Though life is full of both positive and negative experiences, some individuals are able to use some of the most undesirable aspects of their lives, such as pain or trauma, to engender greatness. Throughout history, it has been commonplace to witness negative life experiences being used to encourage artistic exploration in poetry, music, and artwork. One of the most celebrated Mexican painters, Frida Kahlo, was one of the many such individuals, who transformed the instability and trauma faced in her life into beautiful, unique, and inspiring artwork. The quintessential feature present in her body of artistic work is the visual representation of both the internal and external: the psychological reality of a deeply mentally and physiologically traumatized woman. Due to her emotional instability, stemming from traumatic experiences in her life, Frida’s art manifested in a style which we now recognize as dissociative in nature. The psychological phenomenon of dissociation is described as one’s mental detachment from immediate surroundings, including mental departure from current physical and emotional experiences. By exploring this type of dissociation in her art, Frida was able to convey her own emotional experiences while remaining detached from the subject of her suffering. If Frida Kahlo had not experienced the many tragedies that she faced in her life, much of her work would likely have never existed, as her suffering was the source of so much of her artistic vision. By understanding the life of Frida Kahlo and applying that insight into analyzing her work, it is possible to identify not only the dissociative barriers present in her artwork, but to also elucidate the meaning of the word instability.
Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City. Frida’s misfortune began the day she was born, when she was brought into the world already suffering from spina bifida. Spina bifida is a birth defect in which a baby’s spinal cord fails to develop properly. As time progressed, she contracted polio by the age of six, which resulted in her right leg being atrophied, which severely hindered her mobility. When Frida was eighteen, she was one of the many victims injured in a horrific trolley accident, which destroyed her spine, fractured her right leg, shattered her pelvis, and crushed her feet. This horrifying accident left Frida immobilized and bed ridden until she was healed. It was during her time on bedrest that she began to paint to occupy her time, and in turn discovered her true passion: art. This accident was not only tragic, but also emotionally and physically devastating, having changed Frida Kahlo’s life as she knew it. Although her greatness arose from her experiences following the accident, it is important to recognize that during the course of her entire life, she suffered unbearable pain which she was unable to overcome. Though prescribed narcotics and analgesics, even self-medicating with alcohol, Frida remained a prisoner of her pain. Aside from the physical trauma Frida experienced, she was also in possession of a wounded soul. According to an unpublished interview with Lesley Parker in 1939, Frida Kahlo is said to of described herself as, “A child with a horrible secret.” Many people believe this is a reference to the possible sexual abuse that it is believed was perpetrated by her own father. She alludes to this abuse in the poem “Memory,” which she wrote when she was fifteen years old.
“In the background, behind the “Zocalo,” the river shined and darkened, like the moments of my life.
He followed me.
I ended up crying, isolated in the porch of the parish church, protected by my bolita shawl, drenched with my tears.” (Kahlo)
The relationships in Frida’s life were historically unstable, ranging from her father’s abuse and a completely absent relationship with her mother, to a sporadic marriage with the love of her life, Diego Rivera. An abundance of the emotional instability Frida faced was due to Rivera’s serial infidelity and his emotional distance from her. In order to endure the pain Rivera caused her, Frida painted obsessively as a way to cope. Though this resulted in further emotionally wounding Kahlo, it inspired her considerably, and helped to define her distinctive art style. Many historians would consider Frida a surrealist-which she vehemently denied-citing her extremely individual and unique art style, which would eternalize her as an artistic legend. On July, 13, 1954, Frida died at the age of forty-seven, leaving behind over one hundred and fifty paintings, drawings, painted diaries, and letters. Though Kahlo faced a life full of loss, disappointment, and immeasurable pain and suffering, this negativity is what helped inspire most of her work. Besides the many negative influences which inspired Kahlo’s artwork, it is also essential to acknowledge the phenomenon of dissociation present in the bulk of her pieces.
