I am fully aware that Frida Kahlo, more so than Diego Rivera, as a Mexican icon is plastered on everything tourist from shopping bags to shot glasses to mouse pads. BUT after visiting the Casa Azul in Coyoacán and the Rivera murals at the Palacio Nacional, both heartbreakingly beautiful, I left with a sense of wonder.
Listening to the guides walk tourists through the Rivera murals depicting the history of Mexico, I decided that Diego’s gift was not only his artistic genius but also his political. Where, on so grand a scale, is the history of a country told from the indigenous, worker, peasant perspective? Because of his artistic genius, his paintings hold the legitimacy of Da Vinci or Michelangelo. And the history is told over and over and over again, every time a guide explains the frescoes. Diego understood what Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky say about how history is told – that is – from the conqueror’s point of view with the usual racist underpinnings. But not so here. The story is about suffering, abuse, exploitation and, I guess, victory too, if you are a buccaneer. The difference is – in reading the murals, we are educated not numbed and dumbed by the same old. Rivera understood power and used his to represent his people – those who paid, not those who gained. You cannot come away unimpressed by the scale and the beauty, BUT, regardless of your politics, you leave having learned something. You might think a little differently. You have no choice. Thus was Diego Rivera a revolutionary. He changed the world in a most profound way.
“If we are not our colours, aromas, our people, what are we? Nothing.” This is written on a wall (I think the kitchen) in the Frida Kahlo museum (Casa Azul) in Coyoacán. Frida brings in the personal and the heart and the magic. Her love of and pride in everything Mexican, from décor to dress to cuisine, is expressed everywhere in the house. Considering the easel from Rockefeller and the earrings from Picasso, tourists are not the only people in awe. Frida brings attention to her politics through style.
This unusual, brilliant couple used their genius and power as artists to bring a fresh, long-lasting perspective to the political and cultural history of Mexico. Artists and teachers – a rare combination. They embody art and teaching as a subversive activity. And I read recently that they changed the way the world saw Mexico and the way the Mexicans saw themselves.