& Diego Rivera Essay, Research Paper
The work of Frida Kahlo often labeled and defined as feminist art continues to describe and establish what feminist art is. Wife of the well known and highly regarded Diego Rivera, Frida struggled to become an artist in her own right. Her extremely passionate love for and devotion to her husband manifested itself in an unusual manner in their already unconventional and unique marriage. However it is partly this obsession with Diego that helped motivate her own success as a feminist artist. Her passionate political and revolutionary spirit resonates in the subjects of her paintings as she herself states, “I want my work to be a contribution to the struggle of the people for peace and liberty.” (Herrera p.263). She confronts her pain and suffering and openly exposes herself in her work. Essentially Kahlo’s work includes and encompasses all of the theories and themes discussed in Art History 466. Pain and suffering, active political and social awareness are present in her paintings, and most importantly an acute awareness of the power of the feminine and of feminist art is prevalent as well. The passionate, seductive and exotic nature of Frida’s work is used combined with humor, pain and endless emotion emphatically stating her awareness of the power she as a woman and an artist possessed, despite her unquestionable and undeniable insecurities, frustrations and suffering. She utilized these attributes to her advantage in producing some of the most astonishing works unarguably and undisputably renowned for their aesthetic and intellectual superiority.
Despite its initial appearance of a simple image lacking the usual surreal qualities of Frida’s work, her Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky is saturated in sensuality and mystery demanding further investigation. With her directed, seductive gaze Frida holds a private conversation with Leon as she presents herself as a gift to him. In her biography on Kahlo, Hayden Herrera notes Frida “was flattered to be loved by the Great Russian, fascinated by his mind and moved by his desire. Frida was delighted to have an affair with Trotsky” (Herrera p.212). Kahlo’s portrait, while presenting a relatively small image, is monumentalized by the saturation of passion and emotion that she shares with Trotsky. The portrait, lacking the usual bloody and shocking imagery often seen in Kahlo’s work, is not disregarding these motivations. Triumphant Frida emerges, having mesmerized Diego, Trotsky, and the world by stealing the heart of this great man and reaping the benefits the affair brought her. She presents herself as proud, dignified, confident and as always, extremely desirable and irresistible.
Reserved, poised and confident, Frida demands immediate attention and respect from her audience as she stands with purpose on a hardwood stage, curtains drawn held back by thick yet elegant rope. Her peach colored skirt with elegant embroidered flowers and the saturated, deep red blouse peaking from under an astonishing golden yellow shawl which drapes over the entire costume all indicate a distinguished, colonial member of the bourgeois high society. The rich red and golden hues of her clothing are complemented and emphasized by the palate of color Frida has chosen for her background which resonates from a deep green to a golden sun-like tone. She has replaced her usual and typical exuberant and bright native dress with a more refined version of the characteristic long skirt and jewelry to decorate herself. The aristocratic Frida reinforces her intended highly distinguished image with the intricately woven red ribbon in her impetuously braided hair which is further complemented by the purple flower carefully tucked into her braid. The hair with the ribbon and flower is indicative of indigenous heritage and culture, neither which ever to be excluded or denied by Kahlo. The brazen carnality of the many self portraits that wold soon follow in a burst of creativity initiated by this Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky is not present in the painting itself. Ropes and ribbons often indicate things that bind and the flowers in Frida’s firmly grasped hands can be symbolic of fertility. Partnered with the slip of paper, exclusively dedicating the portrait to Trotsky, also in her hands, a conclusion can be assumed Kahlo was having a private conversation or performance with Leon through her gift to him, the portrait. The bound curtains parted to display her while still referring to the private relationship they shared. Her seductive gaze intended for his recieval and understanding reflect this as well, and the flowers are a reminder of that which had occurred and the fertility to be experienced in the coming productivity and success in Frida’s life. In a sense, a thank you and acknowledgment from the refined Frida are offered while notions of the fiery, passionate Frida teasingly remind “El Viejo” of her (Garza p.87).
