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September 3, 2014

Author Catherine Reef has written about authors, poets, psychologists and composers, but her latest nonfiction work takes a turn for the visual, focusing on Frida Kahlo and Diego, who are famous for both their provocative paintings and their deep love for one another. Below, read Teen Board member Maya B's.interview with Catherine, where they talk about the legendary artists as well as Catherine's research and inspiration for FRIDA & DIEGO: Art, Love, Life. Frida and Diego went to great schools. Do you think they would have been famous painters if they hadn’t gone to such good schools?

Catherine Reef: The work Rivera did at the San Carlos Academy, the art school he attended from ages 11 through 19, drew the attention of Mexico City’s artistic community. It also caught the eye of Governor Teodoro Dehesa of Veracruz, who arranged funding for Rivera to continue his training in Europe. The paintings from Rivera’s first years in Europe, which were exhibited in Mexico City in 1910, established his reputation in his home country. In addition, his close study of Italian Renaissance frescoes led him to mural painting, which was to make him world famous. So I would say that attending the academy laid the foundation for his later fame.

Kahlo followed a very different path to recognition, and the fact that she was enrolled in the National Preparatory School, Mexico City’s leading high school, hardly mattered. She had been planning to be a physician when a devastating accident ended her academic career. She started to paint while convalescing and was almost completely self-taught. She sought Rivera’s opinion on her work as soon as she was well enough to venture from home again, and her association with him, and the connections it afforded her, helped make her paintings known. But if she had not approached Rivera --- if he had never become a mural painter and their paths had never crossed --- would she have found a way to get her work seen? I think it is likely. Would she have become famous? Who can say?

TRC: Did Frida’s vehicle accident change her outlook on life?

CR : Frida was a spirited girl who ran through the corridors at school, played practical jokes and jumped fearlessly off moving streetcars --- or at least she did these things before September 17, 1925. On that day, she was a passenger on a bus that was involved in a devastating collision. The force of the crash left her with numerous broken bones and a metal handrail driven through her body. Her injuries were life-threatening and required her to endure a long period of recuperation. “I am beginning to grow accustomed to suffering,” she wrote from her sickbed. She had to get used to suffering, because it would remain with her always in the form of chronic pain. Death was her constant companion as well, dancing around her bed just outside her field of vision. So the accident turned Frida, virtually overnight, from a carefree young person into one always in pain and ever aware of her own mortality. Remarkably, she retained her sense of fun, although she had no choice but to live with limitations.

TRC: What factors made Frida’s art unique?

CR : Kahlo’s work is highly introspective. She created a symbolic language with which to depict her physical and emotional state and used it in her art to explore her inner life to a degree that may be unrivaled. Her imagery is open to interpretation, though. What does it mean, for example, to see Rivera’s face on her forehead? Or two Fridas sitting next to each other and holding hands, with their hearts exposed and connected? Kahlo painted a great many self-portraits, yet she never repeated herself. In them she might wear a necklace of thorns or a man’s suit, or be surrounded by monkeys or parrots, or be seated next to a doll. Every self-portrait invites speculation. What does it tell us about the artist, or about ourselves as viewers?

TRC: Did Frida’s spine problems hold her back or pull her forward, artistically?

CR : As a result of the accident, Kahlo lived with chronic back pain that was treated (with questionable success) with a series of plaster casts, corsets and spinal surgeries. She spent long stretches as an invalid, and her condition kept her from many activities that her friends enjoyed and took for granted. She found it difficult to walk for long stretches, and she would sit and watch as others danced. Artistically, however, her damaged spine presented a challenge: how could she paint her pain? She met this challenge in a fascinating variety of ways. In one painting, The Little Deer, she gave her face to a wounded deer in a forest. Arrows piercing the deer’s back suggest her own physical suffering. In another work, The Broken Column, she painted her body split open to reveal a cracked marble column supporting her head. A third painting, Tree of Hope, which, curiously, contains no tree, is a double self-portrait. It shows Frida lying on a hospital gurney and bleeding from wounds in her back, and then seated in a chair, elegantly clothed, and holding a back brace. Could these be before-and-after views of herself, and thus proof that with life there is hope? Also, her plaster casts became canvases that she decorated with communist symbols and other imagery, including another “broken column.”

