Sunday, 17 July 2011


'Ex voto' is a religious term referring to the offering of a personal or symbolic item in gratitude for some deliverance, often in fulfilment of a vow to a god or saint. Thus one might have prayed for a cure, or for a happy outcome, and when the cure or happy outcome came, make a pilgimage to a shrine in order to give thanks and offer a momento or present to the god or saint. Ex-voto objects have included a tin hat, scarred with a bullet, that saved the life of a soldier. The highly stylised ex-votos in Roman Catholic Latin America are well known.

How, you might ask, does this subject come to my attention?

Well, yesterday I went to Chichester, and during the afternoon I popped into the Pallant House Gallery to see what was new. The Frida Kahlo exhibition was on. This talented and rather strange lady of Mexican background but mixed parentage was a superb painter in a distinctive style that emphasised her odd looks in the the name of truth, and paid no homage to conventional perceptions of female glamour. So no Hollywood air-brushing here. Fully one third of her paintings were self-portraits, and in them we see a woman who was unafraid to show her sallow complexion, her over-active facial hair, and the unbeautiful, and rather unsettling mannish planes of her face. And yet she was not without lovers; and was long married to a devoted but unfaithful husband who was a famous painter in his own right, Diego Rivera.

Here are shots of three of those self-portraits:

All three photos: © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

She had poor health always. Polio when a child, which left her right leg thinner than her left. Then there was a horrific accident when still in her teens. On September 17, 1925 [this information is from Wikipedia]  Kahlo was riding in a bus when the vehicle collided with a trolley car. She suffered serious injuries as a result of the accident, including a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. Also, an iron handrail pierced her abdomen and her uterus, which seriously damaged her reproductive ability. The accident left her in a great deal of pain while she spent three months recovering in a full body cast. Although she recovered from her injuries and eventually regained her ability to walk, she had relapses of extreme pain for the remainder of her life. The pain was intense and often left her confined to a hospital or bedridden for months at a time. She had as many as thirty-five operations as a result of the accident, mainly on her back, her right leg, and her right foot. The injuries also prevented Kahlo from having a child because of the medical complications and permanent damage. All three pregnancies had to be terminated.

And the ex-voto bit? There is a self-portrait - it was in the exhibition at Chichester - showing her upright by a hospital bed after yet another miscarriage. She is alive, but her baby is dead. The baby is not shown. In its place is a symbol, a large naked doll. A completely inadequate and artificial substitute for the child who never was. The painting gives thanks to God for deliverance for the woman who is a gifted painter and an honest feminist but cannot be a mother.

And the relevance to my situation?

Have I not been delivered, though not without loss or payment? Am I not thankful to be alive, when I was dead before? Do I not have an inner urge to thank someone or something for my answered prayers, or their equivalent?

And the difference? I move in a world without gods, and there is nobody to appeal to, or to thank, or anyone to save me. But I can still feel.

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