Claudia Schaefer on Apocalypse and Rebirth: Pain as Filter for the Observation of Reality
From ‘Frida Kahlo’s Cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical Realism, and the Cosmic Race’
As Frida Kahlo is a sufferer (of the trolley accident, of polio and scoliosis), Claudia Schaefer identifies her in this essay with Samuel Taylor Coleridge who suffered rheumatism all his life. Here is what Schaefer believes they have in common:
• the experience of ‘a physical apocalypse’ that effected their art;
• and the relation to drugs and addiction (Coleridge’s theorisation about drugs and art and Kahlo’s alcohol and morphine abuse).
Schaefer quotes from Coleridge’s letters when he writes about illness and pain as a ‘Storehouse of wild Dreams for Poems, or intellectual Facts for metaphysical Speculation’ (qtd. by Appleyard, 72). Schaefer remembers the figure of the Ancient Mariner who is figured as a wandering Jew. In telling his tale over and over, the mariner recreate moments of pain in the hope that they will be recognized by the listener. Schaefer relates this to the trials of pilgrims.
For Kahlo, her permanently open physical and mental wounds are displayed as communication of that pain to the viewer and to engage in dialogue with her own dilapidated body and mind. Schaefer notices that Kahlo’s body is never alone but usually amongst people, animals, objects or characteristics of the landscape, yet it is the body that performs ‘the shared spectacle of suffering’ (15).
This self-consciousness confirms and substantiates (…) that Kahlo has extended the passive biological aspect of human existence to the active remembrance and consideration of human biological functions in the context of sexual activity and the ever-narrowing sphere between life and death. It might even be concluded that Kahlo creates an aesthetic of pain in which eroticism and death, or suffering and pleasure, are as closely entwined as she and Rivera, or as she and nature, are represented in her paintings. (15)
In painting the suffering Frida, ‘she’ is brought into existence and Schaefer sees this in terms of Bataille’s theorizing about acts of substitution where the individual is reconnected to a feeling of continuity (see Erotism: Death and Sensuality). Life-force is close to the threat of death in this figuring apparently. Schaefer thinks that Kahlo’s accident brings sex and death together.
Schaefer notes, however, that the pain for Kahlo is real and the physical pain enacts mental pain at her burdening with a disabled body (?!). Kahlo paints as an outlet for this pain: ‘The suffering image […] is narcissistic in its self-examination and exhibition, yet it is also cathartic in its public display of self-affirmation’ (16). Schaefer refers here to paintings that show Kahlo’s despair at the failures to repair her wounded body. In these works, Kahlo’s body is both a passive object of scientific study and a subjective, autonomous being: ‘The eyes – being both observer and observed, looking outward yet into a mirror – are always gazing at themselves, as does the artist for the creation of her self-portrait, to discover the identity being presented to the public and to look simultaneously at the observer, possibly attempting to analyze the reaction to their appearance or solicit complicity in consideration of this dilemma. (16)
In parallel with the viewer/object binary are juxtapositions between the US and Latin America. Schaefer refers to “Self-Portrait on the Border Between the US and Mexico”http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/Images/ARTH200/Women/kahlo/border_Mexico_US.jpg (1932) and My Dress Hangs There (1933). Schaefer’s interpretation of My Dress Hangs There is rather predictable: ‘the abandoned native costume (an empty tradition)’ (17). What makes her think that it is abandoned? Schafer concludes sensibly though that there is ‘no bedrock on which to foster the construction of cultural, political, or personal equilibrium’ (17).
Schaefer compares Kahlo’s art with the theory of Susan Sontag suggesting that both offer ‘science and technology as vehicles for opening up, for opening what has been a closed wound’ in women’s bodies and social bodies (17). Schaefer lists relevant works here including:
• Frida and the Abortion (1932),
• Remembrance of an Open Wound (1938),
• My Birth (1932),
• The Two Fridas (1939),
• The Broken Column (1944),
• Tree of Hope (1946),
• and Viva la Vida (1954).
These paintings reflect the illness that Kahlo suffered and the loss of people in her life, apparently. Schaefer imagines authorities suggesting that Kahlo gives up her body to pain and that her paintings resist this by recreating herself in her paintings as visible in society. Schaefer quotes Elaine Scarry who suggests that the body in pain must always be self-obsessed. Schaefer sees this in What the Water Gave Me (1938/39) and My Dress Hangs There.
There is also the presence of violence towards the body. Kahlo tried to attempt suicide and Schaefer sees such attempts as a means to be free of the burden of the body (!?). However, they can also be seen as affirmative of existence and proof of life. Schaefer here notes the speculation that Kahlo ‘demanded or submitted to more surgical procedures than absolutely necessary’ (19) (!?). Schaefer believes that Kahlo wanted to prolong her role as victim and/or martyr. Schaefer continues in this speculative, biographical vein noting that the frame of Kahlo’s self-portraits reflect her view of the world as an invalid.
Thankfully, Schaefer now returns to Coleridge noting that Stephen Bygrave in an essay on that poet describes Coleridge’s egotism as active and asserting the self rather than passive. Schaefer believes that this is true of Kahlo also.
Schaefer now turns to the influence of ex-voto paintings , storytelling Mexican murals and Michoacan ceramics . Somehow she now turns to the cult of celebrity that influences Kahlo and then to her paintings as images of vulgar and earthy topic.
Schaefer believes that Kahlo splits her personality in two: ‘I’ and ‘she’. Once more she descends into biographical detail trying to guess when this first ‘happened’ as if it is not an artistic conceit. She comes to the boring conclusion that one half is male, the other female etc. etc. The self of the outer world allows Kahlo to step out of her pain. She cannot escape herself, but she can study it.
Kahlo also paints with consciousness of the viewer and the painting’s effect on him or her. Schaefer even goes as far as to suggest that Kahlo wants ‘healing or acceptance’ from the viewer (21). The paintings can:
• ‘punish or self-punish’ (identifying with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (21);
• ‘evoke sympathy’ (21);
• ‘reconcile lovers’ (21);
• ‘seduce the public’s gaze’ (21);
• ‘express some kind of public repentance or visible reflection of her grief (guilt)’ (21);
• represent ‘pain as a salable product in society’ (22);
• and perform ‘the reification of her own image’ (22).
Schaefer, Claudia. Textured Lives: Women, Art and Representation in Modern Mexico. Tucson and London: The University of Arizona Press, 1992. 3-36.