Frida Kahlo: Trauma, Abjection, and Affect

Frida Kahlo and Trauma

In many of her paintings, Kahlo presents a powerful visualisation of the sensation of pain whether as a stream of blood running through the background creating a river or with the mockery of cupids seesawing on the rod that pierces through her chest. According to van der Wiel, one of the effects of a traumatic event is a crisis of subjectivity. At the same time, however, trauma is also where identity is found. As such, Frida Kahlo’s autobiographical artworks – especially those that represent traumatic events - form part of her identity as a Mexican woman, a wife and an artist.

Since Kahlo formed part of Modernism, she then also formed part of the idea of psychological trauma becoming the grounds for the sublime: an entry into the extraordinary and also the grounds for Surrealism. What is most interesting is the intersection between trauma, identity and art for instance; Kahlo makes herself the main subject in most of her work and succeeds in transforming her experiences into art. Kahlo’s life is the epitome of traumatic experience, and as such her work can thematically be labelled as the body in pain; she presents her anguish in the form of art. A problem that Van der Wiel finds is that women in the arts are often classified or explained as – and thus reduced to – their life’s circumstances, whereas men are not. Even though this is a problematic reduction, in Kahlo’s case, the synthesis of life and art are undeniable. .

In her work, Kahlo extends on different notions of her identity and explored each aspect of her many fractured selves. Because Kahlo was constrained to her bed after her accident and before her death, she had to paint things within close proximity like her family, animals or still lifes, which is why her focus turned to herself as a subject. According to Herrera (as quoted in van der Wiel):

[Kahlo’s] true subjects were embodied states of mind, her own joys and sorrows. Always intimately connected with the events of her life, her images convey the immediate lived experience.

Trauma never ceased in her life. Apart from the trolley accident, as a child she had already suffered a bout of polio, which left her leg deformed. After the trolley accident, she endured numerous follow up operations, pain for the rest of her life, a poor body state, three miscarriages/abortions, deteriorating health, and was bedridden. The results of this trauma – her body’s consequent pathology – became the subject and focal point in her paintings because she needed to feel in control.

Since her body belonged to the doctors, her attempt at regaining control of her body resulted in the obsessive painting of her body: by creating it, she could own it. The temporary freedom this gains, however, comes with a price: she cannot work through her trauma since it is part of her identity, it cultivates this identity, and by painting her body, she puts herself intimately at the centre of her visual narrative. Kahlo’s visual autobiography is both personal and universal and thus transforms not only into her own experience but also the experiences of everyone else. This is precisely why the trauma narratives depicted in her work affectively work on the audience is the very reason these terms are inseparable when considering Kahlo’s paintings.

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