When examining the life and work of world-renowned Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, one would be remiss to omit her lifelong battle with chronic pain and disability from the discussion. Some of her most poignant artwork reflects the torment and anguish she suffered throughout most of her life. In fact, she only began seriously painting while confined to a hospital bed following a bus crash that fractured her vertebrae, pelvis, collarbone, right leg, and caused a metal bar to pierce her abdomen and uterus. This crash, along with childhood polio, is the primary cause of Frida Kahlo’s chronic, progressive pain that would require more than 30 surgeries over her lifetime to unsuccessfully attempt to fix. Much of her work that focused on her physical pain was done while she was bedridden for extended periods of time in recovery from her surgeries. From Henry Ford Hospital (1932), one of her earliest well-known paintings, to Without Hope (1945), The Wounded Deer (1946), and finally Self-Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill (1951), it is clear that her ever-deteriorating health condition was a central influence in much of her most highly acclaimed work. The painting I have chosen for analysis in this post is The Broken Column, which she completed in 1944.
Like many of her other works, The Broken Column is a self-portrait warped by her emotions and physical condition into a surrealist representation of who Frida Kahlo was as a person. Unlike many of her other self-portraits, which captured her contentious relationship with fellow Mexican painter Diego Rivera, The Broken Column appears to focus more inwardly on her individual state. The manifestation of the title of the painting, a cracking and crumbling stone column that has replaced her vertebral column, is a clear allusion to her degenerated vertebral column. A year prior to painting The Broken Column, Frida Kahlo underwent surgery that attempted to correct the shifted vertebrae in her spine, but it failed, and she was forced to wear a cumbersome brace for the remainder of her life. That brace is depicted as tightly wrapped around her figure in the self-portrait, both supporting and restraining. I can imagine it was just as constricting in real life as it appears in the painting, as she complained about it constantly. Finally, the countless metal nails that seem to have been hammered into her skin are a powerful way to represent the sharp pains she felt constantly on every part of her body. Some modern doctors and historians speculate that the bus accident may have triggered the onset of fibromyalgia, a condition that wasn’t defined by the medical community until the 1990s, so she would have suffered intense pain that doctors would have had no way of diagnosing. Enduring countless surgical procedures that did little to improve her fibromyalgia pain would likely elicit strong feelings of helplessness in her situation.
In-depth analysis of this painting and her long history of pain has deepened my appreciation of the difficulties of living with chronic pain. The agonizing sensation of a thousand nails embedded in my skin is honestly unfathomable to me, and my inability to wrap my head around this experience has enabled me to realize that I will never be able to fully understand the chronic pain that some of my patients will have to endure. This in itself is a valuable lesson, as it will allow me to be more receptive to what my patient is feeling and telling me. Also, the painting displays several emotional responses she has had to her chronic condition. To me, her pictorial representation, stripped of her clothing from the waist up, bearing only a loose cloth around her hips, alludes to her feeling that the chronic pain has affected her way of life to such a degree that it has stripped her of some of her dignity. The wide chasm that surrounds the broken “spinal” column could also be interpreted as her feeling hollow, empty, or broken on the inside. The brace she is wearing seems to be the only thing preventing her from falling apart. To me, this is a powerful message of how psychologically damaging it can be to live with chronic pain, and it is a message that may stick with me forever. 20 or 30 years from now, when I am working with a patient with chronic pain, I can see myself thinking back to Frida Kahlo and her story of unfathomable, lifelong pain captured in The Broken Column.
Sadly, the pain that is presented above is only a fraction of the pain that Frida Kahlo suffered. She also had congenital scoliosis, a chronic ulcer on her foot that lasted for years, painful warts on the sole of her foot, and a fungal infection on her hands and fingers that sometimes prevented her from working, among other health conditions. Although her chronic pain undoubtedly heavily influenced a large part of her career, it in no way defined who she was as a painter. Prior to reading her biography, I was completely unaware of this tragic facet of her life. To me, and to many casual art fans, she was known not for her disability but for her striking self-portraits, which spanned the continuum between the extremes of realism and surrealism, as well as her stirring depictions of the plight of working class Mexicans, which is largely what made her so popular in the first place. This also conveys a strong message: your pain and your disability may affect some aspects of your life, but they in no way define who you are.
Now, I am curious what you all think about the painting. Do you disagree with any part of my interpretation? Do you notice anything that I missed? Would you like to add anything else about how this painting makes you feel?