In Catherine Reef’s 2014 dual biography, Frida and Diego: Art, Love, Life, we find several fascinating stories woven tightly together — the swell of cultural pride in early 20th century Latin America, a legendary and fiery love story, a chronicle of artistic passion and its fulfillment, a sweeping historical and political drama. All of this is presented with plenty of context in a simple narrative that is clear, informative, and upbeat.
Reef’s focus shifts seamlessly between the lives of Rivera and Kahlo and intertwines when they are together.
Kahlo in many ways is a tragic figure, having spent much of her life in tremendous physical and emotional pain. She contracted polio at the age of 6, though her father insisted afterward that she remain athletic. Then, in 1925, when she was 18, Kahlo was riding a city bus in her Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacán when the bus collided with a streetcar. Her right leg was fractured in eleven places and a handrail was thrust into her pelvis. It was during her lengthy convalescence that she took up oil painting and was largely self-taught.
Rivera, two decades her senior, followed a more typical course as an art student, studying the European tradition and living for a time in Paris where he knew Picasso and painted in a mannered Cubist style. His early discovery of the popular prints of José Guadalupe Posada and growing national pride helped shift his interests and style in the direction of Mexican folk art.
As Kahlo described his work, Rivera had imagined an ideal world, “a great fiesta in which each and every being takes part…a fiesta of form, of color, of movement, of sound.”
His outsized personality spilling over from the sections where he appears, Rivera is a vigorous atheist in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, a prominent communist consistently at odds with the party’s leadership, an enormously popular artist both in his own country and in the U.S. who nonetheless clashes constantly with his patrons.
Though Rivera is perhaps the more widely known artist for his epic murals celebrating working class life and technological progress, Kahlo here emerges as a virtuoso of the introspective, her arresting, highly stylized self-portraits reflecting her tumultuous emotional life.
Rivera would write of Kahlo that she was “in the earth and in matter, thunder, lightning and the light rays.”
Their marriage was highly unusual and the subject may put some sensitive readers off. Rivera conducted serial extramarital affairs, including one with Kahlo’s sister. Early in their marriage, it was Rivera’s ex-wife, Lupe Marin, who helped the young Kahlo learn to cook.
Kahlo, too, was unfaithful, with Soviet exile Leon Trotsky, among others. She and Rivera were divorced in 1939, but remarried a year later, this time with an agreement that, though they would share the Coyoacán home where Kahlo had been born and raised, there would be no physical intimacy. As she wrote to her friend and physician, Dr. Leo Eloesser, she had learned that “life is this way and the rest is painted bread.”
Reef is straightforward about both artists’ warm embrace of international communism. Though he was highly critical of Josef Stalin in the 1930s and encouraged the Mexican president to grant asylum to Stalin’s rival, Trotsky, during the latter’s exile, Rivera came later to portray Stalin as a hero and peacemaker. The author ascribes the shift to the politics of the Mexican Communist Party, though many readers may find it difficult to reconcile with Stalin’s record.
As with any great artist, what stands out most of all, for both Kahlo and Rivera, is the work.
The book concludes with a section of beautifully reproduced prints and brief explanatory notes about a half dozen paintings by each artist, in addition to an extensive bibliography and source notes, a timeline, and a list of museums in both Mexico and the U.S. which display works by Kahlo and Rivera. (If you’re in the Washington D.C. area, a walking field trip from McPherson Square to the National Gallery could take in several of the works presented here, some of them housed in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as the Archives of American Art.)
Hassett is librarian at Luther Jackson Middle School in Fairfax County.
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