Nickolas Muray—1945)

“Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing,” said Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who was born on this day in 1907.

In honour of her 109th birthday (though Frida preferred to state her birth year as 1910 — the start of the Mexican revolution, so happy 112th, guapa), firstly, here is a poem about the Mexican artist, written by Marty McConnell, secondly a little on the artist herself and the healing power of making art. Happy birthday, Frida Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell by Marty McConnell

leaving is not enough; you must
stay gone. train your heart
like a dog. change the locks
even on the house he’s never
visited. you lucky, lucky girl.
you have an apartment
just your size. a bathtub
full of tea. a heart the size
of Arizona, but not nearly
so arid. don’t wish away
your cracked past, your
crooked toes, your problems
are papier mache puppets
you made or bought because the vendor
at the market was so compelling you just
had to have them. you had to have him.
and you did. and now you pull down
the bridge between your houses.
you make him call before
he visits. you take a lover
for granted, you take
a lover who looks at you
like maybe you are magic. make
the first bottle you consume
in this place a relic. place it
on whatever altar you fashion
with a knife and five cranberries.
don’t lose too much weight.
stupid girls are always trying
to disappear as revenge. and you
are not stupid. you loved a man
with more hands than a parade
of beggars, and here you stand. heart
like a four-poster bed. heart like a canvas.
heart leaking something so strong
they can smell it in the street.

Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell — Marty McConnell.

“I wish I could do whatever I liked behind the curtain of “madness”. Then: I’d arrange flowers, all day long, I’d paint; pain, love and tenderness, I would laugh as much as I feel like at the stupidity of others, and they would all say: “Poor thing, she’s crazy!” (Above all I would laugh at my own stupidity.) I would build my world which while I lived, would be in agreement with all the worlds. The day, or the hour, or the minute that I lived would be mine and everyone else’s – my madness would not be an escape from “reality”.”

Arte | Amour | Dolor

Frida Kahlo was an artist whose life was shaped by art, love and pain. From her deep love for Diego Rivera, and their famously explosive, tempestuous and passionate relationship to her childhood illness, horrific teenage accident, miscarriages and lifelong chronic pain—and of course, the art she made to express this.

Despite her life being profoundly influenced by pain, she refused to edit nor soften the sights in her art. Instead she “painted her reality” uncensored, unfiltered, authentic, raw. Her art is an illustration of her life, a testament to it, to her strength, and the intense continuous suffering that can only be placated by making art—no matter the medium.

The Broken Column

The Broken Column

Even now pain is taboo, in many ways ignored by society yet Frida Kahlo objectified it, gave it a voice quite unlike anyone before her, or since in many ways. For her the cracked column in one of her most famous paintings, “The Broken Column”, was far from surreal—it was real.

Frida herself said that she only “paints her reality”, and this making art of her pain, much like when writing in difficult times, and for every artist — no matter the medium and no matter the art — heals us in ways other means cannot reach. Art by its very nature is healing.

Expressing the unspeakable, articulating the indescribable, and giving voice to what unearths us, be it physical or emotional, though I do not believe anything can be exclusively physiological or exclusively psychological.

Each facet of our being is as interconnected as we are, as interdependent, and ever-changing in a dynamic state of flux that ebbs and flows just as our own internal rhythms ebb and flow, that of our lives’ pulses and patterns too.

We need art, we need poetry, we need glorious fiction in all its forms, we need music, we need creativity, and to express, express, express.

When something is so all-encompassing that it takes over your entire world, your thoughts, your everything, unless you have a place to vent, to unburden yourself of these deep and difficult feelings, you’re depriving yourself of one of the most beautiful and healing gifts of being human—that of the creative self.

We all fall, and slip, and sometimes break. What puts us back together again, what glues our many pieces back as one, returning us to our flawed, imperfect, vulnerable whole again is our raw, uncensored creative expression. One artist’s canvas is another’s page, or kitchen, camera, soundscape, stage. Everything in life can be a creative act, just as everything in life can be a meditation.

Though I won’t add to art critics’ perspectives on her work, I will see this painting, a favourite in fact, from the perspective of a writer, an artist, who lives with the same neurological condition that is theorised by many pain specialists to be that which, in part, made Frida Kahlo’s life so excruciating.

“Art critics could do with a bit of neuroscience,” says neuroscientist, pain specialist and author, David Butler. “The artist has been devoured by popular culture. “The Broken Column” has been eroticised by many, with the column supposedly representing Kahlo’s trolley-car accident when a steel rod pierced her pelvis. Others talk about the realism of the brace and the surrealism of the column.

“Yet Kahlo rejected her art as surreal, the fantasy elements came from Mexican folk tradition. And still most critics relate the painting to her trolleycar accident. But it was painted 19 years after the trolley car accident – this is now a depiction of chronic pain, a very different process. Maybe above all, she is just trying to tell us about pain.”

“The pins are superficial, in the skin suggesting a light touch allodynia. There are the same number of pins in her left are are are all arm as in her right arm. Perhaps coincidence, but probably not with what we know of Kahlo’s extraordinary ability to self represent,” says David Butler.

“This more likely represents mirror pains of a central origin. And note the pins in the cloth around her — all this is pain in fresh air, perhaps representing soreness at the lightest of touch, and probably demonstrating that the cortical representation of her pain extended well past her actual body.” This centralised pain, this allodynia, makes even the most innocuous stimuli translate into pain. Even a breeze is painful—which is what I think Frida Kahlo was representing.

Though in true Kahlo style, without a hint of weakness. Her eyes may have tears but their gaze is strong. Her strong, outspoken charm endures, inspiring each new generation. “Note also a consistent feature of Kahlo’s art – a dualism perhaps or maybe it is a unity – there is pain in the image but the sexuality is untouched – beautiful breasts, unhindered by the brace, the cloth around her pelvis could fly off at anytime,” says David Butler.

“It’s as though she could say “Pain! – you are not coming near my other life” or “I am bigger than pain – it has it’s place but I am bigger.” If that is correct, then Kahlo had engaged some high level pain management strategies managed and I suspect it was the art.”

Image: Frida Kahlo with Mexican singer Chavela Vargas by Nickolas Muray in 1945. Happy birthday, Frida Kahlo.

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