Frida Kahlo: You are Always with Me. Letters to Mama

You Are Always With Me

You are Always with Me. Letters to Mama 1923-1932 is a collection of 54 letters and postcards written by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) to her mother. This is a translation of the original Spanish-language edition of 2016. They show the strong bond of the young artist and her mother and the formation of one Modern art’s greatest painters. This publication has been timed to coincide with the current exhibition of Kahlo’s art and personal possessions currently on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. For a review of that exhibition, click here.

Frida Kahlo’s father was Guillermo Kahlo (1871-1941), a German immigrant who worked as a photographer. Her mother was Matilde Calderón y González. Born in Oaxaca in 1876, she was mestiza – half Spanish-Mexican, half indigenous Mexican. The distinctiveness of Oaxaca tradition had an influence on Kahlo’s sense of herself, despite her spending most of her life in Mexico City. This appropriation of maternal lineage was reflected in the presence of traditional Oaxacan costumes in her unique fashion choices and in her art.

Kahlo suffered from polio as a youngster and was left with a deformed leg and a lifelong limp. (She may also have had hereditary scoliosis.) Kahlo was close to her father and his favourite child. When young she worked with him in the studio and was frequently his model, which gave her a reason to dress up, sometimes in masculine clothing. She was fascinated by the transformative power of controlling her own image, something that shaped her self-portraiture as a painter.

The earliest letters to her mother are written by Kahlo from her school about her social plans and disciplinary issues. We see her asking for money and excusing her mischievous behaviour at school. The first letter mentions the talk to be given at her school by Diego Rivera. Rivera was a revered artist who had just returned from an extended stay in Europe. Seen as a leader of the Mexican avant-garde, Rivera was an influential figure. When he joined the Communist Party and began a series of public paintings commissioned by the government, he became a key figure in the formation of a group called the Mexican Muralists. The group developed an approach that combined Social Realism with reference to Mexican history and traditional art. Kahlo and Rivera would later start a relationship and marry.

On 17 September 1925 Kahlo was severely injured when the streetcar she was travelling in was involved in an accident. Some passengers were killed and Kahlo was close to death and was left with serious disabilities which required repeated operations. The pain, immobility and distress caused by her conditions and surgery left her reliant on alcohol and pain medication. These early events and influences had a formative impact upon Kahlo as an artist and she sometimes returned to specific events in her life for paintings. A large part of Kahlo’s art is autobiographical but she took pains to frame her experiences in terms of universal subjects of suffering, regret, anger, pride and so forth, frequently drawing parallels to history and religious painting.

In 1929 Kahlo and Rivera married. In late 1930 the couple travelled to San Francisco, where Rivera was commissioned to paint a mural in the Pacific Stock Exchange Luncheon Club. The majority of the letters to her mother come from this period. She is excited to travel outside of Mexico for the first time. She describes her travels in California, unfavourably impressed by the wealth and luxury of the mansions of movie stars in Los Angeles compared to the housing stock inhabited by the poor. Comments on the Chinese immigrants living near her in San Francisco are frequent in the letters. Kahlo was pleased at the kindness shown to her and Rivera by the people she met in San Francisco. “The gringas have liked me very much and they are impressed by the dresses and shawls that I brought with me, my jade necklaces are amazing for them and all the painters want me to pose for their portraits.” She met the luminaries of the art scene in San Francisco and began an affair with Nickolas Muray and (probably) her doctor Leo Eloesser. While it is the case that her journals and private comments display pain caused by Rivera’s infidelities, she also had her own affairs. Their partnership was turbulent but stimulating, with deliberate provocation and selfish libido sporadically driving both Kahlo and Rivera at different times.

Translator and editor, Héctor Jaimes explains that Kahlo’s writing style was idiosyncratic. Her erratic punctuation belied her top-class education. She writes in an apparently unpremeditated way, passing on news and opinions as they occur to her. She obviously presented what she thought her mother wanted and ought to know. She asks after her relatives by name and enquires about their health. Her own health is naturally a topic which comes up repeatedly as she describes Dr Eloesser’s treatment, including endless injections. When she mentions her weight it is always to reassure her mother that she becoming less thin. Kahlo is often more concerned about her mother’s health than her own conditions. Her devotion shines out.

