The Transverberation of Frida Kahlo

by Jessie Lynn McMains

Woman with dark hair full of flowers. Woman wrapped in thorns and vines. Woman draped in bangles, necklaces, earrings of jade and silver. Woman with magenta lips; with eyebrow perched above her knowing eyes like a blackbird, singing. Woman surrounded by dogs, monkeys, deer. Chicana. Communist. Rebel.

I don’t give a shit what the world thinks. I was born a bitch, I was born a painter, I was born fucked. But I was happy in my way. You did not understand what I am. I am love. I am pleasure, I am essence, I am an idiot, I am an alcoholic, I am tenacious. I am; simply I am…

Frida Kahlo

Frida, I am trying not to hammer you into a silver charm I can wear over my heart. I am trying not to make you a symbol of Communism or revolution, of bisexuality or fiery affairs. I don’t want to turn you into the poster girl for trauma, or disability, or pain; nor for addiction, or miscarriage. You are all of that and none of it and more. You are not just a fashion icon, not just a mad artist.

You are yourself. Simply.

This town, where I am going to see the Frida Kahlo: Timeless exhibition, is the epitome of Gringolandia. Upscale, yet dismal. Beige stripmalls. The detritus of late U.S.-ian capitalism—here a Noodles & Company, there a Bed Bath & Beyond.

And I am just another gringa fascinated by Frida.

I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.

Frida Kahlo
photograph from the Frida Kahlo: Timeless exhibition at McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage, of the quote: I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.

I have been often alone over this past year and a half. Or, if not truly alone—my husband and children are usually somewhere in the house—at least isolated. Disconnected from the world. And I am not alone in that, I know. But I have often felt lonesome during this pandemic. I have taken a lot of selfies. I dress up and photograph myself in the fantastic outfits no one outside my house will get to see.

I photograph myself because I am often alone. I write about myself, because I am the person I know best.

Frida, I saw a replica of your bed, the one in which you spent so much of your time. The one where you had a mirror installed in the canopy so you could see yourself, where you set up a lap easel so you could paint your (self)portraits. After the crash. After the crash, everything kept crashing forever.

photograph from the Frida Kahlo: Timeless exhibition at McAninch Arts Center, of a replica of Frida Kahlo’s bed with a mirror installed in the canopy; behind the bed is an enlarged photograph of a young Frida Kahlo

I have spent a lot of time in my bed, leaning against piles of pillows, notebook and pen propped on my lap desk, cup of ginger turmeric or blueberry hibiscus tea nearby, over this past year and a half. Mostly because of allergy-related sinus issues. Allergic rhinitis, it’s called, and I have it, on-and-off, for a good four months of the year at least. When it hits, my throat gets scratchy, sore. I lose my singing voice. My ears hurt, my jaw aches. There is a constant pressure in my head, in my brow bone and the bridge of my nose, behind my eyes. Something like a vise in reverse, a hurt which expands and feels like it might fracture my skull into shards. Fragments. At times my whole body succumbs to it. I am exhausted.

But no one wants to hear the details of my personal pain. I have nothing as obvious and unsparing as a wreck to blame it on.

Frida—I am writing this from my bed.

Woman in plaster, casts tattooed with paint. Woman in leather corsets and braces. Woman ribboned with scars.

Frida, I do not want to make you a martyr. I do not wish to worship at the altar of your suffering; to name you Saint Kahlo. Though others make much of the religiosity of your wounds. One article, about the spina bifida you were born with, has a section titled Pain, and the following section is titled Passion. And yes, your art was influenced by retablos, ex-votos, and it is possible you were inspired by the stories of martyrs and saints. Such as The Transverberation of St. Teresa—the tale of Saint Teresa of Ávila being so near to God her heart was literally pierced by divine Love; and her pain was so immense that it turned to ecstasy.

Frida, I do not like to think that some of us may get so used to our own wounds that we start worshipping the light they emit.

What can satisfy the souls of bodies that are imprinted with pain so deep it is only amplified in erasure and transmitted through pleasure?

Elizabeth Spenst

A small, dark-haired woman lies naked in a hospital bed so large it nearly swallows her. Blood pools around her lower half. From her belly protrude six red cords, each attached to something. 1. A model of a woman’s lower half, starting at the waist and ending at the top of her thighs. 2. A fetus, almost as large as the woman herself, legs crossed as if in meditation, a small, beatific smile on its face. 3. A snail. 4. A metal something. Hospital sink? Bedpan? Medical implement? Torture device? 5. A wilted purple orchid. 6. A pelvic bone.

