SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT ABOUT BLANCHARD'S CURVATURE OF THE SPINE: With an Assist from Maria Bonnett

This week, I have settled in to watch the new hour-long Spanish documentary on Maria Blanchard.* It is a typical talking-heads treatment of a famous, historic personage, interspersed with footage of Paris in the early 1900s. But such heads as are talking there!Top Spanish art critics, curators, writers, and relatives, friends, friends of relatives and relatives of friends—for example, Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe Rivera, goes on at length about the complex relationship between her father and Blanchard.

Among this cast of talkers is a doctor who puts a lie to the oft-repeated story that Maria’s disability was caused by her mother’s fall from a horse. I myself, much to my own current chagrin to the point of teeth-gnashing, repeated this story in my writings about Blanchard. I first read this fabulation in Lorca’s elegy but passed it on as I had found it over and over in more recent biographies of the artist. Early on in the film, positioned in front of many x-rays of human spines, Dr. Jose Ramon Rodriguez Altonaga begins, “No es la verdad….” ("It's not the truth") these stories about the cause of her disability. These things may be caused by a variety of factors, he says: it may be congenital, it may be genetic, but no one is to blame.
My terrific friend, Maria Bonnett, had already explained this to me in her gentle Facebook response to my post on my previous Blanchard blog:

I am curious about her disabilities, though. It was said that Maria sustained her injuries when her mother fell while she was pregnant with her. I suspect that wasn't her true diagnosis. Fetal injuries are rare in cases of falls or even car accidents for that matter. Her deformity appears to be more suggestive of osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. Not much was known about this disorder in the early 1900's. At that time, most congenital malformations were blamed on something the mother did during her pregnancy. I hope more research will lead to the discovery of her true illness.

Suddenly, I was struck, recalling my very first lecture class in college, 10 a.m. Monday morning. The professor introduced the subject of autism, reviewing the literature on what the causes had been attributed to previously, beginning with the earliest, when the cause was determined to be…mothers who were cold, unfeeling. He quickly dispensed with that as not the cause and moved on to the more modern analysis, which was, as I recall, “Well, we don’t know.” I learned then and often after that when we don’t know, we blame the mother.
Bonnett is a retired nurse who spent a big chunk of her life birthing babies as a midwife, so she is not only curious about these things, she knows a lot about them. And she knows a lot about looking at art too. She told me that she had spent the afternoon looking at the Blanchard images online. I asked her what term one should use in discussing Maria’s disability. I had used kyphosis, since some people had felt that “hunchback” was disrespectful. But every time I used “kyphosis,” readers had asked, “What’s kyphosis?” Bonnett replied:

Kyphosis is a medical term that defines the outward curvature of the thoracic spine. It is a symptom one sees upon exam, not the disease itself. “Hunchback” is the common term. There are dozens of medical disorders that can cause kyphosis, some genetic, some congenital. Genetic causes stem from improper DNA sequences that caused the spinal deformity. Congenital defects are caused by improper formation during embryo development…. Maria presents with a "constellation" of medical problems. Not only did she have kyphosis, she also had hip dysplasia that limited her ambulation. She was also considered a dwarf, or short stature. This is more in line with a genetic problem with her bones, like osteogenesis imperfecta. But since she never had a true diagnosis, it is just my educated guess. Most of the children born with OI have a triangular shaped face, and her painting is the best clue that is what she had. Look at her self-portrait when she was younger--her face is in the shape of a triangle!

Her mother was probably cold and distant, and I don't think I would blame her. Her mother lived her life being blamed for Maria's deformity. I'm sure this did not help the bonding process between mother and daughter. Maria's mother felt the shame and guilt of creating an imperfect child. This often causes an insurmountable rift between parent and child.


Maria's illness must have caused her great pain. These people struggle daily to do the most routine tasks that we able bodied people take for granted. Her painting, "Boy with ice cream" says it all.


I look at the boy- happy, carefree, munching on his treat. I see the little girl behind the cart, reaching with great effort to get some of the sweetness of life. A crutch is on the floor in the foreground. How telling!

The painting certainly is telling and insofar as it is, it represents one of the reasons I love Blanchard's later work more than the cubistic paintings she produced earlier. I do love her grand cubist painting, Woman with a Fan, which hangs in the Queen Sofia Museum, a floor above Picasso’s Guernica and next to a Rivera cubist painting. Woman with a Fan is about image, about women, about Spain and women of Spain, about cubism and all its theories about time and motion. It has made me think a lot about my own history and the history of the women of my country. I love it. But her later paintings of mothers and children, the girl with the toothache, the boy with the ice cream cone, those paintings seem to me more about people and their stories, which I tend to love more. As my friend Maria Bonnett puts it, they are “telling.” They have a lot to tell us, and I am keeping my eyes and ears wide open to see and hear what Blanchard’s are telling me, what they can tell us all.
 
(*The film, titled 26, Rue Du Depart: Erase una vez en Paris, is subtitled "A documentary about the life and work of Maria Blanchard." It is written, directed, and produced by Gloria Crespo MacLennan.)