There are glimpses of the darkness of Depression-era USA is a description of a dance marathon that Kahlo observed. “You have no idea how interesting this spectacle was, but the most cruel and stupid; they chain the black people, a woman and a man; there was a woman with a kid in her arms; two died and an unfortunate woman became mad from walking and her husband, instead of exiting the rink, picked up another woman and kept on walking.”

There are many light-hearted moments. She describes parties, outings and airplane journeys. She makes catty comments about the gringas not being pretty and American food being not to her taste. (Not spicy enough for her.) She confesses to being an incompetent cook. Although she mentions in the letters that she is painting, she does not describe the subjects or the thinking behind the pictures. She frequently discusses Rivera’s work – which was supporting them both, with irregular payments going to Kahlo’s family – though gives few details about her husband’s art.

Over 1931 to 1932 she was in New York. Rivera was attending an exhibition of his art and was commissioned to paint murals there. Kahlo felt more at home in New York than San Francisco. She writes of the incomparable treasures of the Metropolitan Museum and watching children play in snowy Central Park. Kahlo was repelled at attending functions held by Rivera’s patron the Rockefellers at a time when the Great Depression had caused homelessness and poverty in New York. She saw the soup lines and beggars daily, something which deepened her commitment to Communism. On 15 September 1932 Matilde died of cancer. The death deprived not only the family of a beloved member but it also deprives us of more letters, including Kahlo’s period in Detroit.

You are Always with Me allows us to see the world through Frida Kahlo’s eyes. This attractive book includes a few well-chosen illustrations would appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in one of the most personal of painters.

 

Frida Kahlo, Héctor Jaimes (ed. and trans.), You are Always with Me: Letters to Mama 1923-1932, Virago, 6 September 2018, hardback, 176pp, col. & mono illus., £20, ISBN 978 0 349 01195 0

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

© 2018 Alexander Adams

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Mexican Communist Art 1920-50

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In the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), the Mexican state started to reconstruct its social structure and establish a consensus. The new political situation entailed the working class of the agrarian nation would be the driving force behind land reform, anti-clericism and other dramatic changes. Communism took on new prominence as a leading force on the political Left following the Russian Revolution.

Compared to other Communist movements, the Communist Party of Mexico or PCM (Fondo Partido Comunista Mexicano) was judged weak in terms of membership and leadership in the early 1920s. Inspired by the example of the Russian Revolution, Mexican Leftists saw art as an important way of spreading the message of the PCM in the early years, be it through art or propaganda. The art would explain the party’s message and attract converts. Leading visual artists who joined the PCM in 1923 were the Muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Xavier Guerrero. The lives and work of the Muralists captured the imaginations of the public and were frequently covered by the newspapers. The artists (especially Rivera) were deemed politically unreliable but useful to the party. They edited the Communist newspaper El Machete for a time. The Mexican governments’ views of the PCM veered from wary collaboration to outright hostility, depending on the party in power. In 1929 the government banned the PCM and closed El Machete, which continued for a while as an underground operation.

Rivera was a problem for the PCM. He was the most prominent Mexican Communist, with an international reputation and wide popular appeal but he was wilfully independent and accepted mural commissions from the government, which was sporadically hostile towards the PCM. When Rivera left the PCM, Frida Kahlo, who was married to Rivera, left the PCM with him. The PCM undertook its other disciplinary procedures, expelling Siqueiros for inappropriate behaviour, risking revealing secret information about the now-banned party, plus various moral and financial infractions. Communist artists subject to hostile government action included Sergei Eisenstein and Tina Modotti, both of whom had to leave the country.

Smith discusses the associated Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR). Like the PCM at this time, LEAR was a banned organisation when it was formed, only later becoming legal. Its journal Frente a Frente included much Leftist and social realist art in the form of prints and photographs by LEAR members. Much visual material was propaganda explicitly dedicated to exulting collectivism and eschewing “the mystique of the individual”. In 1935 LEAR members persuaded the government to unban the PCM, El Machete and LEAR. A 1936 group exhibition of art organised by LEAR included amateur art and even politically sympathetic commentators described the display as a mess and criticised the standard of art. Steering a course between political orthodoxy and artistic accomplishment was an impossible task.

