August 22, 2011 | by Leslie Jamison
Frida Kahlo wore plaster corsets for most of her life because her spine was too weak to support itself. She painted them, naturally, covering them with pasted scraps of fabric and drawings of tigers, monkeys, plumed birds, a blood-red hammer and sickle, and streetcars like the one whose handrail rammed through her body when she was eighteen years old. The corsets remain to this day in her famous blue house—their embedded mirrors reflecting back our gazes, their collages bringing the whole world into stricture. In one, an open circle has been carved into the plaster like a skylight near the heart.
Charles Baxter once found what he called “the last appeal” in a scene from Sherwood Anderson, a woman running naked in the rain, begging attention from an old deaf man. “Her body,” he writes, “her last semiotic appeal, or vulnerability, or precious secret—it’s all of these things, but it will not be reduced to one meaning—carries the burden of her longing, and becomes the record of erasure.”
Frida’s corsets hardened around unspeakable longing. They still frame an invisible woman, still naked in her want, still calling to deaf men in the rain. I find them beautiful. She would have given anything, perhaps, to have a body that rendered them irrelevant.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were married eighty-two years ago yesterday, on August 21, 1929. She was twenty-two, he was forty-three. She used to call the two of them “pareja extraña del país del punto y la raya,” strange couple from the land of dot and line. In her diary, she draws them as Nefertiti and her consort, Akhenaten. Akhenaten has a swollen heart, and ribs like claws around his chest. He has testicles that look like a brain, a penis that looks like his lover’s dangling breast. Below is written “Born to them was a boy strange of face.” Nefertiti carries in her arms the baby Frida couldn’t have.
We find Diego like a virus through the diary pages. “Diego, nothing compares to your hands. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. I have stolen you and I leave weeping. I’m just kidding. My Diego: Mirror of the night.” Once: “He who sees the color” and beneath that, of herself, “She who wears the color.” Sometimes just, “DIEGO.” Or “Diego, beginning. Diego, builder. Diego, my father, ‘my husband,’ my child.”
“Today Diego kissed me,” she wrote once, then crossed it out.
It was also in August, twenty-four years after her wedding, that Frida finally lost her leg. Withered by polio, fractured in eleven places by the streetcar crash, it succumbed to gangrene and was amputated. She died the next year, as if this loss—after so much—was what she finally couldn’t bear. She had forgiven her body so many betrayals, only to watch it taken from her in pieces. She was fitted with a wooden leg, but her drinking made balance tricky.
Frida loved her doctors. She thanks them over and over again in her diary: “gracias al Dr. Ramón Parres, gracias al Dr. Glusker, gracias al Dr. Farill, gracias al Dr. Polo ... ” She thanks them for their integrity, their intelligence, their affection. She associates their science with the color green. Sadness is green as well. Also leaves and the nation of Germany. She has an entire vocabulary of color. Brown is mole and leaves becoming earth. Bright yellow is for the undergarments of ghosts.
Riding a bus at eighteen, Frida stood next to an artisan carrying a pouch of gold dust. When the streetcar hit them, his pouch was broken open by the force of the collision and Frida’s body, ruined on concrete, was covered in what the pouch held. Gold was sunlight on asphalt. Gold was the gleam of metal through an open wound. Magenta, on the other hand, was the color of blood. “El más vivo y antiguo,” Frida called it—the most alive, the oldest shade. “He who sees the colors.” Frida was the one who had to wear them.
Frida kept a collection of ex-votos, paintings offered in thanks to saints. These small scenes show angels hovering over the infirm and the saved, their tiny bodies curled in prostrate postures of gratitude or suffering. Cursive captions offer summaries so brief (“I was crushed by a horse; the horse was startled by a snake”) they seem gags clamped over the full stories. Ex-votos are full of Frida’s hope, and her stubbornness: hers was a body pulled almost gravitationally toward injury, and yet her paintings point ceaselessly at grace.
Two facing pages of her diary show a pair of matching goblets, each bearing the face of a woman: full lips, broad nose, fixed eyes curling tears from their corners. One face is angry, purple and red, bruised and bleeding shades, captioned, “no me llores.” Don’t cry for me. Don’t weep to me. The other face is alabaster pale with blushing stains on its cheeks: “si, te lloro.” I cry for you. I weep to you. I leave weeping. I’m just kidding.
Don’t weep to me. The wounded one will not permit herself. And yet, does.
Leslie Jamison is the author of The Gin Closet.