Le Clézio’s book Diego and Frida reads as a truly beautiful tribute to Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), the Mexican painter, the soul mate of Diego Rivera; Frida Kahlo, the friend of the French Surrealists, the Marxists and the Communists who animated the socio-cultural landscape of Mexico in the first half of the twentieth century. Born in 1907 of a German father (Wilhelm Kahlo) and of an Indigenous Mexican mother (Mathilde Calderón), Frida enters a preparatory school in 1922 with the intent to studying medicine. From a very young age, she dreams of travelling and studying - a free and joyful life. But at the age 18, on September 17, 1925, while coming back from art school, she is hit by a tram. A metal bar breaks her body from the abdomen to the vagina. Her legs, and particularly, her vertebrae are very seriously injured. This accident marks a turning point in Frida’s life. She has to stay in bed for many months and wear a corset. Determined to offset her immobility and the tremendous pain, she starts painting. Her mother installs a mirror above her bed, and Frida begins making self-portraits, one of which is the Self-Portrait with Velvet Dress, in 1926.
In 1928, having recovered her mobility almost entirely, Frida Kahlo joins the Communist Party. It is during this same year that she meets the famous painter and muralist Diego Rivera and shows him some of her paintings. This marks the beginning of a tumultuous love story between the two. In 1929, Frida and Diego married. The following year, they move to San Francisco where Frida meets numerous artists. From then on, little by little, Frida identifies with the Yucatán tradition and with the Mexican Revolution that Le Clézio celebrates in the first pages of Diego and Frida. After much travelling between the United States and Mexico, the couple Kahlo-Rivera returns to Mexico settling into a new house in the outskirts of Mexico City, San Angel. Unfortunately, in 1930 and 1931, Frida has two miscarriages. During her recovery, she paints Henry Ford Hospital or the Flying Bed. After this period, beginning in 1934 – already exhausted from a third miscarriage – Frida finds out about the relationship between Diego and her adored sister, Cristina. Consequently, Frida decides to isolate herself. She moves into an apartment where she remains for a couple of months. She has an affair with Léon Trotsky, their guest at the Casa Azul in Coyoacán, whom Diego Rivera helped to obtain political asylum in 1937.
In September 1938, André Breton is on mission to Mexico with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He gives a series of conferences on European poetry and painting. The couple Kahlo-Rivera welcomes Breton and his wife Jacqueline Lamba. When meeting them, Frida claims she is not a Surrealist: “They used to take me for a Surrealist. It’s not fair. I have never painted dreams. I always represented my reality” (p. 220, my translation), she writes in her diary. In 1938 as well, Frida has a very successful exhibition at the Julien Levi Gallery in New York. In 1939, she has another exhibition at the Paris Renou & Colle Gallery. Upon her return to Mexico, Kahlo and Diego divorce. It’s during this time that she paints the famous painting The Two Fridas (1939) that symbolizes her heartbreak and the feeling of splitting in two. A year later, on December 8, 1940, Frida remarries Diego.
In 1953, Frida Kahlo’s first Mexican exhibition takes place. Yet, that same summer, she has her right leg amputated, and she dies a year later in 1954 at the age of 47. She leaves behind enormous suffering along with important paintings such as Some Small Injections (1935) or The Broken Column (1944) – a painting that displays her physical and moral suffering after Diego’s betrayal. In Diego and Frida, Le Clézio writes:
“Frida died on July 13, exactly seven days after having turned forty-seven. The day after, under pouring rain, Diego accompanied Frida in the open coffin, dressed in her beautiful white Yalalag shirt, to the Mexico Art Gallery where he wished her to be celebrated. Then, the coffin wrapped in the red frag with the Communist star and the symbol of the sickle and the hammer headed to the Dolores civic crematorium” (p. 198, my translation).