An article in Frente a Frente (May 1935) by Siqueiros was critical of Rivera’s Rockefeller Center fresco (1934). It led to a public debate between the artists later that year. They were divided on the appropriateness of murals as a revolutionary art form. Siqueiros – perhaps piqued by Rivera’s greater success – averred that murals were overrated as a political tool and that art should be international in character and closer to Socialist Realism than Rivera’s hybrid, which incorporated Modernism and native Mexican art. Rivera asserted that he wished to record the beauty and individuality of Mexican life in his art and that this was not incompatible with Communist principles. Siqueiros was pro-Stalin and Rivera pro-Trotsky. Deep enmities remained between the two painters for years afterwards.

Siqueiros became so involved in politics that he neglected art. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, as did Modotti. Rivera played a pivotal role in arranging for Trotsky’s successful petition for political asylum in Mexico. Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1937 and lived in the Riveras’ guest house for a time. Despite public and private support between the men, there were political tensions. Ultimately, Trotsky and Rivera’s alliance ended due to political differences in early 1939. Siqueiros and artists Luis Arenal and Antonio Pujol worked with NKVD in a plot to kill Trotsky. On the night of 24 May 1940 the trio broke into Trotsky’s house, failed to find the elderly dissident and – apparently inadvertently – injured his grandson. Months later an unrelated individual assassinated Trotsky.

Smith covers the founding of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (the Popular Graphic Art Workshop; TGP) in 1937 without noting that this not simply an outgrowth of LEAR but an extension of a long-existing strand of popular Mexican art, namely social engagement of artists through the portrayal of the life of ordinary Mexicans via cheap and widely distributed graphic art. This uniquely Mexican blend of biting satire, political agitation and social realism – sometimes printed in newspapers – traced its origins to the iconic prints of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). TGP proved to be one of the world’s most enduring, influential and successful artist collectives in history, producing high-quality art distributed widely, fostering international connections and displaying a broadly united front on social issues. Aesthetically, it was hobbled by its commitment to realism – technically, in its founding principles, “art [that] must reflect the social reality of the times”. However, considering the political priorities of the TGP, that position could hardly have been avoided. Ultimately, it was the rigid anti-abstraction stance and limitations on artistic and commercial freedom which undid TGP as a significant force in the arts, though it exists to this day. For my review of artists working in the TGP see here.

Perhaps the most valuable service the FCM, TGP, LEAR and their various publications achieved in the arts was to present a warning of the dangers of fascism and raising funds for the Spanish anti-Falangists. Later, their activities would help the refugees who fled the fall of Spain and Nazi-occupied Europe.

The author has based her studies upon access to Mexican secret service files and internal papers of the PCM, LEAR and TGP, allowing her to present new information on major figures in the fine arts. However, the book has shortcomings. Considering the lack of published research based on primary sources, we would have benefitted from more economic data. For example, what was the commercial value of producing oil paintings for private collectors compared to painting murals for the state or issuing editions of cheap prints for ordinary people? What was the private market for oil paintings at the time? Roughly how much money did prominent artists make from state-subsidised work? On the political side, what did artists write in diaries and letters about politics in art and did that contrast with manifestoes they signed and their public activities? More space devoted to summarising such findings would have been valuable. While we do get to understand some of the political dynamics, economic context is sometimes hazy.

Considering her previous specialisation in the field, Smith is commendably restrained on the issue of gender politics. In this book, we see that Smith is sensitive to gender politics of the Communist movement in Mexico in this era but she wisely partitions her subjects and makes no hyperbolic claims. Overall, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico is an intelligent, accessible and well-judged account of an important aspect of Mexican art in the period 1920-50.

 

Stephanie J. Smith, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico, University of North Carolina Press, 2017, paperback, 288pp, 12 half-tone illus., $29.95, ISBN 978 1 4696 3568 2

© 2018 Alexander Adams