“Between the Curtains” ( a name given to the self portrait by gallery owner Levy), stands a confident, self composed Frida in a moment out of place out of time (Herrera p,230). The moment the composed Frida represents is the time spent between herself and the paintings recipient, Leon Trotsky. Assumed to be imaginary, surreal this “moment” has alluded its viewer since its creation. For Frida’s intent, with her eyes penetrating, seductive and focused was to be a private, understood “act” which took place between she and Leon.
But what is the story Frida seems to desire to share with Leon exclusively? How did he come into her life and play such an important role?
The story behind Trotsky is as detailed and fascinating as the story to which Frida’s “staged performance” refers to in her self portrait. A Russian revolutionary who worked with Lenin, founded the Red Army; Trotsky found himself exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. After Lenin’s death in 1924 Stalin gained control of the Soviet Union. Stalin and Trotsky represented opposite directions for communism, thus Stalin disliked Trotsky leading to Leon and Natalia’s nine years in exile once they were banished from the Soviet Union. Natalia and Leon Trotsky’s lives were at risk because Leon had exposed Stalin’s “betrayal of the Russian Revolution” (Garza p.87).
In Mexico Diego had abandoned the Mexican Communist Part for the Trotskyite group, The International Communist League (Herrera p.204). Aware of Trotsky’s situation Rivera was asked to help intervene and seek asylum for the Trotskys in Mexico. Diego negotiated with President Cardenas to get them political asylum. Rivera offered he and Frida would house the Trotskys as was conditioned by the agreement which additionally stated Trotsky was to stay out of Mexican Politics (Herrera p.204).
After years of life on the run Natalia and Leon were greeted by Kahlo upon arrival in Mexico. Diego fell ill with recurrent kidney problems and soon after the arrival in Coyoacan, Natalia became ill from a resurgence of Malaria. With both spouses “out of the way” Leon and Frida had ample time to spend together building on their mutual fascinations. This time of sickness in both Diego and Natalia found Frida in unusually good condition. She was feeling rather healthy and physically capable to accompany Leon and help him adjust to Mexico as well as entertain him. She was delighted to have the company and obvious admiration of this revolutionary hero. He was not the type Frida typically flirted with as noted by Andre Breton, a distinguished and respected critic, when he described Leon to be, “very strict…very old fashioned” (Richmond p.103). The poised, dignified Frida in her elegant portrait lacking the usual flame of Frida seems a perfect compliment to the “Old Man.”
Frida’s translation of the nickname to “El Viejo” is an example of the playful way she captivated Trotsky. She did not have to work very hard to woo him of course and in Herrera’s biography Trotsky is characterized as, “a man with a vigorous interest in sex. Around women Trotsky became especially animated and witty. His approach was direct and sometimes even crude” (Herrera p.209). These personality traits reflect the passionate, four-letter word loving Frida so many knew. Aside from these observations the two seem likely to have been infatuated with the unique differences in each other. It is not to be ignored or dismissed that Diego’s high opinion of Trotsky acted as a major motivation for Frida to pursue him.
Diego and Frida are known for their infidelities but Diego’s affair with Frida’s sister Christina had left deep wounds in Frida that would never heal (Herrera p.209). Christina was Frida’s confidant and only comfort for the pain she suffered from Diego. He had stolen that bond and destroyed it when he sought comfort with Christina but sealed their relationship by getting close in a sexually intimate way. Thus an affair with Diego’s confidant, whom he admired and idolized would be her revenge and Diego’s defeat. The competitive thirst she felt with him artistically could be temporarily satisfied by her “victory” with Trotsky as well. The man Diego loved more than anything was in love with her (Herrera p.209).
In pursuit Frida would speak to Leon in english, purposefully excluding Natalia who did not understand it (Herrera p.209). In return Trotsky would write love notes hiding them in books and political literature he would then pass on to Frida in the presence of both Diego and Natalia (Herrera p.210). As Leon and Frida spent time together she shared her paintings with him, which was quite unusual for her to do at this point in her life (Garza p.87). Trotsky’s infatuation with and admiration fro her was reiterated again in his approval and praise of her work.