Two very different approaches to painting, two very different sets of life experiences, two very different people united by love and a mutual dedication to art --- now there is a challenge for a biographer!

TRC: Do you think that Diego’s communist views made it harder for him to find jobs and ultimately held him back?

CR : Diego Rivera became a committed communist after witnessing the effects of economic inequality on the laboring classes in Mexico and abroad. Communist themes pervade his work, both overtly and subtly. There is no mistaking the meaning of the face of Vladimir Lenin or of the hammer and sickle; but Rivera’s simple paintings of ordinary Mexicans bringing flowers to market or teaching children to read are meant to elevate peasant life and are in keeping with the communist ideal of a classless society.

But Rivera was also an artist who relished attention and publicity, and he quickly learned that he could attract both by being controversial. Look at what happened in the 1930s, when he painted several murals in the United States. When members of the public complained loudly that one panel of the 27 he painted at the Detroit Institute of Arts was sacrilegious, people flocked to see what he had done. Now, this is purely speculation on my part, but I think he may have been trying for another publicity coup a little while later, when he inserted Lenin’s face in the mural he painted at Rockefeller Center in New York City. As the Rockefellers insisted he remove the portrait and he refused, the attention of New York was focused on Diego Rivera. Ultimately the tactic failed, however. The Rockefellers fired Rivera and later destroyed the mural, and the directors of the General Motors Corporation, suddenly gun shy, cancelled his contract to paint a mural at the Chicago World’s Fair.

So there were times when Rivera’s communism hurt him professionally, but there were also times when he disregarded his ideals, if they conflicted with something he wanted to do. Communists cried out when he accepted commissions from such entities as the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the Ford Motor Company, both symbols of capitalism. But Rivera always did exactly as he pleased; I suspect he could have been maddening in that way. He was a complicated human being --- as we all are.

TRC: Did Diego become regretful after Frida died?

CR : Regret is a common feeling after someone close to us dies. It is natural to wish that we had spent more time with our loved one, or that we had had a chance to tell the person something we had wanted him or her to know, perhaps “I love you” or “I’m sorry.”

The regret Rivera felt following Kahlo’s death went beyond this, however. Only when she was gone and never again to be a presence in his life did he realize how much she had meant to him. Throughout their roughly 25 years of married life he had been repeatedly unfaithful and had disregarded her feelings. After her death, he had to come to terms with what he had done. He had to live with the knowledge that for years he had missed opportunities to appreciate Frida and show his affection. And of course the past is impossible to change.

TRC: What got you interested in learning about Frida and Diego’s story?

CR : I like writing about creative people. I had written biographies of novelists, poets and composers, and I wanted the challenge of writing about someone working in the visual arts. I settled initially on Frida Kahlo, but as I learned more about her I became curious about her husband as well. Rivera’s work astounded me, and he tempted me with an intriguing story of his own. I wasn’t very far into the project when I saw how tightly the two artists’ stories were intertwined, and how difficult it would have been --- for me, anyway --- to tell one without including a good portion of the other. A dual biography therefore made perfect sense: two very different approaches to painting, two very different sets of life experiences, two very different people united by love and a mutual dedication to art --- now there is a challenge for a biographer!

TRC: FIRDA AND DIEGOis extremely well researched. How much field work did it take before you began writing?

CR : There is never a point at which research stops and writing begins. From the moment I start my research, even as I am first picking up and turning over the bare bones of my story, I am thinking about how I will give it narrative form.  And the research continues throughout the writing of the book as I discover, for example, that I need to find out more about a particular person or event, or that I want to track down a certain article in a back issue of a Latin American newspaper, or that I have an opportunity to travel to see an exhibition of the artists’ paintings.

It is hard for me to recall exactly when I began the research that led to FRIDA AND DIEGO, but I spent a good two years, and probably longer, creating this book. I worked very hard, but I loved it all, the research and the writing.