They come out in droves to see her in London: school groups in their crisp uniforms, sharing bags of sweet and salty snacks and looking bored; sunburned German tourists, one wearing a plastic mask of Donald Trump’s face; a woman in a black burka and black sneakers hurrying toward the museum steps. I’m nervous going in, although I know what to expect: Frida’s legs and casts; the corsets that held up the bones of her back; some of her best and most photographed articles of clothing that make up her quintessential “look.”
The Victoria and Albert Museum is in South Kensington, an area of London where apartments cost in the millions of pounds, and the white buildings are so spotless in the late September sunshine that I’m reminded of the white buildings in Mojacar, Spain, where my friend Emily and I strolled around on a hot summer day six years before when my son Ronan was still alive, my daughter Charlie was not yet born, and I hadn’t yet met my husband Kent. My friend spent the entire day talking me out of a manic state, my first and only (and I hope the last). Later, after hours of walking, we smoked cigarettes and drank white wine on the beach while she rubbed aloe on my sunburned back and I cried. I loop my arm with hers now.
“I had no idea Frida was so popular,” I say, and I’m legitimately surprised. “I’ll bet half of these people didn’t know she was an amputee.”
“You’ve dressed like her,” Em says. It’s warm in the first exhibit hall, and we jostle against the other onlookers, all trying to get close to each photograph or painting or fragment of a framed, handwritten letter for a few long seconds.
Indeed, I have deliberately dressed like Frida, or perhaps in homage to her. It would be ridiculous for an American woman to wear a Tehuana dress, but I have disguised myself in my way, one of several forms of controlled presentation: a denim vintage dress (always vintage, the fabric holding someone else’s story that will never be known to me) with a ruffle on the bottom hem and a nipped waist; tights; mid-calf 80s dead stock white go-go boots; gold jewelry draped and layered around the neck and across the chest, understated elsewhere; dark lipstick; a single braid.
“This is my confident get-up,” I respond.
“It’s working,” she says, and smiles. My mother, 75, and my daughter, four, walk ahead of us, my mom trying to shush Charlie as she cries loudly, “I want to sit down. This is so boring. I don’t like this room.” My mom picks her up and begins strolling around with her, whispering in her ear. She giggles. I wonder what my Mom is saying to her.
The rooms are heaving with people, and Emily and I quickly separate. I’m starting to feel hot and awkward, as I often do in art museums, when the pace of viewing is so slow and people are thinking so hard it’s as if they create their own kind of heat. It’s a miracle that more people don’t faint. Walking slowly is the hardest kind of movement for me, and without the momentum of follow through that happens at a quicker clip, I limp noticeably, which makes me feel unmoored from my body. And that makes me nervous. I notice people’s stares; people are staring. I feel their eyes on me as I limp, then on the photographs of Frida. A hushed concentration hangs in the room - a palpable sense of people looking at things to try and understand them, or memorize them, or take them in.
I’m feeling impatient to see the legs and the corsets and the boots. That’s more my genre. I move into the second hall, but it’s so packed that I’m forced over to the left side, where I stumble into the man in front of me, who catches me as we exchange awkward apologies. When he steps away to reveal a photograph of Frida I’ve never seen, I feel like someone has power punched me in the chest. I literally think of the heavy bag I used to have in the back room of my house in New Mexico, and all the hours I spent beating the shit out of it. I feel like the bag.
I look around for Em - I don't want to stand alone in front of this photograph on the edge of tears – but I don’t see her. Charlie is sitting on the lap of one of the guards while my embarrassed mother tries to pry my jet-lagged, stubborn little girl from his arms. “I'm resting,” Charlie announces, but finally relents and sits next to him on the floor. “I’m just Charlie,” she tells the guard, who is smiling, and my mom, giving up, sits down next to her on the floor. She gives me a little wave.
She’s in traction, I mouth to my mother, but she can’t lip read that far away.
What? I see her whisper back, her eyebrows raised.
“Traction,” I say loudly, and a few people turn to look at me. My mom shrugs and shakes her head, clearly still confused.
Indeed, Frida is in traction in the photo, which is taken from the side, so you can see that her head is suspended in air, held up and back by the pulley system behind her, the canvas taut against her forehead. Her amputated leg is raised up in a white cast and her hair is long and dark and flowing over the white cotton hospital gown. First, I am flooded with the memory of how it feels to be held like that, in suspense, literally, and how painful and awkward it is. The ache in the neck muscles. The blood from the amputated leg rushing down, that feeling that someone is trying to push knowledge into your head through the bone of your forehead with the bone of their hand. How slowly sweat moves through canvas burlap.