With flirtations exchanging, Natalia’s suspicions were growing. “All my love” Frida would call out to Trotsky whenever they departed as she additionally would blow him kisses (Garza p.89). The couple is rumored to have met at Christina’s house in secret (Garza p.89). The abrupt end to their liaison seems to indicate the relationship was not so hidden. Trotsky left for San Miguel Rigla under the insistence of his agents and guards who eared scandal and his safety. During his absence Frida went to visit and the affair between them ended (Herrera p.212).
A nine page letter from Trotsky to Frida and the opinion of her friend Ella Wolfe indicates Frida broke things off. “It was a plea…He (Leon) was truly infatuated with Frida, and she meant a great deal to him” (herrera p.212). Quite the contrary Trotsky also wrote numerous notes to Natalia at the same time declaring his love for her (Herrera p.212). The timeless situation of a defeated man not wanting to be alone has him playing both sides in attempt to cushion the blow to his ego.
Trotsky returned to Coyoacan in July and the couples maintained an appearance as friends. Characteristically Frida and her excitement loving persona, she most likely enjoyed reminding Trotsky of their affair and the effect she had on him. A film discussed in Herrera’s biography has Frida “cuddled up in Rivera’s lap in such a kittenish way that one suspects her of trying to excite her former lover’s jealousy” (Herrera p.213). On November 7, 1937 Kahlo presented Leon with her ultimate tease in the self portrait she dedicated to him “with love” on his birthday. The self portrait is as Breton declares, “a ribbon about a bomb” (Herrera p.213). It is not a mere understanding giggle and intended tease for Leon, but a thank you, a declaration and so much more.
Rivera’s affair with Christina had forced Frida “to be, or at least pretend to be, her own source” (Herrera p.192). Frida had only completed two known paintings by 1936; My Parents, My Grandparents and I and Self Portrait for Dr. Eloesser (Herrera p.194). Trotsky’s enthusiasm seemed to motivate her coupled with the other circumstances with Diego. Frida herself linked her own success to Trotsky’s advent in her life calling it, “the best thing that ever happened to me in my life” (Garza p.87). The support of such an esteemed individual came at a critical point when her wounded self needed it most. Trotsky inspired Frida to approach painting in a serious and driven manner; “I have spent my life up until now loving Diego and being a good for nothing in respect to work but I am now painting seriously (Garza p.91). Soon Frida help an exhibit at the Levy Gallery in New York City. She exhibited in Europe and her work was even shown at the Louvre in Paris.
As her success ensued the relationship with the Trotsky’s was becoming complex and fragile. In 1939 Trotsky wrote to Frida in New York asking for her help to resolve problems at Blue House in Coyoacan (Herrera p.248). Leon and Natalia soon moved out of the house and Diego sought readmission to the Mexican Communist party. Frida who loved her husband and was devoted to him undeniably still retained respect for Trotsky as she refused Diego’s request to borrow Leon’s pen she had given to him as a gift; and which he had left behind along with the self portrait (Herrera p.249). Despite her later harsh words against Trotsky and outright denouncement of his character, Frida still reflected affection and respect for Leon. She refused to offer any aid to Trotsky’s assassin Mercader (Herrera p.249). Coincidentally Frida became severely ill after Trotsky’s death (Herrera p.297). Numerous times of ill health in Frida’s life coincided with times she felt more alone, depressed, upset and helpless as a result of present occuances. Thus, even Frida herself could not deny the effect Trotsky had on her and her life, as additionally evidenced in the monumental qualities of her image peaking out from “Behind the Curtains”.
Through her portrait Frida is saying thank you while still teasing her former lover with her seductive irresistible image. She is acknowledging Trotsky’s’s effect soon to be felt as the “bomb”, being Frida, bursts through the “ribbon.” The “ribbon” is the pain and suffering, the limitations and frustrations caused by Diego. The “ribbon” represents a Frida truly becoming an artist in her own right. She, of course, realizes the role Trotsky played in this revelation as evidenced in the Self Portrait she presented to him on the seventh of November, 1937, “with love.” With girlish fascination Frida flirted with the political idol only to find it was she to be admired and idolized. Kahlo combats the struggle of a woman presenting herself as if announcing, “Yes, I am to be looked at, to be noticed, to be remembered and to be fantasized!”