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April 22, 2004
What's it about? Q wants to know. I am haunting the Internet, looking at pictures, copying them into emails I send to myself. I want to stud my text with artwork. I have a deadline: the Quiet Hour meeting this afternoon, at which the fruits of my labor must be presented.

It's about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, I tell him. This is my Quiet Hour paper. The Quiet Hour Club has existed in Metuchen since 1895. Its members each present a paper to the group once a year; a program committee chooses the broad topics. This year it's "America's Neighbors: Canada and Mexico." Frida and Diego seemed a more interesting choice than, say, Toronto, so I chose them.

Tortured, promiscuous, communist, alcoholic, brilliant. Joined irrevocably together -- they married each other twice -- in order that they might tear each other apart. Diego is not anybody's husband and never will be, she told someone once. But he is a great comrade.

And Mexican, Mexican from Mexico: although they were the darlings of international artistic leftists in the 1930s and 1940s, the story of their work is a story of returning home. Diego was a friend of Picasso, and, in the first two decades of their century, a respectable cubist. But his direction would not be toward greater abstraction: it is the heroic revolutionary murals for which we remember him, the white-clad peasant bent under his heavy load, the stubborn workers. He could not be the painter he was, in the country of his birth, and not show his wealthy patrons the truth about the relationship between Mexico and its wealthy neighbor to the north.

And Frida? The overwrought anatomical correctness of her self-portraits, the brooding focus on the physical pain that never left her -- she was grievously injured in a bus accident as a teenager, her spine pierced by a metal rod that entered her body through her abdomen, and she endured more than thirty surgeries. The frank use of her own biography as a subject for her work. People sometimes think artists "work things out" in their creations. They don't work things out. They report. This is what it is, they say. I don't know what to do about it, but this is what it is.

When Rivera included a portrait of Lenin in a mural for Rockefeller Center and wouldn't remove it, he was dismissed from the project and his wall reduced to a pile of plaster dust by his angry patron. When Leon Trotsky was banished from the Soviet Union, he ended up in Mexico, and stayed with Frida and Diego. Later, when he was assassinated, the authorities thought the pair might have had a hand in it. You just never know what communists might do, they must have thought. They could do anything. You just never know.

She died first. It might have been suicide; no autopsy was performed, but she told friends she wanted to die, didn't want to be saved again, as doctors had saved her so many times before. And as her corpse was carried toward the flames of the crematorium on a conveyor belt, it sat straight up. She went into the fire like that, straight ahead, sitting up straight.

He thought she was the best painter Mexico had ever produced, better than anyone, including himself. He survived her by three years.

A tumultuous life together But then, all life together is tumultuous, a never-to-be repeated-in-just-the-same-way cycle of disappointment and gratitude, love and frustration, loyalty and betrayal. Maybe it is not always so dramatic. But no paired life is seamless.

Here is some of Frida's work:
And here is Diego's:
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