Dissociation is identified as the disconnection or separation of one thing from something else, or the state of being disconnected. This phenomenon of separation and emotional distance is understood as an unconscious defense strategy. The strategy itself is known as “dissociation,” and the individuals who exhibit this type of behavior seem to aim to eliminate or reduce emotional and physical pain by separating oneself from it. In doing so, individuals allow for a change in perception of themselves and the outside world, which is caused by partial or complete loss of integration of functions of consciousness, memory, and perception. Dissociation is usually a result of severe mental trauma. It helps to reduce the strong emotional pressure one might experience in an intolerable situation, and is meant to relieve some of this stress. Commonly linked to the phenomenon are dissociative drugs, which are hallucinogens which distorts the perception, sight, and sound to produce feelings of detachment from the surrounding environment. These dissociative substances inhibit or blocks signals to the conscious mind from other parts of the brain, resulting in hallucinations, sensory deprivation, and a dream-like state for the users. “The state has been designated as dissociative anesthesia since the patient truly seems disassociated from his environment.” (Bonta)
This type of dual conscious-unconscious reaction can be easily linked to the style and perception of the artwork of Frida Kahlo. Kahlo’s work expresses her pain and instability by creating images and environments in which her trauma is present, but she herself is detached from the experiences. From her masterly staged, egotistical self-portraits, to her environmental artwork, Kahlo’s creations can be interpreted as a painted autobiography because they deal with her difficult life situations, and moreover, her physical pain. It is for these elements in her artwork that Kahlo became known as the “painter of pain.” Kahlo explained, “I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint whatever passes through my head without any consideration.” (4, Herrera) The mental instability Kahlo faced allowed her to create an alternative reality through her paintings, in which we are able to witness her pain, and see how she separates herself from it. Many of Kahlo’s works were self portraits:
“Kahlo explained that her paintings were predominantly self- portraits because she was so often alone, and in addition was quoted as having said, ‘I am the person I know best’. Her self-portraits alone can be considered autobiographical as they often formed an alternate self that shared and reflected her feelings. Throughout the series of portraits her gaze remains steady, staring out to the viewer, imploring us to engage and understand her. She depicts herself upright and strong, as if they were painted to confirm her tenuous hold on life. According to Rupert Gracia, Kahlo’s paintings, particularly her self-portraits were ‘clever and skillful depictions that simultaneously mask and reveal her unbearable pain of the body and spirit’. He believed that many of her paintings vividly represent her personal crises.” (2,Little)
One of her most expressive self-portraits is “The Broken Column” (180, Herrera) which she painted in 1944. The images were inspired by the orthopedic corset Kahlo was instructed to wear due to her declining health in the 1940’s. Kahlo described the corset as a “punishment.” Her instability and pain caused Kahlo to dissociate herself from her human body, painting herself in a variety of “in-human” forms: “The Broken Column” being one of them, in which she is literally held together by inanimate objects. The painting shows Kahlo naked in an upright position in the middle of an empty landscape. The immediate focus of the painting is the corset wrapped around Kahlo, and the column protruding through her open chest, extending from her chin to her pelvis. Her entire body is covered in nails, shown driven into her skin, while tears are running down her cheeks. Though the work displays a human body being imprisoned and dismantled, the emotion she expresses is extremely dissociative to the situation. Her face remains unconcerned of the destruction brought upon her body. The facial expression with which she presents herself conveys more about her emotional standpoint towards her life, than the dominating, visceral physical situation the painting expresses. Her expression is one which expresses no pain, but illustrates her own separation from the reality of her imprisoned body. The tears are representative of the contradiction between physical pain and emotional pain. In the painting, Kahlo appears beautiful and strong. Although her whole body is supported by the corset, she is conveying a message of spiritual triumph. Despite the tears on her face, she looks straight ahead, as if challenging both herself and her audience to face her situation. “To hope with anguish retained, the broken column, and the immense look, without walking in the vast path… moving my life created of steel.” (180, Herrera) The fact that Kahlo chose to paint herself held together by columns and corsets, with nails penetrating her skin, demonstrates the dissociation between herself and her basic human structure. Her human body cannot work properly on its own and she must be held together by various objects in order to function.
Another work in which Kahlo dissociates herself from her emotional and physical trauma is her 1946 painting, “The Little Deer.” (189, Herrera) In “The Little Deer,” Kahlo takes the form of a young stag running in the woods, with her human head attached to its animal body. Nine arrows pierce the deer’s body, yet once again Kahlo’s face remains separate from the pain such violence should cause. Her facial expression gives viewers the impression that she split off the painful part of her identity and has left her imprisoning human form behind. In 1946, Frida Kahlo underwent spine surgery in New York. She had high hopes that the surgery would free her from the inescapable physical pain her failing body had subjected her to. The operation was not successful, and through this painting, Frida expresses her disappointment towards the operation. At the lower-left corner, Kahlo writes the word “Carma,” which means “destiny” or “fate.” It becomes clear that Kahlo is using this painting to express her sadness towards the failed procedure, and acceptance that she cannot change her own fate. In a ballad written about the work, Kahlo states:
“When the deer returns
Strong, happy and cured
He wounds he has now
Will all be erased.
