For an artist who struggled for recognition during her lifetime, there seems little about Frida Kahlo’s life that hasn’t made it into print in recent years. The iconic Mexican painter has been the subject of dozens of biographical works, in addition to a feature film, animation, ballet, two operas, numerous stage plays, and even an official Barbie doll. Much of what has been referred to garishly as ‘Fridamania’ gathered steam in the 1980s and ’90s, more than three decades after her death in 1954 at the tragically young age of 47.
With The Heart: Frida Kahlo in Paris, French writer and documentary filmmaker Marc Petitjean has found something new to write about Frida: the romantic affair she had with his father. It’s an intriguing hook for the slim volume, an unassuming gem that succeeds on many levels. The Heart covers the briefest span of Frida’s life – a two month visit to Paris in 1939 – but it works remarkably well.
During that time, Kahlo met with the crème de la crème of the Parisian artistic and literary scene, in particular the surrealists. The story begins with the visit of André Breton – one of the co-founders of the surrealist movement – to Mexico in 1938. He stayed with Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera (who were simultaneously hosting Leon Trotsky, on the run from the Soviet Union and Stalin’s assassins). They all hit it off superbly, and Breton reciprocated by inviting Kahlo to exhibit in Paris.
Things went downhill from there. Upon her arrival, she found Breton aloof and self-absorbed; she wound up having to organize much of the exhibition on her own, and; she was irritated by Breton’s efforts to pigeonhole her as a surrealist painter. At the same time, her marriage with Rivera was going through a difficult phase (they would divorce soon, but remarry the following year), and she had just left a lover in New York.
So while in Paris, she threw herself into experiencing everything the city and its cultural scene had to offer as a way of distracting herself. (In Julie Taymor’s superb 2002 bio-pic Frida, the visit is aptly depicted in a three-minute montage of Parisian art galleries, cafes and nightlife, replete with jazz clubs and romantic affairs with both men and women.) The minutiae of her visit, chronicled almost day-by-day in The Heart, works so well simply because she surrounded herself with fascinating people. Otherwise mundane activities are transformed into delightful anecdotes, thanks to the magnetism which drew so many intriguing people into her orbit. Even a game of ‘truth or dare’, played one night in Breton’s apartment, and “etched into the memories of all present” is riveting.
In addition to surrounding herself with fascinating people (and reviving an affair with Breton’s wife Jacqueline Lamba), Kahlo also embarked on a whirlwind romantic affair with the author’s father. The author, Marc Petitjean, only learned about this as an adult, 20-years after his father’s death, when he was informed about it by a Mexican writer who was working on an article on Kahlo. He became absorbed by the desire to learn more, acquiring old interviews his father had done regarding his experience with Kahlo, and scouring archives for correspondence between the two.
His father, Michel Petitjean, was assistant curator for a museum at which Kahlo’s work exhibited during her stay, and this was how they met. There’s a great deal that neither the author nor dedicated Kahlo researchers know about the affair. So Petitjean draws on his memory of his father, coupled with what is known about Kahlo, to fill in the gaps with imaginative possibilities. These speculative vignettes don’t add much to the narrative and are thankfully brief. But the facts around which they are woven are fascinating enough.
Petitjean is a masterful narrator. He weaves his tale through short chapters that dance around the central figures, offering revealing snapshots of their characters. He explores Breton’s visit to Mexico; Kahlo’s arrival in Paris; the protagonists huddled around a radio learning about the fall of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War; Frida’s participation in support efforts for refugees; and more.
Petitjean’s background as a documentary filmmaker translates well here to the printed word; the story has a deeply cinematic momentum, shifting from episode to episode with rapid and well-delivered segues that keep the reader hooked. His narrative is a delightful, spry sketch of three weeks of vibrant Parisian artistic life, in which are colourfully depicted the daily routines of the artists; the nightly parties in which they dispute theories and jostle for influence; the labyrinthine web of romantic affairs in which they entangle themselves.
Because it has such a remarkable cast of characters, and because Petitjean’s prose (ably translated from the original French by Adriana Hunter) is so sprightly and compelling, the story has a magical effect. It’s an innovative way to get to know these characters – through the shortest, intensely scrutinized slice of their lives – and despite the gutsy and narrowly focused approach it succeeds remarkably well. Petitjean avoids the trap of lapsing into lugubrious reflections on his father or family life. He instead constructs an image of his father as a man of his times: independent and free-spirited, eager to immerse himself in the myriad artistic and cultural movements of the inter-war period, yet self-aware and free-spirited enough to be able to laugh at the artists’ exaggerated intellectualism and excessive sense of self-importance. This, speculates Petitjean the younger, is probably the quality that drew his father and Kahlo together; her letters home were full of scoffing derision at the pretentiousness of the European surrealists.
“You have no idea the kind of bitches these people are. They make me vomit. They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them any more…I [would] rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than to have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris,” she writes to her New York lover, Nickolas Muray.
Their affair is passionate but short, leaving more of an impact on Petitjean than on Kahlo. Although she gifted him the painting after which the book is titled, she never responded to the steady stream of letters he sent her in the months that followed. As the French government purchased one of her paintings for The Louvre (the first nation to do so), gas masks were being distributed in Paris, and plans were being drawn up for evacuating the country’s art collection in light of the looming likelihood of war with Nazi Germany.
Petitjean would eventually spend two years in a Nazi prison camp for Resistance work. Kahlo, meanwhile, returned to a series of personal woes in Mexico: Rivera wanted a divorce; her lover Muray ended their affair, and; her always fragile health began to accelerate its ultimately fatal decline. While Petitjean continued mooning after her in Paris, these concerns probably weighed heavier on Kahlo’s mind than the plaintive love letters of a young man smitten by their brief dalliance.
But the book is not really about the affair; it’s more about the people involved in it, their world, and their outlook on life. For those curious about Kahlo but who don’t want to slog through a heavy academic study, The Heart offers an original and effective introduction to the artist. One emerges from the chronicle of that whirlwind two months feeling a sense of intimacy toward the iconic painter and her circle. This is superb accomplishment for such a short book.
The Heart also offers an innovative way to write about art. Petitjean slips in artistic critiques of several of Kahlo’s works, imaginative interpretations driven by his knowledge of the artist. It’s surprising, in retrospect, to realize what a challenge Kahlo had in achieving the recognition she now rightly enjoys. Reviewers were ambivalent about her Parisian exhibition, of which Petitjean offers a beautifully rendered depiction of the opening night. He shares with the reader his interpretations of childish sketches drawn by both Frida and her friends during her time in Paris. Most moving of these interpretive interludes is his description of what it was like to grow up under the daily shadow of an authentic Kahlo painting in his home, and how it spoke to him in shifting ways as he grew up.
The Heart is a jewel of a book. By its very brevity and intense focus, which recognizes its limitations and doesn’t aspire to do more than it sets out to, it offers both a useful supplement for Frida scholars and an attractive impression of the artist for the layperson. Short as it is, there is something magical about this book. Balanced bravely at the intersection of art history, biographical narrative, and imaginative speculation, it succeeds above all at breathing into life a brief glimpse of that remarkable time when Frida Kahlo and her contemporaries – Breton, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali – painted and partied through the early 20th century like a tornado. They would leave their indelible stamp on history with art that was every bit as inspired and exciting as the lives of those who produced it.