Back in 2018, I took a trip to London with my dear friend J. to visit the Frida Kahlo exhibition “Making Her Self Up” at the V&A Museum. Kahlo is an artist whose life and work I find endlessly fascinating, and I’ve read much about her over the years. So when Notting Hill Editions revealed they were publishing a new work by Emily Rapp Black entitled “Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg”, I was very intrigued; the collision of one of my favourite artists and one of my favourite publishers was always going to be intriguing!

Rapp Black is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a school nurse, and her childhood was dominated by her health; born with a congenital birth defect that resulted in the amputation of her left leg, her essay/memoir explores that experience, how it’s affected her over the years and how she’s drawn on her emotional connection with Frida Kahlo during her life.

Frida painted her corsets to be objects of beauty, even after her body was rent like a garment of grief, even after her back collapsed, even after her leg was gone. She was playful with her pain; she adorned it, advertised it, knowing that there is no story that stops death.

Rapp Black has been an amputee for the bulk of her life; Kahlo became one during her final years. Yet Rapp Black senses a kinship between them, and in the book she explores Kahlo’s life and experiences through her art, her letters, her diaries and her relationships. It’s not hard to understand how Kahlo can be so inspirational; she survived a bout of childhood polio, and then the most shocking, devastating injuries during a bus crash. It’s really unbelievable that she made it through that (I winced being reminded of just how horrible the effects were) and went on to live the full life she did – although she was never able to bear children. But Kahlo had to deal with medical intervention all through her life, as has Rapp Black, so it’s clear that Frida was a touchstone and an inspiration.

As well as relating her experiences exploring Kahlo’s life and work, Rapp Black also tells the story of the life and death of her young son Ronan to Tay-Sachs disease. This is a rare degenerative condition I hadn’t heard of before, and Ronan’s life story is absolutely heart-breaking. This element of the book made powerful and emotional reading, and I can’t imagine being able to cope with this kind of loss. During parts of the writing of the book, Rapp Black was pregnant with her daughter, Charlie, and it’s a joy to know her daughter came safely into the world.

The parts of the book where Rapp Black related her own experiences as an amputee were hard-hitting and something of an eye-opener. When she was growing up the technology providing prosthetics was primitive, involving wood and leather straps, and it’s telling (and a little shocking) that it’s taken the involvement of the USA in several wars to enable the provision of modern artificial limbs for amputees. What’s also shocking is the attitudes which Rapp Black has had to deal with over the years, from the nasty to the unthinking to the just-plain-ignorant. I hope I would never have behaved as badly as some of the people she’s encountered, but I will certainly always now try to be sensitive in my dealings.

Throughout “Frida Kahlo…” Rapp Black is fascinated by the artefacts of Kahlo’s life: her corsets, her clothing, her casts. The book, naturally therefore, culminates with Rapp Black visiting the same exhibition as I did in 2018, and seeing all of the personal effects from Kahlo’s life, from the dresses to her combs, and of course the casts and her artificial leg. The exhibition was incredibly moving and Rapp Black’s response to it is profound; to be confronted with the physical presence of the person to whom you’ve related and drawn inspiration from over the years is a one-off experience. Rapp Black’s take on Kahlo is a robust one, refusing to see her as a victim or in any way deficient, and objecting to her life and art being defined only by her pain. Certainly, if you look at the many photos of a confident, smiling, happy Frida, you have to agree.

A woman is embodied, and she is judged accordingly. We want to think that we are beyond this, that we are more than our bodies, but, in the end, we are not. We are both easily reduced to the sum of our parts, but sometimes we are reduced only to our parts. As a woman who wears a permanent machine, I still feel this acutely.

The book closes with Rapp Black seemingly reaching a point of understanding and reconciliation with her body, with which she’s always had a complex relationship. Moving from a point of dreaming of miracle cures and wanting to be so-called ‘normal’, to a place of acceptance, has been a long and often excrutiating journey. “Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg” is a beautiful, devastating and unforgettable book and one I’m so glad I’ve read.

(Review copy kindly provided by the published, for which many thanks! As usual, this is a beautiful, cloth-covered NHE hardback with lovely paper and bookmark, and comes with several full colour illistrations of Kahlo’s art and clothing. The book is released, I believe, on 15th June.)