In her portrait of Dr. Leo Eloesser, Frida pays homage to a man who played an important role in her life as doctor and confidante. Although Diego had met Leo as early as 1926, Frida met him for the first time in San Francisco where he lived. He led a fascinating life. He was the chief thoracic surgeon at San Francisco General Hospital and Professor of Surgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine as well as a musician, sailor, and leftist, who spent his life helping the poor and underserved populations around the world. His ability to speak several languages helped him as he traveled the globe. It's easy to see why Frida and Leo would have hit it off. It was a significant relationship for Frida on many levels, but one is that he was sympathetic to her physical and emotional pain. This, according to neuroscientist David Linden, is important, but if your doctor touches you, for example, on your arm to express concern, then you're going to feel healthier. Dr. Linden notes, in his new book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, that doctors who touch their patients are rated as more caring. Also, these patients have reduced hormone stress levels and better medical outcomes. This reveals the power of touch, and certainly, Frida would have experienced this with Dr. Eloesser because he was a good friend. In fact, on the little model boat Frida depicted in the painting, she inscribed "Los Tres Amigos" (The 3 Friends), to convey the friendship between her, Diego, and Leo.
In The Broken Column painted thirteen years later while in Mexico, Frida shows the physical and emotional pain she endures due to her broken spinal column, which resulted from the bus accident she experienced at age eighteen. She created this painting shortly after one of the many surgeries she underwent throughout her life. As we can see from the painting, she had to wear a brace afterwards to help her spine heal. It's an incredible depiction of this cycle of physical and emotional pain as we see Frida's body broken apart like the ground behind her and tears dotting her face. But, what fascinates me is how she places nails in her skin. Many scholars have pointed out how Frida's self-portrait of suffering connects to images of Christ. I think Frida was definitely referencing such images, but after hearing Dr. Linden interviewed about his book on touch, I'm also seeing how Frida's use of nails penetrating the skin conveys visually her experience of tactile sensation. If I understand Dr. Linden, our skin has sensors that allow us to experience a range of touch sensations and these tactile sensations are transmitted from our skin to the spinal chord and the brain, which then integrates and processes this information in regions known as the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices. Through this process, our brain determines if they are pleasant or painful sensations. Frida conveys this in her painting: the nails create the look and feel of tactile sensation, the spinal column, in the form of a classical column, receives the unpleasant tactile sensation because it is broken, and Frida's facial expression and tears show how the tactile sensation has been processed by the brain as pain.
Of course, in real life, Frida's broken column was the result of the accident, but when she created this painting, she'd just had surgery and clearly, it didn't provide her with the relief she was seeking. She needed to convey her physical pain visually and chose nails piercing the skin as the vehicle through which she could show the endless loop of physical and emotional pain. Even though Frida was fascinated by medicine, I don't think this detailed information about how we process tactile sensations was known in the 1940s. To me, this painting reveals that Frida understood this process because she lived it.
It's too bad that Dr. Eloesser didn't make Mexico City his home in the 1930s and 1940s because maybe his empathetic touch could have helped Frida to heal.
© Celia S. Stahr 2015