It would be right to begin by paying homage to J.M.G. Le Clézio’s excellent knowledge of the many texts on the life and work of the famous couple of Mexican artists, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, as displayed in his book Diego et Frida, published in 1993. However, equal importance should also be given to the poetic tone of Le Clézio’s style, which lends the text the dual quality of a biography of artists and of a portrait of Mexico. In the Preface, we read:
The story of Diego and Frida – this love story inseparable from faith in the revolution – is still alive today because it is imbued with the distinctive light of Mexico, with the hum of daily life, with the smell of streets and markets, with the beauty of children in the dusty houses, with that kind of nostalgic languor that lingers at twilight on the ancient monuments and on the oldest of trees. (D&F, 22)
Diego et Frida occupies a special place in Le Clézio’s creative output: it is the only story that the writer devotes completely to artists, placing at its core their life-love, the search for inspiration, encounters, suffering, and the revolutionary ideal inseparable from their fascination with the Amerindian world. “Diego and Frida will devote their whole life to the search for this ideal of the Amerindian world. It is this that gives them a revolutionary strength […]” (D&F, 20), writes Le Clézio. Moreover, Isabelle Constant, in her article “Portrait of Le Clézio in Diego and Frida”, stresses that Le Clézio is not immediately drawn to the commentaries on the frescoes of Diego or on the pictures of Frida, but rather to that which precedes the work, “the search for what motivates the artist” (2010, 129).
From the outset, Le Clézio presents us with a guide with which to follow the story of this bewildering couple: “Diego and Frida embodied, in some ways, the vices and virtues of that period when Mexican values, the art and thought of pre-historic civilisations, are being reinvented” (D&F, 19). If art as a desire for change is always a means of reinventing the world, then clearly the mythic couple is unfailingly bound up in the dream of redefining society, politics, and the foundations of modernism through painting. What is of relevance here is the knowledge that Diego brings back from his travels; first of all in Europe, France and Spain and later in the United States, in, for example, San Fransisco and Detroit, a knowledge that enables him to grasp the major movements in the history of art in the twentieth century : aesthetic anarchism, Dadaism, surrealism and the art of Pablo Picasso amongst others.
Le Clézio makes it clear that Diego and Frida are representatives of the “cosmic race of Vasconcelos” (D&F, 59). We should remember that José Vasconcelos (1887-1959) – a writer, philosopher and Mexican politician, the author of La race cosmique (1925), where he presents some of his thoughts on the mixing of cultures specific to Latin America – is considered to be the cultural el caudillo of the Mexican Revolution, a supporter of education for the masses and of the action of the Muralists. From another point of view, these two artists express in their work “the desires and anxieties of an oppressed people, exiled from their own culture” (D&F, 39). As for Frida, “all this disillusion, all these dramas, this immense suffering, which merges with that of her own life, all this is exhibited there, in her painting” (D&F, 60). It is now a case of considering the indivisible relationship between personal history and the wider historical canvas.
Le Clézio must have conducted a thorough investigation, drawing from the biographies of Diego Rivera and of Frida Kahlo in English and in Spanish, speaking to those close to the artists, and comparing accounts – as he notes in the acknowledgements. The first chapter of this project is devoted to the “Meeting with the ogre”: “Diego meets Frida for the first time in 1923” (D&F, 25). From then on, the story invites us to imagine the personality of the man and artist, Diego Rivera, a portrait that is completed in the second chapter, “A Savage in Paris”, whose comical title recalls the cliché of the noble savage of the Americas. In the same mischievous register, the following chapter, “Frida: a true demon”, paints the portrait of Frida that meets the expectations of the age – a period marked by a critique of capitalism and of colonialism. Nevertheless, Frida is not so much the embodiment of social struggle as that of the suffering inscribed within her extraordinary destiny: “Beneath her relaxed manner and appearance of a girl in love, Frida conceals an experience of pain beyond the common measure” (D&F, 60). Later, in the chapter “Love in the time of revolution”, another image of the couple emerges, that revealed by their political commitments, by Diego’s journey to Moscow, by his joining of the Mexican Communist Party as well as by their immense enthusiasm for art: for frescoes and for paintings.
