The ambulance man with striking
green eyes stroked the inside
skin of her teenage arm as she lay
strapped (for her own safety) on the reeking
canvas of another NHS. If you’re a lucky girl you’ll meet Jimmy!
She thought he was, maybe
trying to be nice (but those alien
fingers were electric…) No comfort
blanket, suspended in L10 skeletal
traction, legs akimbo and knicker
-less (for her own hygiene), a monster pain
-ted by Hieronymus Bosch. The male charge
nurse with watery grey eyes brought gin
secrets in a Barr’s Cream Soda bottle, hot
take-away through her open
window of gritty nights.
She thought he was, maybe,
trying to be nice (but gin made her sick,
she liked Babycham).
The glass half
-full on the sunny side. Cheer up, might never happen,
said the porter with lizard pink
eyes taking her down to a strip
-lit basement, down corridors
lined with conduits. If you’re a lucky girl you’ll meet Jimmy!
Frida Kahlo is my third choice for The Purple Hermit Hall of Fame, my regular feature on disability and resilience. I first discovered her paintings when I was a mature student at Art School. I was drawn to the surrealist images, folk art style and vibrant colours. It was rare to see such powerful images of pain and disability. Frida’s work was autobiographical. She was fearless in her honesty, exposing vulnerabilities, her emotional and physical suffering. But at the same time there was a joyousness in her painting. Frida Kahlo was a passionate woman. She loved people and animals, she loved the world.
When I learned more about her life-story I was struck by the many similarities with my own and she became one of my artistic and personal influences. Frida was born in Mexico in 1907, just three years before the start of the revolution. Her father was a German immigrant who ran a photography business and her mother was Mexican. Frida contracted polio at the age of six. She missed time at school and was bullied by other children. She was set apart from siblings by her illness which left her with a wasted limb, one leg shorter than the other. Her father began to take a special interest in her and taught her photography, philosophy and literature.
At the age of eighteen Frida was involved in a horrific street-car accident which left her with severe, permanent injuries and a life-long legacy of health problems and chronic pain. Surgical interventions by doctors were disasterously unsuccessful. She had to abandon her education and her ambition to become a doctor. She spent months in recovery and in isolation, confined to a bed where she began to paint using a specially made easel with a mirror. Her work explored identity and included many self-portraits.
In 1927 Frida joined the Mexican Communist Party where she met her future husband, the famous muralist Diego Rivera. Throughout her life she was politically active campaigning for peace, equality and the promotion of Mexico. She chose to dress in traditional Mexican clothes as a gesture of support for her native culture and a rejection of U.S. ideological dominance. However, later in her career she travelled and work in the U.S. where her art was enthusiastically received.
Diego and Frida had a turbulent relationship punctuated by extra marital affairs on both sides. At one point they divorced and later remarried. Frida was a sexually liberated woman having affairs with both men and women. One of her lovers was the revolutionary Leon Trotsky. She defied many social expectations of how women, let alone a disabled woman, were supposed to behave. Even today, disability and sex is a taboo subject. But Frida let nothing stand in the way of her passion and being true to herself. She used her experiences as a disabled woman in a positive way, channelling her pain into amazing art. Towards the end of her life her health problems became more debilitating and she suffered greatly both physically and mentally.
Kahlo pre-empted Tracey Emin’s controversial unmade bed installation by about fifty years. In 1953 doctors had advised her not to attend the opening of her first solo exhibition saying she needed bed rest. So Frida arranged for her four poster bed to be taken to the gallery and she arrived there by ambulance on a stretcher. She stayed in bed while the party unravelled around her.
Since her death in 1954, possibly by suicide, she has been adopted as an icon by various political and feminist groups. It’s strange that her disability is often minimised in biographies even though it was plainly part of her identity as evidenced by her own paintings. Her art grew directly out of her experience of disability. But perhaps it’s too much of a challenge for many people to reconcile negative stereotypes regarding disabled women and the vivid truth of Frida Kahlo’s life as a beautiful, charismatic and talented artist.
“Everything looks more beautiful in retrospect”. So says Michelle Monaghan’s character in the 2011 science fiction thriller Source Code. The film, directed by Duncan Jones, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a US army captain who is repeatedly sent back into a virtual parallel universe in an effort to prevent an explosion on a Chicago commuter train. He tries to change history and many of us would love to do that when looking back on our own lives.
Alas, time travel and parallel universes are still the stuff of fantasy. The relationship between the present and the past is complex. Looking back can feel like being lost in a mist where the edges of reality become blurred. Memory is unreliable. Research has shown that after a while we do not remember the actual past event but more a previous memory of it. Our perception of the past changes over time, shape-shifting and misleading. The Czech-born French writer Milan Kundera described it thus; ” We pass through the present with our eyes blindfolded. We are permitted merely to sense and guess at what we are actually experiencing. Only later when the cloth is untied can we glance at the past and find out what we have experienced and what meaning it has.”
The process of writing can help our recollection and understanding of our personal histories. Time unravels like a piece of knitting. But there are still blind spots. I’ve realized that memories of some painful events from my past have been erased or diluted. Perhaps this is a defense mechanism. I have to work really hard at remembering them, removing the blindfold. As I grow older I’m periodically overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia. Its tempting to believe that life was more real, more authentic, more fun in the past. Perhaps the younger we are, the more intensely we experience events but the fact is life was never perfect. Each day we are confronted with problems and difficulties. Satisfaction and happiness are derived from how well we rise to the challenges of life.
I took this photograph at Wick harbour. Wick is a small fishing town about thirty miles from my home in northern Scotland. In the 1800s it was one of the busiest and most prosperous herring ports in Europe. The bay was filled with hundreds of boats, the quayside lined with thousands of barrels of herring. The shouts of fish wives mingled with the cries of sea gulls and the howling wind. Today it holds the silence of abandonment. But decay can be beautiful. The old paint, fading colors and streaks of rust in the photograph are evocative of some strange interior landscape, peeling back the layers of time.
Seized by the scent of sun on skin
I make the first cut, split the almost sphere.
The morning ritual slicing from the center
around each segment, skirting the circumference,
parting flesh from flesh. Blood perfect,
topped with a glace cherry
and served on blue china.
I want to cry out when she opens her gown
showing husks of missing breasts.
She was a stewardess before,
on the Queen Mary criss-crossing the Atlantic.
Now, she’s the kind lady on Ward 5
sharing grapefruit with a braided child
as winter sun breaks.