It was “Mindflicks” last night in Adelaide and the movie up for discussion was “Frida” (2002) starring Salma Hayek in the role of Frida Kahlo– the Mexican painter and now cultural icon who died in 1954. It was Kahlo’s much publicised chronic pain that we were looking to discuss.
“Frida” was a great love story with lots of colour, music, fun and misery but I was disappointed. I don’t think her pain story really emerged, yet here was a remarkable one-off opportunity to portray and explain elements of pain and to actually make a movie about pain that could be therapeutic to sufferers.
Kahlo objectified pain, gave it a voice like no one has done before, yet it was forgotten (it took an hour till there was even an ouch) – pretty clothes and varietal sex seemed more important to the directors.
I am right with Margaret Lindauer, author of “Devouring Frida” – the artist has been devoured by popular culture, art critics and even the health industry (many groups representing diseases claim her). It’s Frida that is famous and the power of the art is subsiding. We may be losing something far more valuable than anything we currently have for chronic pain.
Art critics could do with a bit of neuroscience
Take one of her most famous paintings. “The broken column”. The critics have devoured it.
Everywhere I read a review of this piece, I read about physical pain and emotional pain as if they could exist independently (they can’t – Kahlo realised that, her “Henry Ford Hospital is evidence). “The Broken Column” has been eroticised by many, with the column supposedly phallic and representing European rape of Mexico or Kahlo’s trolley-car accident when a steel rod pierced her pelvis. Others talk about the realism of the brace and the surrealism of the column, yet Kahlo rejected her art as surreal, the fantasy elements came from Mexican folk tradition. For her the cracked column was not surreal, it was real. And still most critics relate the painting to her trolleycar accident. But it was painted 19 years after the trolley car accident – this is now a depiction of chronic pain, a very different process (even disease to some) to acute pain. Maybe above all, she is just trying to tell us about pain.
Modern neuroscience and the broken column
At some risk of also being labelled a Frida devourer, I believe that Kahlo would have heard and used the term “column” and the linked word “broken” millions of times and “broken column” would have been an operational metaphor for her. It may have become her. Reflect a moment – columns are supposed to be strong, not supposed to be broken and they will cause enormous danger if they tumble.
One wonders what the immune cells in her central nervous system were “thinking” – astrocytes and microglia in particular, the cells that are interested and defend the areas of brain related to her back but which now must be on perpetual full alert due to the relentless and potent metaphor. Any life imbalances, and there were plenty of blended physical and psychological challenges (Diego!) will fire the back in the brain.
Review the remarkable image again – the pins are widespread but note the L3ish nerve root distribution on her right leg. The fractures were L3,4 and perhaps this is a link. Nerve roots can grumble on for years especially with the immune system on alert. The pins are superficial, in the skin suggesting a light touch allodynia. There are the same number of pins in her left arm as in her right arm. Perhaps coincidence, but probably not with what we know of Kahlo’s extraordinary ability to self represent. This more likely represents mirror pains of a central origin. And note the pins in the cloth around her – this is pain in fresh air, perhaps representing soreness at the lightest of touch, and probably demonstrating that the cortical representation of her pain extended well past her actual body.
Note also a consistent feature of Kahlo’s art – a dualism perhaps or maybe it is a unity – there is pain in the image but the sexuality is untouched – beautiful breasts, unhindered by the brace, the cloth around her pelvis could fly off at anytime. It’s as though she could say “Pain! – you are not coming near my other life” or “I am bigger than pain – it has it’s place but I am bigger.” If that is correct, then Kahlo had engaged some high level pain management strategies and I suspect it was the art, which was probably analgesic which gave her that insight.
Chrissie Amphlett was neurologically correct when she sang “ it’s a fine fine line between pleasure and pain”.
There is much more to discuss here, particularly with regard to the need to objectify pain for all. Frida Kahlo did her best but somehow modern society got in the way.
– David Butler