Art, Atheism, and the Freedom of Expression: Frida Kahlo’s Searing Protest Letter to the President of Mexico
A spirited defense of “public freedom of expression and opinion, the means of progress of every free people.”
By Maria Popova
“Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest,” Chinua Achebe observed in his superb forgotten conversation with James Baldwin. “If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” A generation earlier, W.H. Auden distilled this abiding truth by asserting that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act.” This has been the eternal gauntlet of the artist in every country, culture, and civilization since the human hunger for truth and beauty first collided with the craving for power.
In 1947, some twenty latitude degrees south of Auden and 108 longitude degrees west of Achebe, the artist Diego Rivera (December 8, 1886–November 24, 1957) began painting what would become one of his most beautiful and elaborate murals, Dreams of a Sunday in the Alameda, in the dining hall of the Hotel del Prado — a new government establishment in Mexico City, set to open the following spring. The building was to be dedicated with a traditional sprinkling of holy water, complete with the great honor of a blessing by the archbishop of Mexico.
But just before the June ceremony, pious panic erupted over Rivera’s depiction of one of the historical figures populating the mural — the 19th-century Mexican poet, journalist, atheist, and progressive politician Ignacio Ramírez, portrayed holding a sign inscribed with his credo, Dios no existe — “God does not exist.” Catholic crowds mobbed the hotel and demanded that the text be removed. The archbishop refused to perform the ceremony unless this be done — a lamentable testament to Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly [while] the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself.”
Rivera, an uncloseted atheist himself, resisted the bullying and refused to disfigure his art with dogma-driven censorship. “I will not remove one letter from it,” he declared, perhaps hinting at the absurdity of such panic staked on a two-letter word and the basic civil liberty it denotes.
Newspapers saw an opportunity to cater to the blamethirsty masses and launched a vicious attack against Rivera. A mob of thirty broke into the hotel and vandalized the mural, scraping the words no existe off with a knife, leaving Dios conspicuously unscathed, and indulging in the extra malignity of defacing another character in the mural — Rivera’s self-portrait as a young boy.
In that vicious cycle of the media feeding the masses feeding the media, newspapers applauded the assault.
The very evening of the attack, two blocks away, some of Mexico’s most eminent artists, writers, and intellectuals — including Rivera himself — were attending a dinner honoring the director of the capital’s Museum of Fine Arts, Fernando Gamboa. Just as Gamboa was delivering an address on the importance of protecting the freedom of expression from onslaughts of intolerance, word of the mural assault reached the gathering. About a hundred of these intellectual and creative visionaries rose and marched to the Hotel del Prado, then into the posh dining room, where some climbed on the tables with battlecries for the freedom of expression. Rivera himself stood up on a chair to ask for a pencil and, as soon as one was in his hand, simply began rewriting the inscription with absolute composure.
Still, the masses and their media handmaiden continued the attacks. Eventually, hotel management caved and boarded over the mural.
Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954), who had been united with Rivera in love, art, and politics for two decades, and who held such strong political ideals of her own that she changed her birthday to coincide with the start of the Mexican Revolution, was furious and determined to raise her country’s conscience.
First, she wrote to the director of the National Institute of Fine Art. When he failed to intercede, she sent a searing letter to the President of Mexico himself, Miguel Alemán Valdés, who had once been her high school classmate. The letter, composed on October 20, 1948, and included in Martha Zamora’s altogether wonderful little collection The Letters of Frida Kahlo: Cartas Apasionadas (public library), is a sublime model of an artist unafraid to use her personal voice for political change and a supreme testament to Kahlo’s character.
With her characteristic impassioned directness, Kahlo forgoes any formal salutation and addresses the president bluntly by name, before launching straight into the heart of her protest:
This letter is a protest of just indignation that I want to communicate to you, against a cowardly and humiliating crime that is being perpetrated in this country.
I want to communicate to you the tremendous historical responsibility that your government is assuming by letting a Mexican painter’s work, renowned worldwide as one of the highest examples of the Mexican Culture, be covered up, hidden from the eyes of this country’s people and from the international public because of SECTARIAN, DEMAGOGIC, AND MERCENARY reasons.
That type of crime against the culture of a country, against the right that every man has to express his ideas — those criminal attacks against freedom have only been committed in regimes like Hitler’s and are still being committed under Francisco Franco, and in the past, during the dark and negative age of the “Holy” Inquisition.
