Frida Kahlo: Trauma, Abjection, and Affect

Frida Kahlo and the Abject

Some of Kahlo’s paintings appear so explicitly violent or ghastly; it makes it difficult to look at for long periods of time, but this is also what intrigues the audience. Her graphic presentation of broken bodies and medical discourse adhere to Kristeva’s notion of abjection in that the body adopts a liminal state binding and confounding the: “…inside and outside, pleasure and pain, cleanliness and filth, life and death”. According to Alonso, Kahlo creates her art according to what she understands as the limit because she is pushed to the limit and is challenged. For instance after her accident she painted in a way that violated how representation is understood as appropriate. Kahlo presents the spillage and overflowing of waste and fluids in the hopes of eradicating her soul of experiences in her life; in this way visual imagery evokes the trauma of her existence.

The boundaries are blurred between the corpse and the living being which is a condition of abjection where it is impossible to maintain balance and therefore creates a site for desire and danger. This, in turn, creates tension gained by a lack of boundaries, for instance language cannot convey an abjection the way that Kahlo’s imagery does, forcing the viewer’s eye to break away from the display of suffering and terror. One of many examples is presented in Without Hope where food loathing encourages nausea felt by Kahlo at the time and by the affected viewers. The disgusting food, animals and skulls are suspended above her by the wooden structure used to hold her canvasses for painting while she was bedridden. Her arms seem held down underneath her, leaving the viewer feeling uneasy, anxious, helpless, scared and claustrophobic.

Kahlo’s recreation of the abject shows a display of filth, defilement and the disruption of the consistency of the self. The internal organs depicted in works such as Memory evoke repulsion and disgust; this display of her anatomy allows the viewer to experience abjection which is perceived as a threat and is therefore rejected. Kahlo’s painting, My Birth represents bodily fluids and blood stain that contrast with the white veils normally used to cover a body part which creates a sadistic impression; this grotesque representation, according to Alonso, can be read as a: “… transgression of a prohibition”. In other words, as it should be taboo, portraying not only a contrast but in such a way that it could be considered sinful, a mockery, is recreated in a disrespectful, perhaps even distasteful, manner.

According to René Girard, violence – as infectious – is a necessary condition to cure a community. For instance, when viewers are confronted with the horrendous events depicted in an artwork, they realise that their own life is not as unfortunate as what they once thought. In this way, Kahlo and the viewer employ the Aristotelian theory of cleansing the body and soul by way of filth. Kahlo’s body and the visual abject she portrays is tragic and has a dramatic impact on the viewer who is affected in the same way Kahlo was affected, in that the viewer embodies Kahlo’s trauma.

According to David Freedberg and Vittorio Gallese, by visually seeing an action being performed your brain will be reminded of this action and the same neurons will be activated as if you were performing this action, although you are watching it. This is the same for emotions, sensations, and actions; which is why embodied simulation can be seen in Frida Kahlo’s work, because of the ways in which we empathise with others. Mirror neurons allow for the imitation of a feeling, a representation of a feeling and not the feeling as such. 

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