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"Agonized Poetry": Frida Kahlo and Catharsis

by Jen Westmoreland Bouchard | 2008

After suffering a major miscarriage in Detroit in 1932, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) created one of her most revealing and disturbing self-portraits, "Miscarriage in Detroit." If you've seen Julie Taymor and Salma Hayek's masterful depiction of Frida's life in the 2002 film, Frida, it's difficult to escape the image of Frida laying pallid and frail in her hospital bed, staring at her disfigured fetus in a jar of formaldehyde. In this scene, Frida paints to memorialize. She also paints to heal. If you're familiar with Frida's colorful biography (her life-threatening bus accident, the resulting chronic pain, and the betrayal of her husband, Diego Rivera), it is not a stretch to imagine that this painting is about more kinds of loss than uniquely that of her unborn child.

In response to "Miscarriage in Detroit," her husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, commented that this was one in a series of "masterpieces which had exalted the feminine quality of truth, reality, cruelty and suffering. Never before had a woman put such agonized poetry on canvas as Frida did at this time in Detroit." (See artchive.com for more information on her story.) I had seen reprinted versions of this painting several times, and I even have a reproduction hanging in my office. Needless to say, for years I had enjoyed the painting for its deeply emotional impact, as well as its aesthetic and historical value. In the past, the emotion I had experienced while viewing the painting was derived from the intensely intimate relationship of the artist to the subject matter. In other words, my feelings of sorrow were for Frida, a mournful would-be mother.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I drove down to the Walker Art Center to see the Frida retrospective, hoping to catch a glimpse of this work and some of my other favorite Kahlo oeuvres. After waiting for nearly an hour to enter the show, I was herded in with a sweaty mass of art students, suburban socialites, and art aficionados. As I rounded the bend into the gallery, the energy of the room seemed to suck me into "Miscarriage in Detroit." The other masterpieces blurred into the background and, though I attempted to force myself to read the articulate biography of Frida on the adjacent wall, my eyes continued to drift back to the small canvas of "Miscarriage." For this first time in my relationship with this painting, my viewing was no longer restricted to the artist/painting dynamic. My heart pounded, my eyes welled up. I began to grieve for lost opportunities, deceased family and friends, failed projects, unspoken words. I had never miscarried, so why should this painting feel so real to me, so fitting?

As I left the museum, I felt unburdened. I drove home with a new sense of purpose and a healthy dose of creative energy. In the intense world of commitments, schedules and expectations in which we live, we rarely allow ourselves to grieve. I had pushed all of these events into my long-term memory and covered them with work obligations, travel, and new friendships. Like many, I had become caught up in the daily rituals associated with attending to my marriage, my home, and my career. I had begun to exist on a certain emotional "level" that had allowed me to complete quotidian tasks without much introspection. Unbeknownst to me, I needed to experience Frida's intensely personal portrait in order to live more fully in my own life.

During my drive home from the museum, I thought about my "conversation" with Frida's painting. As I searched for the right term, catharsis came to mind. Aristotle was the first scholar to link the notion of catharsis, a process of cleansing, to the arts. In Politics, his discussion of the arts gestures to the idea that catharsis is located in the theatrical work itself. The action taking place in the work, then, produces an emotional reaction in the audience or viewer. In this context, catharsis only occurs when both elements (work and viewer) are present. Therefore, the potential for catharsis is always present in the psyche of the viewer, but it is "tapped," or catalyzed, by the work of art.

This seemed like a satisfactory way of explaining my experience, but I yearned for a more specific definition of catharsis, one that encompassed visual art as well. I revisited a 1925 article by Vygotsky entitled "Art as Catharsis." Vygotsky explains "that artistic enjoyment is not pure perception, but that it requires the highest psychic activity. Artistic emotions are not collected by the psyche as if they were a handful of seeds thrown into a bag. They require a process of germination and growth." (Read "Art as Catharsis" here.)

This idea of germinating, or taking time, resonated with my experience at the Frida exhibition. I had "lived" with this painting in my psyche for years. The history, the process, the aesthetics had all been firmly lodged in my fertile memory. By the time I arrived at the Walker Art Center, the image had been germinating for some time. The moment had come to bear the cathartic fruit. Frida's painting is both generative and restorative. In a beautifully ironic twist, a work about loss and grieving contains the possibility of cleansing, healing, and giving life to those who are fortunate enough to experience it.


"Miscarriage in Detroit" by Frida Kahlo, Henry Ford Hospital, 1932. Oil on metal. 12 13/16 x 15 13/16 in (32.5 x 40.2 cm). Part of the Collection Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño, Mexico City. © 2007 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust.

For more on Aristotle and the arts, I recommend Gerald F. Else's Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument.

For more biographic and artistic information on Frida Kahlo, I recommend Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera and Devouring Frida: The Art History and Popular Celebrity of Frida Kahlo by Margaret A. Lindhauer.

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