Lewis Thomas, champion of conscious punctuation, would have appreciated Kahlo’s exquisite placement of quotation marks to make her own views on religious dogma unambiguous.
She goes on to appeal to Alemán’s patriotic duty, exhorting him not to succumb to the pressures of corporate interests more interested in profit than in democracy:
It is not possible that you — who represent at this moment the will of the Mexican people, with democratic liberties gained… through the bloodshed of the people themselves — can allow a few investors, in complicity with a few ill-willed Mexicans, to cover up the words that tell the History of Mexico and the work of art of a Mexican citizen whom the civilized world recognizes as one of the most illustrious painters of our times.
Alemán had had a lustrous legal career before becoming the first civilian president follwoing a revolving door of revolutionary generals. Kahlo appeals to his background as a lawyer in recognizing that under no legal code can the vandalism of an artist’s work be allowed, reminding him that only recently he himself had issued a decree protecting artworks in public spaces. She then heightens the stakes of justice:
There is one thing that is not written in any code, and that is the cultural conscience of the people, which will not allow Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to be converted into an apartment building.
For that reason I am addressing you, speaking simply and clearly, not as the wife of the painter Diego Rivera, but as an artist and citizen of Mexico.
In a passage of grave historical irony, for women were still not allowed to vote in Mexico and wouldn’t be until the first election after Kahlo’s death, she continues:
With the right that such citizenship grants me, I will ask you: Will you allow THE PRESIDENTIAL DECREE THAT YOU YOURSELF ISSUED to be stepped on by a few sectarian, clerical merchants? … As a Mexican citizen and, above all, as President of your people, will you permit History to be silenced — the word, the cultural action and the message of the genius of a Mexican artist to be silenced?
Will you permit public freedom of expression and opinion, the means of progress of every free people, to be destroyed?
All this in the name of stupidity, narrow-mindedness, chicanery, and the BETRAYAL OF DEMOCRACY?
I beg you to give yourself an honest answer about the historical role you have as the leader of Mexico in an issue of such significance.
I am laying forth this problem before your conscience as a citizen of a democratic country.
By standing up against this injustice, she tells him, he would be sending a strong democratic message not only to his people but to the rest of the world — proof that Mexico is a free country and “not the ignorant and savage nation of the Pancho Villas.” In a sentiment the poet Wendell Berry would echo with chilling poetic precision in his poem “Questionnaire” many decades later, Kahlo follows the inescapable causal thread from the smallest failures of tolerance and justice to the grandest and grimmest crimes against humanity:
If you do not act as an authentic Mexican at this critical moment, by defending your own decrees and rights, then let the science- and history-book burning start; let the works of art be destroyed with rocks of fire; let free men get kicked out of the country; let torture in, as well as prisons and concentration camps. I can assure you that very soon with very little effort, we will have a flaming “made-in-Mexico” fascist regime.
Alemán, having built his campaign on the importance of education and the arts but having made his fortune from corporate interests, chose not to intervene. Newspaper attacks continued with mob-inspired ferocity. Holding fast to his integrity and leaning on Kahlo’s unfaltering support, Rivera refused to back down, telling a reporter:
To affirm “God does not exist,” I do not have to hide behind Don Ignacio Ramírez; I am an atheist and I consider religions to be a form of collective neurosis. I am not an enemy of the Catholics, as I am not an enemy of the tuberculars, the myopic or the paralytics; you cannot be an enemy of the sick, only their friend in order to help them cure themselves.
A year later, Kahlo would write in her stunning word-portrait of Rivera:
His words make one tremendously uncomfortable because they are live and true. His raw concepts weaken or disorient those who listen to him because they don’t agree with the already established morals; thus, they always break the bark to let new blossoms come out; they wound to let new cells grow.
The hotel was destroyed by the massive 1985 Mexico City earthquake, but Rivera’s mural was salvaged. It now lives in a dedicated museum across the street, next to Alameda Park.
Complement with Iris Murdoch — another woman of rare vision and courage — on art as a force of resistance to tyranny and Albert Camus on the courage to create authentically despite policing forces, then revisit this lovely illustrated biography of Kahlo and her touching letter of solidarity and support to the discomposed Georgia O’Keeffe.
Published September 3, 2019