Strong, intelligent, passionate and creative. There are many adjectives that are used today to describe the figure of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who gained immortality through her art.
She was an extraordinary woman in terms of strength and vitality, who loved life and shared the ideals of the socialist revolution against the oppression of capitalism. In Mexico capitalism took the form of the American imperialist yoke.
Talking about Kahlo, we refer almost exclusively to her more intimate art and inwardness. She is credited with a vibrant expression of her suffering, dreams and desires. She was able to lay bare to her deepest essence, painting it with great skill and eloquence. However, this is not the only aspect of her art, although it certainly remains the predominant one.
Mexico in the first half of the twentieth century was home to strong class conflict. During the revolution of 1910, peasants tried to overthrow the dictatorship of General Porfirio Díaz and install a peasant democracy based on collectivising the land.
The country was divided between a tiny elite of super-rich landowners, and the vast majority – some urban workers, but overwhelmingly poor peasants and farm labourers. The few common lands that were still in the hands of the Mexican population at large were constantly threatened by the thirst of the expansionist owners of the ‘haciendas’, the large estates.
In this climate, there was a strong desire for social justice, and the will to fight against a feudal system that relegated the majority of the population to misery and exploitation. The poor peasants and labourers were overwhelmingly natives, children of the Latin American peoples who had suffered for centuries under the oppression of Western imperialism, first Spanish and then north American.
The 1910 revolution didn’t produce a socialist government. But the climate of class struggle, the need to overcome social inequality, pervaded society. This included a kind of left-wing nationalist sentiment in opposition to Western imperialism, and its descendants in the Mexican ruling class. This climate of polarisation led, in the 1940s, to President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río’s reform project – taking the example of the Soviet Union.
In this atmosphere, Frida Kahlo was born and raised. She absorbed the ideals of social justice and the struggle for a world free of inequality, imperialist oppression, and the unbridled exploitation by capitalism of people and resources.
Although she was born in 1907, Kahlo often said she came into the world on 7 July 1910, the fateful day when Emiliano Zapata began his revolution to liberate Mexico from the dictatorship of General Díaz. Daughter of a decade of revolution, she claimed that she and modern Mexico were ‘born together’. She joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1928, and actively participated in Mexican political life. During that time she met Diego Rivera.
The pair were married twice, and had a tumultuous personal life. Rivera was another of the most important figures on the political and artistic scene in post-revolutionary Mexico.
Rivera was a famous painter and muralist. His works dealt with social issues internationally. His murals tell the history of the Mexican indigenous peoples, and carry a political message of support for the class struggle and socialist revolution.
He also created the mural for the lobby of the Rockefeller Centre in New York, still under construction at that time for the billionaire Nelson Rockefeller. The theme was “men between two choices, trying to choose a better future and a new vision” – chosen by Rockefeller himself.
Rivera took this work seriously. He worked 15 hours a day in order to finish the mural by 1 May, International Workers’ Day, in 1934.
The fresco was called ‘El hombre controlador del universo’ – Man, controller of the universe – also known as ‘El Hombre en el cruce de caminos’ – Man at the crossroads. It depicts a man in the centre of a crossroads between capitalism, based on the exploitation of man by man, and on the other side the prospect of a genuine socialist society, in which the distribution of the world’s wealth would be under the democratic control of the majority. The socialist part of the wall included Lenin, Trotsky, Marx and Engels at the head of a May Day march.
Rockefeller was scandalised. Rivera was sacked, and the mural destroyed. Rivera commented that millions of Americans now knew that the richest man in the country had ordered an artwork destroyed because of the face of a man named Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leading the oppressed masses towards a new social order.
It should however be pointed out that, although Rivera considered that art should have social and revolutionary significance, in his political life there were many shadows. Among them was his expulsion from the Mexican Communist Party after agreeing to create murals on commission for the reactionary Mexican government – in exchange for significant compensation.
