The Broken Column, Frida Kahlo, 1944
It’s difficult to write about someone else’s pain. There is a risk of sounding insensitive, of making assumptions, of projecting your own interpretations. I have heard that the key to being a good listener is to step outside what is referred to as the ego. That means leaving experiences and identity aside in order to listen openly, attempting to avoid recalling how one might relate and then interjecting with personal experiences. Setting aside my ego means not judging according to my own conceptions of femininity, my age, upbringing, circumstances, but simply listening. So, when I walk the quiet corridors of art museums, my heels loudly clacking on polished wooden floors, I try to read and receive. I try.
When I examine Frida Kahlo’s artwork, my instincts tell me to look at the obvious pain in The Broken Column without judging or comparing. I want to be a good observer of this painting. And I can do that, for a time. But still, I’m only human. I want to relate, to compare, to undermine the pain in order to highlight and glorify the obvious beauty there. A woman torn open at the sternum, a cracked column taken for a spine, nails hammered into her naked skin. That’s pain. But…
Frida Kahlo’s face in her 1944 self-portrait, The Broken Column, doesn’t express great pain. It’s daring. It’s really like an “I dare you.” Here is her body broken open–it seems to me less broken, more open. She is naked. Her hair is lovely, dark and thick. Her face is lovely, too, calm and poised. She is daring you to see her pain, perhaps, but it’s hard for me to do it through the beauty. I try. I try to accept her pain and not push it away. To me, that is a good description of the idea of other’s pain. It’s constantly pushed aside so we can see the beauty. Sometimes the pain is easy to miss. Sometimes. For some.
I don’t know great pain. When I was a girl, I once fell out of a tree. My smallest arm bone split into two. I laid in bed for hours while my dad read a book downstairs. He did give me a bag of ice. The memories are blurred.
My mom got home from class later that evening and came to check on me. I remember my dad following her up the stairs. She glared at him because she knew I sat at home all day with a broken arm. Obviously broken, she rolled her eyes. I don’t have very many memories of them together; this is one. Is this the only one?
Later that day, we went to my brother’s baseball game in town. We were country folk then. A hobby farm, really, because my dad was a teacher, and my mom was in school for something art-related. This baseball diamond was beautiful. I have not forgotten it in 25 years, and I likely never will. The outfield was defined by a corn field that curved all the way around from right to left field. Behind the first base line sat a tiny stand of metal bleachers, behind them a paved county road (some sense of modernity there), and more cornfields beyond that. The small-town skyline, composed solely of homes and perhaps a few small businesses, sat beyond the third base line. The sun would set, golden, behind home plate, blinding all out outfielders who mimicked the pros, spitting sunflower seeds and wearing their hats low.
My parents still had not taken me to the doctor by nightfall. Too many other kids to tend to–seven of us. And there was a baseball game we couldn’t miss. There may have been a small clinic in that town of 1500 people in rural Minnesota, but maybe not. I don’t remember, but I do know there’s not one there now.
I drive through that town almost every summer. Blooming Prairie, Minnesota. A name much more picturesque than the place itself. It had indeed been a blooming prairie at one point in history. They used to have images in the town library. There is no more prairie, only cornfields now. Each small town in Minnesota is sadder, flatter and emptier than I recall in my childhood memories.
So, they brought me to the doctor the next day. I got a pink cast that I wore for the rest of the summer. I was eight. My parents divorced in August.
I don’t know great pain. I’ve had three children. Two pushed from my body, one pulled out of it. Those situations–the situation of giving birth–they are painful, I suppose. But it’s short-lived pain. Momentarily, even the c-section where I was cut open, organs set aside on a sterile table. Six years ago, my body has mostly healed from it. As much as any body can. My placenta detached from my uterus, so my waters broke at the same time blood vessels, now flowing outward and attached to nothing in particular, pumped blood mixed with waters down my legs. He was five weeks early. Once we got to the hospital, I didn’t feel any more pain. I didn’t feel a thing when he was born, numb, and I didn’t hold him for several days. Not until he could keep his own body warm and breathe with his own lungs.
He’s in kindergarten now. He just lost his first tooth this week. I can barely remember the pain of the pushing ones, those births. Much less traumatizing to me, though I can’t pinpoint exactly why. Maybe because I held those two immediately. I remember how it felt, naked in front of half a dozen strangers except for a backless, muted blue hospital gown. I remember the taste of bile as my body purged itself. But then I held a newly formed human, someone I made right there inside my own body. So soft and needy. The pain disappeared.
This brings me back to The Broken Column, and the harmony between beauty and pain in the painting. I did what I hadn’t intended. I did what perhaps we all do, I internalized it and warped her pain to my own understanding. A way to empathize perhaps, to make sense of it was best I can. Or maybe I’m just a selfish viewer.
Yes, the subject, a self-portrait, has dozens of nails hammered into her body. But look at the skin, so soft and vital and healthy. The column is broken, but the belts hold her together, like a nightmarish corset. Nightmarish, no doubt, but somehow lovely and feminine. And what would happen if those belts weren’t there? Are they doing something necessary, keeping her contained? Are the nails some form of torture, or are they holding the skin together in some imperative way? As an observer, I just can’t understand her pain. Even as I try, even as I try to relate to it. What I can relate to in the painting is the harmony between beauty and pain. The golden sunset over home plate in a small town I was too young to know was small. I don’t remember the pain in my arm–I remember the sunset, though. The pain of childbirth is forgotten. I recall the back ache of labor, but I couldn’t recreate the feeling or even retell it to a degree that might do it justice. I can remember that it hurt, sort of. What I remember is holding my daughter on my chest. The look on my husband’s face as he took her in for the very first time. It’s a harmonious memory. For me, in those memories, there’s harmony in all the beauty and all the pain.
What I can relate to is looking for the beauty, forcing beautiful, creating it from our pain. This painting is beautiful in a distracting way. I have to force myself to see the pain, partly because there’s a question of the role of the nails in this picture–there’s no blood. The column is obviously cracked and broken, but now we know she’s not going to break apart. The belts hold her together. Her face doesn’t display anguish. She’s daring you to look at her pain, but she’s not letting you overlook the beauty of her form.
Yet, when I’m really being a good listener, a good observer, then I realize it might be my own naivety that insists that all pain can be transformed into beauty. I don’t know whether I believe that to be true. And I don’t know if Kahlo’s personal painful experiences held within them golden sunsets, and I know they didn’t come with soft and needy infants. But I do know that at least, in The Broken Column, there is a harmony between beauty and pain that is as undeniable as it is daring.
Misha Lazzara is a first-year MFA candidate at North Carolina State University and a mother of three human children.