The question that propels Emily Rapp Black’s Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is simple and self-implicating: “Why do we (I) love Frida?” Throughout the book’s fourteen loosely-linked essays, Black lays claim to Kahlo for unique reason: like the painter became later in life, Black is an amputee, and both women’s lives were shaped by physical disability. In her youth, the author formed 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 this is common among young disabled people, who are desperate to find other people in the world like us, to trace a possible road map for our own lives. Still Black admits the limits of an attachment to a woman who “lives only in the terrain of my imagination where I set all the terms of the story.”
But what about the rest of Kahlo’s legion of fans? Few, if any, other artists have become 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 have previously owned a Kahlo-emblazoned pencil case, t-shirt, pair of socks, and sticky-note pad; I still display her “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” in my bedroom.) Surely the outspoken communist would have abhorred the commercialization of her image and art. But what would she make of how her life has been interpreted, packaged, and flattened by her own admirers?
Black observes these admirers during visits to La Casa Azul in Mexico City and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, both of which contain many of the artist’s personal 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 friend as she inspects some of Kahlo’s prosthetics and orthopedic devices. “But it inspired her to paint,” the friend replies. “Yes,” the other says, “it made her an artist. All that pain.” Rapp, who walks through the exhibition on the prosthetic leg she’d worn since early childhood, who like Kahlo has navigated surgeries and doctors and medical apparati all her life, seethes at the insinuation that pain is a noble muse. Pain did not make Frida Kahlo an artist; Frida Kahlo made Frida Kahlo an artist. What she went through, the author reminds us, had no bearing on the vision and talent she already possessed. Black’s most harrowing experiences inform her own work — including this very book — but they do not produce it. “Suffering does not create art,” she thinks, observing Kahlo’s hand-painted plaster corset, “people do.”
But Kahlo has been canonized to the extent that she is no longer understood as just a person. London exhibit-goers ogle her braces and casts “as if passing by a saint’s shrine”; at La Casa Azul, visitors “treat the bed where the artist died as Christian supplicants treat the slab in Jerusalem.” Black worries over how Kahlo’s suffering has been romanticized, her body fetishized: fans obsess over the details of her accident (how “lovely” her mangled body must have looked coated in gold dust) and resultant injuries (how “intimately” the handrail exited her torso). Her life was so dense with senseless tragedies that we have to make it all mean something. As a result, Kahlo has been poured into familiar, palatable molds, with the aim of turning her into the sort of disabled person we can admire, not just tolerate; the sort of disabled person who doesn’t remind us of “the chaos of the world.” Black herself has been constricted by these sorts of molds. Time and time again, as she recounts, her body has been interpreted to ensure other people’s comfort or pleasure. Passengers willfully mistake her for a military veteran during a flight and applaud her accordingly; acrotomophiles lurk outside amputee conventions and swear their devotion to her. Through a self-serving able-bodied gaze, disability — Black’s, Kahlo’s — is made estimable or fuckable or brave.
Candid and eloquent, Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is an invaluable addition to the canon of disability literature and the field of disability studies. Black eloquently articulates the longing and frustrations that are central to experiences of living with a disability. She isn’t interested in uncritically celebrating or passively meditating on Kahlo’s story; she wants to know exactly what she can glean from a woman who was all the things disabled folks are told we can’t be: sexy and productive and complicated, roiling with ego and desire. “What can all of us learn from Frida, no matter our embodiment?” she writes. The answers she lands on are, like the rest of the book, lucid and profound. I won’t spoil them, as they’re most resonant when earned. But Black makes clear that to honor Kahlo properly means embracing both her art and her disability, and more important, that we can learn the most from the artist when we peel away the fanfare and iconography, and see her for the person she was.
Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg (Notting Hill Editions, 2021), by Emily Rapp Black, is now available on Bookshop.