Sadness portrays herself
In all my paintings
But that’s how my condition is
I no longer have structure.” (Kahlo)
In traditional Western art, we see representations of pain in facial expression, gestures, and posture very clearly. This is a way for its viewers to understand or internalize that the work represents the experience of pain as a whole. Kahlo’s representation of pain is the complete opposite of the representation found Western expression. In many of Kahlo’s paintings, including “The Little Deer,” the emotional component of the experience of pain is absent, which we see in illustrated by the stoic facial expressions in Kahlo’s work. Kahlo therefore creates the impression that the pain is separated from the personal identity of the artist. Another aspect of the work that proves the dissociative quality of her work is the fact that Kahlo is frequently represented as an animal. The fact that she represents herself in the form of an animal, instead of a human being, serves to further prove the evocative dissociative nature of her work, as she is unwilling to artistically represent her own humanity. By separating herself from her human form and placing herself in the body of the stag, she is expressing complete separation from herself, her life, and the trauma she experienced by giving herself a new form. There is also deeply rooted symbolism behind her choice of the deer. According to an article by Elena Harris, in Native American spirit animal culture, the deer represents an ability to move through life and obstacles with grace, and a magical ability to regenerate, which Kahlo achieves by taking this form in her artwork. Harris states:
“When you have the deer as spirit animal, you are highly sensitive and have a strong intuition. By affinity with this animal, you have the power to deal with challenges with grace. You master the art of being both determined and gentle in your approach. The deer totem wisdom imparts those with a special connection with this animal with the ability to be vigilant, move quickly, and trust their instincts to get out the trickiest situations. The deer spirit animal will remind you to be gentle with yourself and others. The grace and gentleness characteristic of this spirit animal echo the qualities brought forth when living from the heart. For example, the traditional symbol used for the heart chakra has the deer (sometimes also represented as an antelope) as emblematic animal of the energy of love and harmony with oneself and others.” (Harris)
Kahlo is representing herself as a deer, not only to separate herself from her limiting human form, but to prove she has the power to overcome the challenges she has faced in her life. Though the deer is wounded, it is still running, representing her determination to escape her trauma.
Another aspect of Kahlo’s paintings which elucidates her own notions of instability and displays further disassociate properties is Kahlo’s ability to split identity in her work. Two pieces of Kahlo’s art which readily reflect these aspects are her 1939 paintings, “The Two Fridas,” (136, Herrera) and her 1946 painting, “Tree of Hope.” (192, Herrera) In “The Two Fridas,” Kahlo paints herself sitting side by side with herself. The two Fridas are in two different types of garments, one in a European style white-lace dress, the other Frida, in a traditional Mexican costume. Both of their hearts are exposed and they are connected to each other by a vein linking the two hearts. In “Tree of Hope,” Kahlo paints herself sitting in a red dress on a wooden arm chair, with a corset in her hand, while her other hand holds a flag which reads, “Tree of hope remain strong.” Behind the seated image of Kahlo is a second Frida laid out on a stretcher, naked, with two bleeding wounds on her back.
“This painting gives a lot of meaning to Frida Kahlo’s life. It wasn’t all good after the accident she went through and the various operations she had to go through as well. When you first look at this painting it sort of gives you a glimpse of the good side and the bad side. You can clearly tell this by observing the light side and dark side incorporated in the painting. This painting captured my attention because it’s something that Frida painted expressing how she felt during that time (1946). Many of us either write how we feel, show it, or even keep it to ourselves. Not Frida though, she painted how she felt at that exact moment and thus she has given us the opportunity to explore her extravagant paintings that had both good and bad expressions of her emotions.” (10, Little)
Both “Tree of Hope” and “The Two Fridas” feature doubles of Kahlo, reflecting her own mental state which involves the splitting of her identity. By painting herself with a double of herself, it allows her to express two different emotions or connections she experiencing at the same time. It also reflects the “duality” of her many personalities and emotions. By giving herself two bodies and two personalities, Kahlo creates the illusion that she is able to separate herself from the trauma and instability she faced by creating a new version of herself. Like most of her portraits which reflect her pain, the facial expressions Kahlo paints for herself are consistently unaffected. The fact that she can see herself as two separate entities gives her power over her mental instability. Kahlo empowers herself by allowing herself to be reborn as a separate individual in her paintings. She is finally able to separate herself from her trauma. She brings power to the word instability by standing up to her own impotence, achieved by dissociating herself from the actual issues she was facing through her artwork. In this way, Kahlo gives herself power over her many misfortunes. Using stoic facial expressions and fantastical physical form, she shows her viewers that she is not afraid of the instability or tragedy she has faced, and that she will overcome it, even if it is just through her artwork. Whether it is achieved through taking the form of an animal, illustrated in an intensive self-portrait, or turning her body into an inanimate structure, Kahlo creates an emotionally powerful and empowering stance for herself in the art world. If Kahlo had not faced the tragedies she had in her life, the messages found in her paintings would not hold the same power. It is because of the mental and physical struggles that she faced, that she found a way to dissociate herself from her issues in her artwork. Without these methods to further remove herself from these issues, her work would likely not have achieved the same level of celebration. Though Kahlo is lauded as the “Painter of Pain,” it is clear that without pain, Kahlo would not have been able to send such a powerful message to her viewers. By including a dissociative style to her work, and remaining fearless of her sorrows, Frida Kahlo was able to effectively overcome instability and pain through her art.