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Kahlo, Communism and Stalin

Where it Started

While in the US, [Diego] Rivera and Kahlo became acquainted with the ideas of the anti-Stalinist Left Opposition, and its leader, Leon Trotsky. On their initiative—but with the state’s proviso that he refrain from political engagement—Trotsky was admitted into the country in 1937 by the Mexican government of Lázaro Cárdenas del Río as an exile in Frida’s parental home, the Blue House in Coyoacán. Frida Kahlo’s contact with Trotsky, which certainly would have communistbeen characterised by intensive political and cultural exchange, was presented inanely and sensationally in the exhibition.

At this time, in 1937, Trotsky was preparing for his appearance before an independent commission of inquiry headed by John Dewey. He wanted to publicly refute Stalin’s monstrous accusations against him. This political offensive was qualitatively deepened a year later with the founding of the Fourth International. In 1939, the Hitler-Stalin pact—against which Trotsky had long been warning—further revealed Stalin’s counter-revolutionary role. The Comintern and its supporters were thrown into crisis.

By failing to mention any of this, the exhibition ignores the fact that Rivera and Kahlo actively sided with Trotsky in his struggle against Stalinism. The exhibition also fails to use its placards and notes to indicate that Trotsky was one of the most important leaders of the Russian Revolution.

One significant individual is mentioned, but only by name. According to the exhibition notes, a woman breastfeeding a child in the picture The Bus (1929) is said to be Tina Modotti. The commentary only describes her as a sort of matchmaker who brought Diego and Frida together. Modotti (1896-1942) was an American communist of Italian descent, and a photographer who probably introduced her friend, Frida Kahlo, into the Communist Party.

Kahlo in the Spectrum

It is very difficult to find out anything about Frida Kahlo’s actual political involvement with communism, and what can be discovered is usually only vaguely presented. Such information is mostly derived from correspondence or private archives. Kahlo’s sympathy for the Left Opposition against Stalin manifested itself in the most fulfilling and creative stage of her life, and it is impermissible to reduce this fact to a mere episode.

Kahlo was only one of many deeply shocked by Trotsky’s murder in Acommunistugust 1940, just a few months after the Siqueiros-led assassination attempt. Half a million people paid their grave-side respects to the founder of the Red Army and former comrade in arms of Vladimir Lenin. The famous folk song, mourning Trotsky’s death and attributed to an anonymous Mexican composer, presumably also emerged from the mood of the time (mp3 audio: Gran Corrido de León Trotski).
It seems a great contradiction that Frida Kahlo rejoined the Communist Party of Mexico eight years later. But Stalin’s physical annihilation of the generation of communists and the rise of Hitler had grave consequences. It damage and demoralized so many artists and intellectuals, for whom the struggle to build a new international in the working class proved overwhelming.

Translations in Her Art

Kahlo lived in explosive times and under volatile conditions, which can only be sketched here. But even a sketch provides a clue as to the source of her capacity to depict pain, anguish and uncertainty in such a resolute manner. The occasionally shocking brutality of her art combined with an ambivalent, disturbing atmosphere that is often difficult to pinpoint precisely in her pictures. These qualities cannot be reduced merely to earlier civil war experiences, her personal problems, her complicated relationship with Rivera, and her tendency to dwell on the Mexican mentality and its supposed special relationship to death.

It is through her aesthetic confrontation with Mexican tradition, in the context of the great events of the 20th century, that Kahlo manages to transcend folkloric celebration of eternal cycles of nature akahlond the passive dualism of peasant art. The tension in Kahlo’s pictures, with their enigmatic symbols, arises from the shattering of this old dualism through the creation of a harmonic double tone. Her dualism—often depicted in the form of her relationship with Rivera; for example, in Embracing the Universe or Diego, Me and Xolotl (1949)—is strife-torn, occasionally destructive, and a certain mood of hostility underlies the apparent passivity. These pictures cry out for the peace and harmony that are beyond the realm of possibility.

This contrast is also to be found in Kahlo’s “cult of nature”. Symbols of fertility—a lushly rampant, cosmic and natural vitality—stand in contrast to the emblems of her miscarriage and her bodily suffering. Nature and the body become semaphores, as does Frida, by presenting herself interwoven with nature, or merely dressed in traditional Mexican clothing.

Perhaps Frida Kahlo’s most popular portrait is The Broken Column (1944). When one considers the historical background of this and other paintings, it is difficult to look at them and think only of her physical illness. There was something else in her soul that was broken, something that could only be painfully held together with the aid of her art.