Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg

excerpt from Emily Rapp Black’s Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg, out next week from Notting Hill Editions.

What you say, you say in a body; you can say nothing outside of this body.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

Desnudo de Frida Kahlo, a lithograph by Diego Rivera, hangs in a light-filled gallery in a small museum in Guanajuato, Mexico. In this portrait, Kahlo’s torso is taut and slim; the sides of her waist curve inward, creating perfect hollows for each of your hands. Her breasts are soft and firm — slightly lifted, because her arms are clasped behind her head; her elbows are the pointed tips of wings. The likeness is that observant, that meticulous and loving in its detail. This body is deeply known, fully seen, and so elevated that you can imagine it moving into positions outside the frame, in real time and in other places. Two looped strands of large dark beads hang just below her collarbone. Her shoulders look solid, strong, able. This is a body that is loved, admired, desired. Kahlo’s eyes are cast downward, half-shuttered as if she’s in mid-thought. Perhaps she is enjoying her body and the adoration it evokes from her love. This extraordinary body, this remarkable image: beautiful, when she had already weathered so much.

This lithograph was made in 1930, after polio disfigured her right foot in 1913 when she was six years old; after the 1925 streetcar accident that broke her spinal column, her collarbone, her ribs, and her pelvis, created 11 factures in her already weakened leg, crushed her foot, and left her shoulder permanently out of joint. During the 29 years between her accident and her death in 1954, Kahlo had 32 operations, was required to wear a corset every day from 1944 onward, and had her leg amputated as a result of gangrene in 1953; it was this final operation that likely led to the complications that eventually killed her. Speculation of suicide remains.

As an artist, Kahlo is famous for translating her pain into art, but people rarely know the full details of what she endured, and what such an enterprise of translation might require. Many of her millions of admirers across the globe do not realize that she was an amputee during that last part of her life, and that all her life her body was a canvas constantly shifting: at one point she was hung upside down to strengthen her spinal column; her body was wired and rewired, bracketed and captured and restrained and corseted in an attempt to be hemmed in, to stop her muscles and bones and joints from collapsing into chaos. She was as familiar with the edge of a scalpel as she was with the tip of a paintbrush.

Here, in Rivera’s 1930 likeness, her legs are thickly muscled, almost masculine. Sheer stockings hug her legs from the calves all the way to her upper thighs, stopping just short of the shaded tangle of hair between her legs. She appears soft but also invincible, a lovely live wire in careful repose. There is no invitation in her posture, only choice — a reflection of the serenity and eroticism and intimate power of absolute trust; a woman who is willing to be seen by this artist, this man, fully and completely. Kahlo met Rivera, 20 years her senior, in 1922 when she was 15 years old. He had been commissioned to paint a mural at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, where her program of study was meant to lead to medical school. This, one of Rivera’s first murals, was called Creation, and Kahlo walked past his larger-than-life interpretation of the beginning of the world day after day for years.

As an amputee since the age of four, I have always wondered what it would be like to have memories of two flesh and blood legs. I have always wanted someone to see me the way that Kahlo is seen in this lithograph. I long for a concrete, active memory of walking and running on two legs, looking at them, crossing them, spreading them, although I know this remembering would be painful. I long for the extraordinary confidence that allows Kahlo to be seen by the viewer without looking back to see if the body is okay, if it is offensive, if it is grotesque. But the memory of life lived on two legs is unavailable to me within the conscious process of remembering. The desired body that I long for is a fiction. The aspiration, pointless.

When I see these legs on this woman’s body whose image is mounted on the wall, taken by a man who loved her — a body that will lose part of itself 20 years after the image was created, a body that has already known pain as few others have known or will ever know — I feel a longing for Kahlo herself, for her friendship, for her guidance, and for her love, across time and culture and experience.

The first time I saw Kahlo’s painting The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas), I felt the impact in the intimate landscape of skin between my real leg and my fabricated leg, that small, hardworking patch of flesh that touches what is connected during the day and disconnected at night. For so long I explained to people that it was like having two Emilys, living in two bodies — one for the day, one for the night — and when I saw The Two Fridas in an art book my brother’s college girlfriend brought home during Christmas breakI thought, Yes. I thought, You see me. I thought, This is true.