The ground below the bed grows nothing. The sky above is heavy, blue-gray. Behind her, on the horizon, the gray industrial skyline of Detroit.

photograph from the Frida Kahlo: Timeless exhibition at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art at the College of DuPage, of Frida Kahlo’s painting Henry Ford Hospital (1932)

Frida, just two days after I saw your painting, I received a postcard from Henry Ford Hospital. I had ordered a packet of vintage ephemera to use in my collages, and among the faded photographs and ticket stubs and prayer cards, there it was: a postcard printed with the black-and-white image of the hospital where you had a miscarriage.

The back is blank.

What are you trying to say?

A woman lies on a bed in a small, claustrophobic room. She is splayed out, dead, naked but for one shoe and one torn stocking. Blood pools around her, onto the sheets, drips onto the floor, splashes out even onto the painting’s frame; blood pours from the gashes which cover her body. A man looms over her, holding a bloody knife. His clothes, too, are smeared with her blood. Her killer. Though her blood stains him, he seems unfazed. Implacable, almost proud. Above him, two birds—one white and one black—hold the edges of a banner, which bears the words: unos cuantos piquetitos! A few small pecks / a few small nips. That was his excuse, when charged with stabbing his lover to death: I only gave her a few small pecks. As though he were a bird, and she nothing more than a handful of seeds.

photograph from the Frida Kahlo: Timeless exhibition at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art, of Frida Kahlo’s painting A Few Small Nips (1935)

Frida, I read that when you painted that picture, you felt you had been killed by life, and that when you heard the story of that horrific murder, it spoke to you. Portraying that woman’s real death was a way to work through your metaphorical one.

I, too, have used true crimes in my writing, in my art, as metaphors for the personal things I cannot say straight out.

There are some of us for whom violence haunts the periphery of our lives, and sometimes the only way to tell our own stories is to identify our own wounds with those of someone else.

The sky has three moons, and is filled with thin lines of clouds like wounds. A leg floats, ghostly, through it, and also an eye. A large eye with a clock for a pupil, weeping tears of—what?—onto the rocky, alien landscape. The ground is cracking open, becoming lips, wounds, rivers, eyes. The wounds are also weeping. Everything is reddish-brown.

photograph from the Frida Kahlo: Timeless exhibition at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art, of Frida Kahlo’s drawing Fantasy (1944)

They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.

Frida Kahlo

In my dreams, there are teeth, and wounds. Dead deer open the slits in their necks and speak the language of decaying stars. In my dreams, people are making love in cemeteries and forests. I get lost in strange old houses, where the light is always dusty blue. In my dreams, there are rivers, blood red or dusty blue, and the rivers are always flooding.

I’ve gone down the river of sadness
I’ve gone down the river of pain
In the dark, under the wires
I hear them call my name

The Gun Club, “Mother of Earth”

A woman stands against a backdrop of cacti. You can see her neck, and her dark hair, and one of her hands with red-painted nails and a large silver ring. With that hand, she holds a face in front of her real face. A mask. The mask looks something like a doll’s face. It is round, with a small nose and a small, downturned mouth. Its eyes—which look something like the eyes of a frightened animal, yet are also somehow flat and emotionless—and eyebrows are sloppily painted on. Its hair is purple, feathery.

photograph from the Frida Kahlo: Timeless exhibition at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art, of Frida Kahlo’s painting The Mask (of Madness) (1945)

Which one is the mad one? The mask-face, or the real face behind it?

There were so many other drawings and paintings which I did not photograph. Paintings with masks and fetuses, cacti, bleeding hearts, weeping eyes, wounds, skulls. Some of them I could not bear to look at for too long, they were so raw with grief, but at the same time I had to look. To witness.

Many of Frida Kahlo’s works are not very large, in terms of scale. But they contain so much feeling that they hum with it, explode it outward through time.

They are like small rooms vibrating with pain.

What of the traumas we all carry with us, into every room we enter?

Pain is always fresh and always incommunicable. It splinters the self and impedes all efforts to maintain a coherent self. So it also defeats the desire to be truly understood.

Sebastian Smee

Frida, though I do not want to turn you into a costume, into something I can wear like an accessory, I did buy a flowered headband in the museum gift shop. I am not pretending to be you when I wear it—I feel more like me.

I wear it while in bed, writing my self-portraits.

self-portrait of the author in bed, wearing a flowered headband

Woman with flowers. Woman with birds. Wounded woman birthing angels and art. Woman with a mustache and hair cropped short. Woman wailing ballads, breathing tequila and smoke. Woman taking lovers, making Love through all the suffering. Woman living the life.

Frida, I will try not to make you a martyr. You are a myth, and a muse, but you are so much more than that. I will try to see you, to bear witness, even knowing that I will never fully understand.

Maybe all any of us can do is bear witness to one another’s pain, even if it is ultimately only a fractured mirror through which to view our own.


The Frida Kahlo: Timeless exhibition is at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art and the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage until September 12, 2021.

Speaking of bearing witness—I recommend checking out the Tres Fridas Project, which is part of the exhibition and which I did not have the time to delve into in this essay.

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