Frida Kahlo’s extraordinary life path – linked to Diego Rivera’s – testifies her infinite passion for painting. It is the painting that never stopped giving her vital energy:
“This feeble young girl, bearing the fantastic and fake appearance of a child that hasn’t grown up, is a true artist; she is inhabited like him [Diego], by a mysterious demon that animates her and pushes her to paint.” (p. 96, my translation)
This breath of passion for life and art – perceptible in Le Clézio’s words, and in Diego’s as well – turns Frida into such a moving character: the phases of her creation process and the challenges of her illness are repeatedly overcome by her fervour and her vivid mindfulness amidst the dichotomies of the world and her own life story. Le Clézio states:
“With her reservation, with her third eye that suffering opened on her forehead, Frida knew it from the very beginning. For her, the world has always been divided in two: on the one hand, the night, on the other hand, the day, the moon and the sun, the water and the fire, the dream and the reality, the core-cell or the cave of the uterus, and the violence of the spermatozoid, the knife that kills.” (p. 209-10, my translation)
Thus, Frida Kahlo, a visionary and a warrior, stays loyal to the art that defends women and men who, at a certain moment, go through absolute suffering in solitude, in isolation. In Diego and Frida, Le Clézio presents Frida like a Madonna who incarnates feminine suffering. At the beginning of the 1940s, more and more weakened by illness, Frida leads a solitary life at the Casa Azul in Coyoacán. In fact, this retreat becomes an extension for her body, “where each stone, each piece of furniture is impregnated with melancholia and pain” (p. 233, my translation). Frida becomes the priestess of a cult “that links the whole universe” (p. 233, my translation), and at the same time, each small piece shows her endless love for Diego. Their home becomes an intimate universe where she can blend into the cosmos.
Let us remember that the 6th issue of the Cahiers Le Clézio, edited by Marina Salles and Eileen Lohka, explores the topic of the “women’s voices” in Le Clézio’s works. Among these voices, Frida Kahlo’s remains unique: the uncommon love story with Diego, her extreme suffering and isolation, her encounters with Trotsky and Breton, the American adventure and the unusual fascination for Henry Ford – all these aspects mark the uncontested role of Frida and Diego in the renewal of modern art world. In a way, we can say that Frida does not exist without Diego, just like Diego’s works and his life have no meaning without Frida. Art and revolution are their common points. “They form an indestructible and mythical couple, as perfect and contradictory as the original duality of Mexico: Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl. ” (Diego and Frida, 4th cover, my translation).
HERRERA, Hayden, Frida, biographie de Frida Kahlo, trad. Philippe Beaudoin, Paris, Librairie Générale française, coll. Le Livre de poche, 2003 ; LE CLÉZIO, J.M.G., Diego et Frida, Paris, Gallimard, 1993 ; KAHLO, Frida, Le Journal de Frida Kahlo, Paris, Éditions du Chêne, 1995 ; PRITNITZ-PODA, Helga, Frida Kahlo, trad. Josie Mély et Catherine Weinzorn, Paris, Gallimard, 2003 ; REY MIMOSO-RUIZ, Bernadette, « Diego et Frida de J.M.G. Le Clézio ou le paradoxe pour révélateur du mythe », J.M.G. Le Clézio. Dans la forêt des paradoxes, (dir. B. Thibault et K. Moser), Paris, L’Harmattan, 2012, p. 99-110 ; SALLES, Marina, « Figures et motifs du ‘musée imaginaire’ de J.M.G. Le Clézio », Le Clézio, passeur des arts et des cultures (dir. T. Léger, I. Roussel-Gillet et M. Salles), Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010, p. 145-164 ; SALLES, Marina et LOHKA, Eileen, Voix de femmes, Les Cahiers J.-M.G. Le Clézio n° 6, Paris, Éditions Complicités, 2013 ; THIBAULT, Bruno, « L’influence de quelques modèles artistiques sur l’œuvre romanesque de J.M.G. Le Clézio (Arman, Klein, Raysse, Tinguely) », Lecture d’une œuvre : Intertextualité et interculturalité chez J.M.G. Le Clézio (dir. B. Thibault et S. Bertocchi), Rennes, Éditions du Temps, 2004, p. 161-68.