The query that propels Emily Rapp Black’s Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is straightforward and self-implicating: “Why do we (I) love Frida?” All through the e-book’s fourteen loosely-linked essays, Black lays declare to Kahlo for distinctive cause: like the painter grew to become later in life, Black is an amputee, and each ladies’s lives had been formed by bodily incapacity. In her youth, the writer fashioned what she calls “the perfect imaginary friendship” with Kahlo. “I chose to try and understand the story of her body as a way of knowing or accessing mine,” Black writes, “as if the story of her life set out a path or trail that, no matter how difficult, I might follow.” Latching onto public figures like that is widespread amongst younger disabled individuals, who’re determined to search out different individuals in the world like us, to hint a doable street map for our personal lives. Nonetheless Black admits the limits of an attachment to a lady who “lives only in the terrain of my imagination where I set all the terms of the story.”
However what about the relaxation of Kahlo’s legion of followers? Few, if any, different artists have turn into objects of such intense parasocial affection. Kahlo’s disembodied likeness adorns lipsticks, coasters, aprons, magnets, leggings, notebooks, keychains, backpacks, even Christmas ornaments. (Full disclosure: I’ve beforehand owned a Kahlo-emblazoned pencil case, t-shirt, pair of socks, and sticky-note pad; I nonetheless show her “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” in my bed room.) Certainly the outspoken communist would have abhorred the commercialization of her picture and artwork. However what would she make of how her life has been interpreted, packaged, and flattened by her personal admirers?
Black observes these admirers throughout visits to La Casa Azul in Mexico Metropolis and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, each of which comprise many of the artist’s private artefacts. In the essay “The Viewing, London,” she eavesdrops on her fellow exhibit-goers: “Isn’t it just terrible, the pain she was in?” one remarks to a good friend as she inspects some of Kahlo’s prosthetics and orthopedic units. “But it inspired her to paint,” the good friend replies. “Yes,” the different says, “it made her an artist. All that pain.” Rapp, who walks by means of the exhibition on the prosthetic leg she’d worn since early childhood, who like Kahlo has navigated surgical procedures and medical doctors and medical apparati all her life, seethes at the insinuation that ache is a noble muse. Ache didn’t make Frida Kahlo an artist; Frida Kahlo made Frida Kahlo an artist. What she went by means of, the writer reminds us, had no bearing on the imaginative and prescient and expertise she already possessed. Black’s most harrowing experiences inform her personal work — together with this very e-book — however they don’t produce it. “Suffering does not create art,” she thinks, observing Kahlo’s hand-painted plaster corset, “people do.”
However Kahlo has been canonized to the extent that she is now not understood as only a particular person. London exhibit-goers ogle her braces and casts “as if passing by a saint’s shrine”; at La Casa Azul, guests “treat the bed where the artist died as Christian supplicants treat the slab in Jerusalem.” Black worries over how Kahlo’s struggling has been romanticized, her physique fetishized: followers obsess over the particulars of her accident (how “lovely” her mangled physique will need to have regarded coated in gold mud) and resultant accidents (how “intimately” the handrail exited her torso). Her life was so dense with mindless tragedies that we’ve got to make all of it imply one thing. Because of this, Kahlo has been poured into acquainted, palatable molds, with the intention of turning her into the type of disabled particular person we are able to admire, not simply tolerate; the type of disabled one that doesn’t remind us of “the chaos of the world.” Black herself has been constricted by these kinds of molds. Time and time once more, as she recounts, her physique has been interpreted to make sure different individuals’s consolation or pleasure. Passengers willfully mistake her for a army veteran throughout a flight and applaud her accordingly; acrotomophiles lurk exterior amputee conventions and swear their devotion to her. By means of a self-serving able-bodied gaze, incapacity — Black’s, Kahlo’s — is made estimable or fuckable or courageous.
Candid and eloquent, Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is a useful addition to the canon of incapacity literature and the discipline of incapacity research. Black eloquently articulates the longing and frustrations which might be central to experiences of dwelling with a incapacity. She isn’t fascinated about uncritically celebrating or passively meditating on Kahlo’s story; she needs to know precisely what she will be able to glean from a lady who was all the issues disabled of us are advised we are able to’t be: attractive and productive and sophisticated, roiling with ego and need. “What can all of us learn from Frida, no matter our embodiment?” she writes. The solutions she lands on are, like the relaxation of the e-book, lucid and profound. I received’t spoil them, as they’re most resonant when earned. However Black makes clear that to honor Kahlo correctly means embracing each her artwork and her incapacity, and extra vital, that we are able to study the most from the artist after we peel away the fanfare and iconography, and see her for the particular person she was.
Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg (Notting Hill Editions, 2021), by Emily Rapp Black, is now out there on Bookshop.