Animated by the same love for painting and involvement in socialist ideals, Kahlo also included in her art elements of social commentary, and the rediscovery of indigenous Mexican traditions. These include, for example, ‘Autorretrato en la frontera entre Mexico y los Estados Unidos’ – Self-portrait at the border between Mexico and the United States. In this she expresses a personal anxiety about being pulled away from Mexico. But there is also an element of analysis of the relationship between the two countries. On one side, Mexico – her birthplace, where she still lived in contact with nature, but crumbling. On the other, the United States – gleaming, the largest capitalist power in the world, made of concrete, industry – and pollution.
Very important in the lives of Kahlo and Rivera were the arrivals in 1937 of Russian socialist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, and French anarchist poet André Breton. Rivera’s intervention had helped Trotsky obtain asylum. Trotsky was chased by the governments of all Europe, and was also fleeing Stalinist assassins. In January, he moved in, with his wife Natalia Sedova, as a permanent guest at the Blue House, Kahlo’s family home.
In April of the same year, the surrealist Breton arrived in Mexico. One of the most important products of their meeting was the drafting of the ‘Manifesto for an independent revolutionary art’. In this they argued for the full freedom of art, in opposition to the repression of artists by capitalist states, and also the parties of the Communist International. That latter repression reflected the cultural degeneration of the Soviet Union into a totalitarian regime under the control of the Stalinist bureaucracy.
Freedom of expression is central to the art of Frida Kahlo. Her paintings were often projections of the physical and emotional suffering endured by the artist. But that never applied any kind of brake or filter to her creativity.
She began painting after having been a victim in a serious car accident at the age of 18. This left her immobilised in bed for many years. She had to undergo 32 operations during her lifetime. When asked why the theme of the self was so present in her works, she responded by saying that she painted her reality, the person with whom she was in contact every day and she knew best.
Another important aspect of her art was her interest in the pre-Columbian civilisations and the history of the people of Mexico. Kahlo showed her ties with Mexico and its people through the traditional, colourful clothes of the Mexican community that she loved to wear.
Today, her image is reproduced and offered as a ‘brand’. Kahlo has been reduced to a commercial icon. You see her on shirts, bags, in fashion magazines; on cups and pillows – there are also entire collections of jewellery inspired by her.
This phenomenon is part of the more general problem of the relationship between art and the profit-based society we live in. It is clear that today it is very difficult to produce an independent and completely free art, especially if you want to make this your profession.
The massive intervention into art of the distorting profit dynamic is inevitable as long as you live in a capitalist society. It is also one of the means by which the ruling super-rich class influences culture and ideas in its favour. This includes filtering the artistic community on a material basis. Those who don’t have the wealth to study, or buy the tools they need, or work for little or no pay to become established, are excluded from the possibility of making a full artistic contribution to society, regardless of potential. Moreover, socially engaged art that denounces the contradictions of capitalism is discouraged, if not always openly opposed.
Today, the largest joint exhibits of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s work have generally put Kahlo in the role of undisputed star, while Rivera seems to be secondary. Kahlo’s works examine inner life and exalt individuality. Rivera’s often express a stronger political message: struggle against capitalist exploitation. Trotsky himself wrote: “Do you wish to know what revolutionary art is like? Look at the frescoes of Rivera.” It seems likely this emphasis in exhibits is dictated in part by class interests. I raise this not as a criticism of Kahlo’s extremely important work, but as an effort to critically highlight the pointed use of her art by the ruling class.
It is unfortunately true, however, that Kahlo and Rivera later accepted Stalinism. Many across the world also supported Stalinism at this time, looking for some kind of substantial alternative to capitalism and imperialism, however grotesque and distorted.
But in spite of this, Kahlo was a woman and an artist full of life and passion, who wanted to fight all injustice with fervour and determination. She is rightly presented as an example of strength and women’s empowerment. Love and passion never abandoned her, even in the last days of her life. At the age of 47 years, immobilised by excruciating pain in her spine, she painted her last painting. It is a still life of ripe watermelons. A slice at the bottom has the painting’s title carved into its red flesh: the words ‘Viva la vida’ – long live life.
By Valeriya Parkhomenko