This book is a chance encounter. I’m not a fan of Frida Kahlo’s painting, from the few I’ve seen mainly in books, and I didn’t know the first thing about Diego Rivera, when on the art shelves of our local library I noticed this tiny paperback among huge painting books, and Le Clezio’s name attracted me. I didn’t know Le Clezio, a French fiction writer, ever wrote a biography, nor that he had any particular interest in art or in Mexico. I was ready for a little experiment: a book about art without pictures. Imagining paintings before (or without) seeing them at all.
Le Clezio has focused on Diego and Frida’s love relationship and manages to balance both portraits, not making one more important than the other, and not taking sides in their complicated marriage. It’s rather significant because I feel that Frida Kahlo has become a feminist icon of some sort, and I’d heard only of Frida through movies, without understanding that her husband was an artist at least as important as her.
Frida and Diego were opposite and complementary, like the legendary father and mother of the world in Mexican mythology. While Frida was an introvert, Diego turned outside. Frida was frail and tiny and couldn’t bear a child despite her desperate and life-threatening efforts – Diego on the other hand was huge, looked a bit like a bear and couldn’t resist women’s attraction. Frida’s love for Diego was all-encompassing, necessary and sufficient, while Diego couldn’t be the man of only one woman, even though he really loved Frida. From the start you can tell that those two were in for a tough ride, but art united them. And love. And the Revolution.
I had not been aware of the Mexican revolution of 1910 at all, and very little of the far-reaching ripple effects of the Soviet revolution of 1917 in this part of the world. I remembered from history class that Trotsky had been killed in Mexico, and I’d found it odd at that time (I’d assumed he wanted to be as far from Moscow as possible). So I was very surprised to learn that he had lived at Frida and Diego’s place for a while, and even had an affair with her, while Frida had hoped to arouse Diego’s jealousy.
After I finished the book, I remembered Nancy Huston’s Journal of the Creation, where she analyzed the difficulties for women artists to balance their lives as a creator with that of a wife and / or a mother. Frida was desperate to have a child – partly, I understand, to embody her passion for Diego. Who knows how she would have painted if she had managed to give birth. But it seems from Le Clezio’s book that Frida was not so productive in her own paintings when Diego felt at the top of his art and made his controversial murals in the US. It might be because Frida didn’t feel comfortable in the US, but it strikes me that she finally built herself a life as a painter when she decided to be independent from Diego, living apart in her own blue house. Maybe I have misunderstood, and some may argue that she was more miserable than during the first years of marriage. But at least she had found a way to preserve her art and her tumultuous love.
A few days after I turned the last page of this book, I found myself at the art bookshop in the Louvres, and I leafed through a huge art book about Diego Rivera’s murals. It was funny to at last visualize the paintings I’d read about. Le Clezio has done a good job describing them. It was not completely as I’d imagined them, but I rather enjoyed the crowds, the modernity and the heavy, yet generous volumes.
ETA: The image is from the Diego Rivera Mural Project that presents amazing details and explanations on this mural in San Francisco.