Revolutions should not live in Museums
Frida Kahlo attracted the attention of photographers, but what caught her attention was the revolution that promised to change the world, which now gathers dust in a museum down the road
In the quiet and leafy Coyoacan neighbourhood of Mexico City a bus rolls in, carrying earnest tourists who join a long queue alongside a tall blue wall. It is a long wait to enter the house behind the blue walls, which is now a museum to Mexico’s most enigmatic but colourful personality – Frida Kahlo.
Thousands of these tourists converge from different parts of the world to get a peep into the life of Kahlo, who is now being celebrated in new writing, not from the standpoint of her commitment to Communism but for her narcissism and what is being described today as her love for “selfies” – most of her paintings are about herself. People have wondered what kind of following she would have got on Instagram or other social media platforms if she walked the world today. In her time, she was not short on publicity. Perhaps the most photographed female artist ever. Her father, a photographer, took some 6,000 pictures of her alone. And there were other photographers – at least one of them her lover – who took some stunning portraits of her. She knew all the angles that enhanced her unconventional beauty and seduced many of her lovers and disciples.
Every time she left her house wearing her exotic jewelry and her uneven high heels to compensate for her polio leg, she would make an impression all around, including on little boys who followed her to ask: “Where is the circus?”
What is glossed over and made light of is how she lent glamour to the cause of the revolution. In her last years – her body racked by more than 40 operations – she worried about how she could paint and draw more to help revolutionary causes. So obsessed was Kahlo about the revolution and how it could end the misery of the poor that she had paintings of Russian revolutionaries hang around her bed. Besides, she had a sickle and hammer drawn on her corset that she wore under her long dress from the matriarchal area of Mexico’s Tehuantepec.
Kahlo’s short life – she was 47 when she died – was not only defined by the zeitgeist of those times, socialism, but also by her physical infirmities and a crippling accident. Fascination for her stems from how she could rise above her pain, physical limitations, her tumultuous marriage to a famous muralist, Diego Rivera, to produce a body of work that continues to intrigue those who just knew her as a fridge magnet or the character played by Hollywood actor Salma Hayek in the film Frida.
So obsessed was Kahlo about the revolution and how it could end the misery of the poor that she had paintings of Russian revolutionaries hang around her bed
The enigmatic artist mostly drew herself, but in doing that she created a cult that attracts an unimaginable following. The web is littered with her followers who travel long distances to visit her exhibitions not just in her blue house, where she was born and died on the same day, but also in different cities of the world where her exhibitions are mounted. She inspires, she titillates and she does far more – by displaying her ability to turn every physical adversity into a creative opportunity to produce work that has endured time and geography. Today Kahlo is far more popular than she was when alive. This would have made her happy as she hungered for publicity and acclaim. Just a few days before she died she was sedated and carried on a stretcher to her last exhibition where hundreds turned up. Her final journey to a crematorium saw admirers lunging at her body to get something of her jewelry or her dress as a valuable memorabilia. Perhaps they knew that Kahlo would always command value and attention – dead or alive.
This explosion of popularity and aggressive branding through merchandising has contributed in unhinging Kahlo from her revolutionary belief. In a certain way market has reclaimed Kahlo from the clutches of a non-fashionable ideology. Though her fate is a little better than the famed Cuban revolutionary, Che Guevara, who has been reduced to a mere T-shirt icon.
Kahlo lived in interesting times. A revolution in faraway Russia that overthrew an imperial power, the tsar, to bring the working class to power in Moscow was challenging governments all around and creating exciting and interesting possibilities for those fighting injustice inherent in capitalists and feudal societies. The rise of the proletariat was firing the imagination of the creative community in different parts of the world. Mexico was settling down with its own revolution after the overthrow of an authoritarian ruler. The country expectedly was intellectually engaging with the ideas emanating from the workers’ revolution and providing refuge to revolutionaries and subversives as they plotted their next move. Kahlo was first a member of the communist youth league and later a member of the Mexican Communist party, which was founded by an Indian, M.N. Roy, who also sought refuge in Mexico City. Crazily enough, Roy is remembered in this city now as a high-end night club and not someone who set off on a journey to change the world.
Kahlo’s husband, Rivera’s influence with the Mexican leadership helped in the granting of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky refuge in Mexico City. Trotsky was banished by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin into, first, an internal exile in Alma Ata and later thrown out of the country. During the early days of his exile, Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, stayed in Kahlo’s house. Here Trotsky, a ladies’ man, had a torrid affair with Kahlo till she got bored of the “old man”. Trotsky, too, moved to his house a few streets away in Coyoacan, where he lived for about nine years till he was assassinated by a hired assassin.
Trotsky’s house has been turned into a museum, which, expectedly, does not get the kind of footfall that Kahlo does. Many of the visitors see Trotsky in the context of the affair that he had with the Mexican artist, but that means doing injustice to his contribution to the Russian revolution and, subsequently, as a man on the run. Though the little details of Trotsky’s affair with Kahlo make for interesting reading as they shared small notes written in English so that Sedova could not read them. Sedova did not need to know the English language to know what was going on between the seductive Mexican artist and
What is truly remarkable about the Trotsky museum is the largeheartedness of Mexican society and how it provided asylum to ideas and people clearly subversive to conventional societies. A walk around the museum shows that Trotsky not just lived in relative luxury, but the place provided him a conducive environment to write for 10 hours every day. The Mexican government also provided him security – there is a guard room – to save him from murderous attempts by those who followed Stalin’s order. The museum shows how security changed the living arrangements in his house, but that proved inadequate when an assassin, a Spanish spy on the payroll of Stalin’s security apparatus, plunged an ice pick in his head.
Trotsky, who was 61 years old, died two days later. His was a life of tragedy. Nearly everyone in his family, including his son, were killed due to his views that were seen by Stalin as a threat to his stability and the Russian revolution. Trotskyism has thrived amongst those who believe in permanent revolution to protect ideals from the bureaucratisation of socialism.
The Kahlo and Trotsky museums provide a fascinating glimpse of how revolutionary ideas and individuals shaped Mexico’s society and, interestingly, the city itself that sits atop a drying lake. The neighbourhood of Coyoacan, which is now part of Mexico City, where Kahlo and Trotsky lived, continues to nurture a creative and argumentative community that can only be sustained in a liberal intellectual environment. That is why Mexico City remains an intellectual oasis in a world impatient with diversity and dissent.