It was 1991, and I was still in high school. I went to the library and found every book I could about Kahlo, and read them in a quiet corner as snowflakes slowly twisted to the ground on the other side of the window and the sounds of Public Enemy screeched through my Walkman headphones. Many of the books mentioned that Kahlo was debilitated by her pain; they talked about how much and how long she suffered. And yet, all these paintings, all this output, all this art, all this beauty. I knew that pain was not a muse, so what sustained her? The Two Fridas was not about suffering; it was about imagination and connection and that word my parents had started to use with me: self-love, which I was supposed to be practicing and was not. I had no model; I knew no female bodies like my own.

I learned later that The Two Fridas grew out of a relationship Kahlo developed in her mind with an imaginary friend when she was six years old, the year polio confined her to her bed. In a 1950 diary entry, she describes opening an imaginary door in her bedroom with a swipe of her hand and crossing through fields before descending to a deep place where her friend is waiting for her:

She was agile, and danced as if she were weightless. I followed her in every movement and while she danced, I told her my secret problems […] But from my voice she knew all about my affairs […] When I came back to the window, I would enter through the same door I had drawn on the glass […] How long had I been with “her”? I don’t know. It could have been a second or thousands of years […] I was happy […] It has been 34 years since I lived that magical friendship and every time I remember it it comes alive and grows more and more inside my world.
Kahlo’s journal was published in translation in 1995. I was 21 years old, and when I read this passage, I wanted that girl to be me, and for that magical friendship to be mine and Kahlo’s, one in which I could share all the secrets of my body that I believed nobody else would understand or want to know — someone I could talk to without shame or embarrassment. I chose to try and understand the story of her body as a way of knowing or accessing mine, as if the story of her life set out a path or a trail that, no matter how difficult, I might follow. She would be my guide. I would follow her, and here is how I could move self-love from an abstraction to a reality. Together, I thought, we would discover each other. Lying in my narrow college dormitory bed, I read an excerpt every night, listening now to the latest Indigo Girls album on repeat. I rationed every word, running my fingers over the glossy pages, mesmerized by the images, by the wit and intelligence and vulnerability she expressed. In her journal she is “writing with her eyes,” and I thought, I will paint like her.

I took an art class, but I had no talent and my paintings were terrible; I certainly could not write with my eyes. “I can see why you want to learn about her,” my instructor offered, “because she suffered in her body tooWhy don’t you write about her?” I began talking and writing to her in my waking hours, when my requests sometimes grew angry, even violent: Give me your memories, your mind, your genius, your pleasure. And in my dreams I was the imaginary girl waiting at the bottom of that magical portal she described. And when she arrived, I said, I’m real. I need you. Tell me everything.

People who go through a crucible experience and shout from a mountaintop that the world is suddenly wonderful are liars. I have known this for as long as I’ve been making and holding memories. The more believable myth, and the one more challenging to embody, is to live on in the body you have been given. Kahlo did that with a powerful, complicated grace that has always intrigued and sometimes repelled me, her deformed body a mirror for mine.

My obsession with Kahlo continued. In graduate school, when I first began writing about my body instead of pretending it didn’t exist or could be forever covered up and unknown to anyone but myself, I read more fictionalized accounts of Kahlo’s life. A character in Meaghan Delahunt’s book In the Casa Azul: A Novel of Revolution and Betrayal has this reaction to The Two Fridas at the 1940 International Surrealist Exhibition in Mexico City: “Images of The Two Fridas rotate in his mind. The two figures. The same circulatory system. The two selves. The split. The unity in the split.”

In the introduction to Kahlo’s journal, which she began in the mid-1940s when she was in her 30s, and which she never intended to publish, Carlos Fuentes describes her as the ultimate shapeshifter, able to manifest as various forms: the Spanish Earth Mother, an Aztec goddess, a Christmas tree, a piñata, a “broken Cleopatra.” He describes her body as “tortured,” “shriveled,” “broken,” and, in a later chapter, “inadequate” as her pregnancies ended in miscarriage. I know this is not the full story; I know there is another narrative beneath this one that does not put her in a box. She will not stay there. On January 30, 1953, she wrote: “In spite of my long illness, I feel immense joy in LIVING.”

Delahunt describes The Two Fridas like this: “Human hearts precisely drawn are hung like badges on their clothing. The hearts are linked by blood vessels which ribbon between them.”

Kahlo follows me. I follow her. Our traumas follow us all, known and unknown, seen and unseen, as if asking for something. Forgiveness? Wholeness? What do they want? I see her descend into the portal of my imagination, where I wait with so much anticipation, so many questions. Tell me the story of your body.