This article is from the April 2002 The Mexico File
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by Barbara Mujica; Plume, 366 pp., $14.00
by Jonah Winter; Illustrated by Ana Juan; Scholastic, 32 pp., $16.95
Reviewed by Gale Randall “Fridamania” it's called – that fascination with anything related to the life, loves and art of Mexican surrealist artist and icon Frida Kahlo. Augmenting the already burgeoning assortment of materials available on this most intriguing of Mexicans are two new books, a novel and a delightful children's picture book. A well-researched and written account of Frida Kahlo's life, “Frida,” the novel is narrated by a fictional character based on her younger sister Cristina who, in midlife, retells their life stories to an American psychologist. The novel follows Frida from her 1907 birth at the Casa Azul in Coyoacan, to her bout with polio at age 7, from her notoriety as a prankster at the elite Preparatoria school, and to the horrific bus accident which at 18 left her barren and a semi-invalid.
It continues through her stormy on-off marriage to the famous muralist Diego Rivera and emergence as an acclaimed artist in her own right, to her numerous operations, and finally, her death, a possible suicide, in the blue house in 1954. Early on we’re made aware of the close yet competitive relationship Frida had with Cristina – her younger sister by 11 months – a relationship which, for a time, turned sour after Rivera started an affair with Cristina. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, through their travels and work in the United States and Europe, Frida and Diego became the toast of the international art world and in “Frida” we're treated to vignettes on the eclectic and international cast of characters who wandered in and out of their lives – Leon Trotsky, Dolores del Rio, Maria Felix, Tina Modotti, Paulette Goddard and Nelson Rockefeller, to name but a few.
Although both Riveras were decidedly leftist, Mujica doesn’t hesitate to point out their contradictory attitude towards capitalists and what they could do for artists. Referring to the problems Diego encountered painting a mural for the Rockefellers in New York, the author writes: “Diego was having the same problems in New York as in Detroit. A lot of people were indignant because he was taking the Rockefellers’ money to paint pictures showing that American capitalists were crooks and pigs. I mean, let’s face it, the Rockefellers were princes of capitalism. And here Diego was showing that the princes of capitalism were living off of everybody else's sweat.” Woven into the narrative are Frida’s notoriously salty language and the couple’s outrageous escapades.
What I enjoyed most about “Frida” is Mujica’s wonderful use of imagery. In their courtship, she refers to the pair as “an orangutan and a sparrow” and later, to Rivera as a fellow who “walked around with a pistol and shot off his mouth as though he were Lenin's grandmother.” This novel is a true gem. Don’t miss it if you’re a Frida fan; if not already a fan, I guarantee you'll become one. Barbara Mujica, a novelist and essayist, is professor of Spanish at Georgetown University.
The children's book “Frida” opens with “Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico in 1907. This is the story of how she learned to paint, how painting saved her life, and why her paintings are like no one else’s.” In this “Frida” we’re treated to 32 pages of text and illustrations chronicling major events in the artist’s life. The whimsical illustrations, executed in vibrant Mexican colors and in a style Frida would appreciate, are particularly fine.
Especially charming are the small characters drawn from Mexican folklore – a funny skeleton, red devil, and sweet jaguar, among others – who accompany Frida through the ups and downs of her too-short life. We also meet up with the special pets Frida kept at the Casa Azul – a small deer named Granizo, the favorite monkey Fulang-Chang, and a tiny escuincle dog. Intended for children ages four through ten and an excellent gift for a favorite niece or grandchild, “Frida” inspires the budding artist in all of us. In addition to “Frida,” Jonah Winter has also written “Diego” for children. Artist Ana Juan, based in Madrid, Spain, has illustrated covers for The NewYorker.
The long-awaited film “Frida,” starring and produced by Salma Hayek, is due out in October. From all accounts, this production promises to be a visual feast. See www.fridamovie.com, www.miramax.com/frida
© 2002 Gale Randall