The first, and thus far only, time that a painting has brought me to tears I was sitting in bed flicking through Frida Kahlo: Masterpieces of Art, by Julian Beecroft. As my eyes glided over an image of The Dream (The Bed), 1940 on page 90, and settled on page 91, an unexpected bubble of emotion formed a lump in my throat and a swell in the centre of my chest.
Frida’s stoic, pleading, tired eyes, staring out from the glossy page below, pierced my own – they watched me watching her. Though brown to my blue I saw something of myself reflected back at me. A flicker of recognition, of understanding, registered in the pit of my stomach. A silent communication transcended the rules of time and space, connecting me to a woman I knew only through the pages of books. Understood only through the medium of oil paint and pencil viewed through the tinted-lens of my own lived experience.
The Broken Column (aka The Shattered Column), 1944.
Oil on Masonite, 33 x 43 cm (13 x 17 in).
Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico City.
In Frida’s painting I saw her pain. I felt it.
I felt the unrelenting drain that it is to live with head-to-toe pain – the mental and physical fatigue that accompanies it. Though our causes differ vastly, I knew the imagery. I knew the metal nails, I knew the restrictive straps, I knew the altered sensations. The Broken Column could be as much a depiction of multiple sclerosis as it is of Frida’s own impairments.
But it is a painting about so much more than physical suffering.
In the shattering stone of her spine I felt her fear. Her fear at the continual disintegration of her body. My fear. My body. My shattering stone spine.
In the tears falling from her deep eyes I felt her sorrow. I felt her grief for the life that was never truly hers – despite all of her greatness. The life filled with prospect that was taken from her in a teenage accident, just as mine was set upon a new path with a teenage diagnosis. I felt her heartache for the loss of how much more she could have had, could have been.
My sorrow. My grief. My heartache.
In the visual contrast between the beauty of Frida’s body, and the violent violation of her injury ripping through her centre, I understood the conflict I feel towards my own body. I saw, for the first time, through the eyes of another, that my relationship with myself doesn’t have to be either or. That beauty and vibrancy and life can co-exist alongside destruction, and pain, and illness.
And in her steadfast stare and upright posture I felt her strength, her defiance. Her courage. Her hunger for life.
I cried for close to an hour as I sat with the image of this painting on my lap, tracing it softly with my finger. Waves of alternating emotions washing over me, accelerated in turn by grief, strength, power, and pain.
Frida sought to make sense of her reality by painting it, and through her endeavour I found my own solace. But more than that, I found connection. Compassion. Understanding. Separated by seventy-seven years and over five-thousand miles.
It is of great comfort to know that no matter how lonely and isolated our lives may feel at times, no matter how distant, there are threads of human experience that bind us all. Across continents, and eras, and external experience.
A print of The Broken Column now hangs in our bedroom, alongside the contrasting colour of The Frame; another of Frida’s self-portraits. I can see it reflected in the mirror opposite as I write this post from bed; a parallel with Frida – who created much of her own art from bed – that is not lost on me.
Through my rediscovery of Frida I felt the full force of the power of art for the first time.
Or, more specifically, the power of painting.