If already in 1967, in L’Extase matérielle, Le Clézio draws attention to what moves him the most in the human condition: the renouncing of “all that is false grandeur, of pride, of self-satisfaction and of all that one considers good about oneself and which is only meanness” (EM,67), this same preoccupation can be found in Diego and Frida. Marina Salles in Le Clézio, notre contemporain reminds us that Diego “asserts his political independence which will be the cause of his expulsion from the party, of the distrust of Trotsky, of the American denial of justice” whereas Frida “refuses the patronage of the surrealists” (ibidem). In this chapter, the moving “love story between an elephant and a dove” is omnipresent, as if it were a matter of smoothing over the social upheavals and the cruelty of her real-life experience: Frida’s terrifying accident and Diego’s financial and political worries.
The following chapters, “Life as a couple: to be the wife of a genius” and “The World City” (San Francisco) open up new ways of interpreting the history of the couple, revisiting their collusion, the forces of life that drive them on and that lead them to break the boundaries of life and of creation. “No painter has expressed with so much conviction the complementarity of masculine and feminine, of war and of love, of solar and lunar forces” (D&F, 197), writes Le Clézio, evoking Diego. Later, one discovers “the two Fridas, their heart laid bare, and the extraordinary portrait, dazzling with that macabre humour which for her is a substitute for a breast-plate” (D&F, 25-226). The writer does not hesitate to lay out with sensitivity the strengths of man and woman in their bond with creation. He brings to light the consonance between the absolute love that unites Diego and Frida and the desire to draw on this for their work.
The final chapter, « The eternal child », returns to the resilience of the couple’s affection and of their bond with Mexico:
The vagaries of existence, the meanness, the disillusionment could not break off this relationship, a relationship not of dependence but of perpetual exchange, like the blood that flows and the air they breathe. The relationship of Diego and Frida is similar to that of Mexico to the earth, to the rhythm of the seasons, to the contrast of climate and culture. (D&F, 268)
After all, the couple around which Le Clézio’s story is constructed forms a microcosm for measuring the evolution and the transformation of Mexican society in the first half of the 20th century. The permanent metamorphoses, the successive redefinitions of their complicity make it possible to locate the lines of continuity and of rupture from the Mexico of the twenties up to the end of the fifties.
Diego et Frida throws a fresh poetic light on our knowledge of this couple of Mexican artists. Distancing himself from the biographical discourse of journalism, Le Clézio offers us a hermeneutic based less on historical facts than on the elaboration of an aesthetics of creation. The reader is moved not only by the succession of revelations but also by the poetic and at times personal tone adopted by the writer:
It is difficult today in a world eroded by disillusion, by the bloodiest wars ever and by a growing cultural poverty to imagine the maelstrom of ideas that set Mexico ablaze during the decade running from 1923 to 1933. Mexico is then in the process of inventing everything, of changing everything, of bringing everything to light in the most chaotic period of its history[…]. Everything is to be invented and everything comes to light in this feverish epoch: the art of the muralists in the service of the people […]. (D&F, 10)
Le Clézio commits himself to his writing with a passion that can only be equalled by his admiration for the life and work of these prodigious artists.
Translation: Bronwen Martin
LE CLÉZIO, J.-M.G., Diego et Frida, Paris, Gallimard, 1993 ; L’Extase matérielle, Paris, Gallimard, 1967 ; CONSTANT, Isabelle, « Portrait de Le Clézio en Diego et Frida », in Thierry Léger, Isabelle Roussel-Gillet et Marina Salles (dir.), Le Clézio, passeur des arts et des cultures, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010, p. 129-144 ; SALLES, Marina, Le Clézio, notre contemporain, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2006 ; THIBAULT, Bruno, « L’Influence de quelques modèles artistiques sur l’œuvre romanesque de J.M.G. Le Clézio (Arman, Klein, Raysse, Tinguely, Kahlo et O’Keefe) » in BERTOCCHI-JOLLIN, Sophie, THIBAULT, Bruno (coords), Lectures d’une œuvre, J.M.G. Le Clézio, Nantes, Éditions du temps, 2004, p. 161-178.