Frida is painting. There’s a sketchpad in her lap, and a brush in her hand. This is what makes me want to weep. She makes as pain unmakes her. And she has just lost her leg. I am overcome with compassion for her – not pity – and also compassion for myself, which is hard to come by. To my right, encased in glass, are the corsets that propped up the bones in her back after the accident, and for the rest of her life. My own early casts and back braces were made of the same rough cotton material that stained easily and that looked like something you’d buy at the rope and saddle store. Frida’s amputation was in 1953; mine was in 1978. I don’t remember the braces in the Casa Azul; I don't remember the straps hanging from their shells were the same straps I remember pissing on, tying on, shitting on, washing in the sink with bleach, carefully scrubbing out the coins of blood from my period.
I hear a conversation behind me:
It’s so sad, so tragic.
Isn’t it just terrible, the pain she was in?
Oh, these awful…devices. But it inspired her to paint.
Yes, it made her an artist. All the pain.
I limp away, desperate to yell at these two middle-aged women who are having a lovely afternoon at the special exhibit at the V&A. I don’t. But they’re wrong.
Critics and fans, and just the average person who knows Frida from a tote bag or a refrigerator magnet, has inherited this narrative that pain was her muse. It’s what inspired her to paint, this narrative preaches, whether it was the wreckage of her love affair with Diego, or her chronic and constant pain, or losing part of a leg. Art has been codified as her ‘therapy.’” It’s so ridiculous I want to cry or scream, something. Instead, I keep walking.
Going half-made in Spain was not about being visited by a muse; it was a visitation by madness. Screaming out the window of a farmhouse, afraid to kill random bugs on the windowsill as the spirit of my dying boy might be trapped inside. Pretending to be Kafka, then pretending to be his lover, then pretending to sleep, then wanting to be dead. Wandering along dusty streets, my uneven footsteps lit by the bright moon breaking through, every so often, of the muted haze of a late summer Spanish sky.
Other art historians have broken Frida’s paintings into categories of those representing real pain and imagined pain. There is no way to calculate what represents more pain: the red leg with its winged painted foot in the glass, or Frida’s neck suspended in air. Which of her 30 medical procedures was the most difficult? Which of her four failed pregnancies hit her the hardest? Yes, she painted in bed. Create or die. That’s very different from “being inspired.”
Oh, those critics who make the architectural column of her spine a phallic symbol, who imagine the “penetrating thrust” of the pole through her pelvis and she must never have enjoyed sex. The pole got there first and she was ruined, crippled goods. They haven’t seen her legs, her winged feet, her corset decorated and shining. This wasn’t the art of inspired sentiment. It is the art of survival. But only if you see it that way. Otherwise, it all devolves into the typical narrative: the brave, pathetic woman who never had children, whose body was crippled, whose life was ruined.
Some critics and art historians have accused Frida of paying too much attention to her illnesses; some have debated the veracity of her pain, as if they were the architects of the scale. She was accused of allowing her illnesses to displace her maternal drive, and it was a fault, not a triumph, that she gave herself over to the masculine ambition of being a painter.
A diseased woman is a suspicious woman. A grieving mother is a suspicious mother unless she is a virgin and consecrated into the realm of religions impossibility. It’s as if the idea – and especially the image – of a disabled woman in the world floats. It is there; no, it’s there; and there, or maybe there.
Another wall of portraits I hadn’t seen before: Frida naked from the waist up. Three black and white stills of her gazing at the camera while holding alternatively a mirror, a brush, an adornment for her hair. Her breasts are small and spherical and soft-looking. Her shoulders look sculpted and strong below the angle of her jawline. Wow, I hear someone say behind me, so close to me it’s as if they’re whispering in my ear. She’s actually beautiful. I never thought of her as beautiful. His wife pulls him along and the same pair of ladies stands next to me again. Such a pity she never had children. They would have been beautiful. And now I let tears blur my vision until people move past me and I hear Charlie saying, “Mommy! I’m so bored and I want to eat a cookie at the coffee store.” I pick her up and give her tired face a kiss. Behind us, encased in glass, the corset Frida cut a round hole inside as a way to show her miscarriages, to wear the losses against her, with her, around her, just as any mother would do.
Biography: Emily Rapp Black is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir; The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the PEN USA Award; Sanctuary, forthcoming from Random House in 2020; and Cartography for Cripples, forthcoming from the New York Review of Books in 2020. A former Fulbright scholar, Guggenheim Fellow, and James Michener Fellow in fiction and poetry at UT-Austin, she is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Writers Award; the Winter Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center; the Wachtmeister Award in Nonfiction; and fellowships at Yaddo, Jentel, and Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain. Her work has appeared in Vogue; O, the Oprah Magazine; Redbook; the Sun; The New York Times; The Boston Globe; The Los Angeles Times, and in many other publications and anthologies, including The Best Creative Nonfiction. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at UC-Riverside, where she also teaches in the School of Medicine. She lives with her family in Southern California, and she and her husband, writer and editor Kent Black, own and operate a book editing and manuscript consulting business. Visit her at www.emilyrappblack.com and https://blueprintmanuscriptconsulting.wordpress.com.