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Kahlo’s Cracked Column

By Noigroup HQ Science and the world 05 Jul 2013

Frida Kahlo

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


  1. Two years ago, the Philadelphia Academy of Art had a special show devoted to her work. It overwhelmed me. I could barely make it through the show. After a day of treating patients and then a marvelous and huge collection of her and her husbands work, I was totally wasted. It was such an odd mental experience to go through. My mirror neurons and all of my synaptic patterns developed from years studying and treating pain left me a neural wreck. I have not seen the movie ( I do not if I could), but the intensity and the metaphors of the emotional and physical experiences she lived are vividly represented in her work. Pain is really in the mind. I felt hers that evening. It was an exhausting but eye opening experience to how remarkable our brains are and how amazing that neural network is in representing and understanding the hurt of others. Johnb

  2. This is a fascinating article. I am really interested in the way that expressive art (dance, music, drawing, writing, etc.) can be used to help people deal better with chronic pain. I have already started using relaxation therapy with positive results and will soon start a group in which more expressive techniques can be used as well.

    Frida has always intrigued me. It is interesting to look at her paintings in a scientific way and note the way in which she was in touch with her pain/body – without it necessarily crippling her (like you mentioned, the dualism present). It is interesting however that you use the word “dualism”. I have often found that patients are sometimes disconnected to their bodies – and that integration (non-dualism) is needed for them to heal.

    I wonder how this worked for Frida? It seems that she was very connected to her body…perhaps some transcendental state that was achieved through her art….as you said – she gained higher insight.

  3. davidboltononoi

    What can I say other than this article brought tears to my eyes. Your insight into ” The meaning of pain” gives me hope for us all. You seem to have truly embodied the knowledge you hold into your soul. Lets hope we can all evolve to that place of unconscious competence that you have reached. My humble advice to each and everyone one of us is ” Read this article again and again until
    You get it”. It’s embodies the complete encyclopaedia of our present knowledge and, most importantly applies it !
    Big big hug
    David x

  4. Thanks for all the comments – David, I am a long long way from unconscious competence! – I think I specialise in conscious incompetence a lot of the time.
    I think society has been unconsciously incompetent in dealing with the Frida Kahlo story, particularly with the therapeutic potential of her art for chronic pain sufferers.


  5. timbeames0noi

    Great post Dave. I have experienced a number of people disillusioned by the lack of interest of medical practitioners when they have shown them their depiction of their pain experience through drawings/art. I have found that it is not only revealing for me as a therapist but also perhaps gives some understanding as to why their pain persists when the perception of their self is so radically altered.

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