Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black (Notting Hill Editions 2021)
Reviewed by Melissa Greenwood
Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is an essay collection by Emily Rapp Black that follows two female artists for whom “create or die” and “laugh or die” are important mottos. These artists, Frida Kahlo and Rapp Black herself, live through their share of heartache. They know that art is survival, especially after several “crucible experience[s].” For Kahlo: polio, a “philandering husband,” miscarriages, and a street car crash that is followed by thirty-two operations, including one that leaves her an amputee. For Rapp Black: five surgeries during her childhood (a birth defect requires that, at the age of four, her left leg be amputated), two divorces, and the loss of her first child—her nearly three-year-old son, Ronan—to a terminal illness, Tay Sachs disease.
The book dances around in time and space (Rapp Black is born twenty years almost to the day after Kahlo’s death), but time, in these essays and arguably, in life, is irrelevant; illusory; circuitous. It loops and loops back again. How should one mark time anyway?—by cathedral bells? By the moments before losing a leg; a child?: “One day a leg, the next day it is no longer…one day a mother, the next day no longer.”
In the fourteen chapters, the narrator “walk[s]” together” with Kahlo across time “in all the spaces that unite and divide” them, exploring, in no particular order, topics like: grief; difference; ambition; traction; “broken bod[ies]”—hers, Ronan’s, Kahlo’s; making and unmaking and how one can make even as pain unmakes them; casts, cast-offs, and outcasts; pain and its relationship to art (“art…is necessary…through the pain, not over it, not because of it, and not even despite it”); the body in all of its forms and “mysteries”: normal and nonnormative, whole and disabled, romanticized, fetishized, and reborn.
As readers, we’re presented with these two women—“The Two Emilys. The Two Fridas”—both of whom keep some of their most personal stories to themselves, even as they reveal other parts to us on the canvas and the page: “known and unknown, seen and unseen.” The Two Fridas (Las Dos Fridas) is a painting of Kahlo’s that resonates with Rapp Black, who writes: “There were two sides to hold. Keep the one body hidden; the other, which might have some acceptable parts…may stay in the open…The Two Emilys. Show only the connected body. Keep the separated body hidden from view…Frida, like me, was practiced at the art of hide and reveal.” Rapp Black continues, “For so long I explained to people that it was like having two Emilys, living in two bodies—one for the day” when her prosthesis was on “[and] one for the night—and when I saw The Two Fridas in an art book…I thought ‘yes.’ I thought ‘you see me.’ I thought ‘this is true.’” Through their revelations and silences, they control the narrative—the ways they are perceived—and it’s “a deliberate manipulation” on their part: what to keep “underground…hidden” and what to make visible.
What’s visible is their shared impulse to create: “Still, she painted…still, I wrote,” yet each artist has her own history, motivations, secrets, relationships, and traumas that make her wholly singular—the same and not the same: “a part of me and also separate from me…this body, her body, my body.”By the book’s conclusion, we learn more still about bodies (a word that comes up over and over again like a refrain). Namely, that “Love and bodies come apart,” often “like a cheap Barbie doll”—but also that “Art remains.” Like all of Rapp Black’s work, this is an important and thought-provoking read. I urge you to pick up this tiny treasure, this little red book that will fit in the palm of your hand, today. You’ll finish it in one sitting, and then you’ll thank me.