Mortal candor in honor of divine assistance
WELLESLEY — This alarming, macabre, and swarmingly beautiful picture shows an upper-class Mexican woman undergoing breast cancer surgery in the late 18th century. She’s cradled by a monk, attended to by a surgeon and his assistant, and surrounded by her household retinue. The room is elaborately furnished with lavish wallpaper, a patterned rug, a decorated folding screen affording privacy, and a private altar surrounded by an array of religious images.
The picture, acquired by the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College in 2003, is an ex-voto — a devotional painting commemorating a miraculous incident in the life of the person who commissioned it (in this case, the woman). Ex-votos might memorialize a divinely assisted rescue from calamity, or a cured illness.
So many things about the picture astonish and intrigue. The subject matter, to begin with: Its candor is arresting. Surgery can’t have been pleasant in the 18th century. This picture, with its waterfalls of blood and grotesquely severed tissue, makes that abundantly clear. In the days before anesthetic, not even wealth — which this woman evidently enjoyed — could protect you from the agonies inflicted by the scalpel.
To have these horrors depicted in such a dizzyingly ornate and feminine setting is strange indeed. The disparate patterns on altar cloth, rug, wall, folding screen, bedspread, and dresses all compete for attention, like one of Matisse’s hyperventilating Nice interiors. The picture’s optical intensity is reinforced by the hypnotic color key: clashing reds and pinks of shifting character set off by cooler blues and white.
The picture’s provenance is almost as interesting as its subject matter and style. It was acquired in Mexico in 1938 by André Breton, the French poet and leader of the Surrealists.
The communist Breton had traveled to Mexico to champion the cause of Surrealism and to meet with Leon Trotsky (who had been granted asylum by the Mexican government). He stayed, as did Trotsky, with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. (Trotsky had an affair with Kahlo.)
Breton praised Kahlo’s work for its “innate’’ Surrealism. But then, Breton found Mexico itself innately Surrealist. And having collected on his trip folk art, Day of the Dead toys, photography, and other examples of native art, he returned to Paris and organized an exhibition, “Mexique.’’
That show, held in 1939, included this painting. It was intended to provide historical context for Kahlo’s highly personal and psychologically disruptive work. In an article about Mexico published in the magazine “Minotaure’’ around the same time, Breton reproduced it alongside similarly dramatic works from the 19th century, reinforcing his tendentious take on Mexico as a bizarre and violent place. (Deplorable, unless you happen to have read the news lately.)
While Breton’s interest in the painting is fascinating, he should not be allowed to have the final word. For the real story the picture tells is one of fear, piety, and mortality. The text framed by the lavish rococo border at the bottom of the painting describes gratitude on the part of woman for the successful removal of six cancerous tumors from her breast.
In smaller text, another caption was added a short time later: “Although the wound closed perfectly on the 26th July, 1777, other accidents befell her from which she died on Friday, the 5th of September, at 3 p.m.’’
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.