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Frida Kahlo on How Love Amplifies Beauty: Her Breathtaking Tribute to Diego Rivera

“I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow.”

As artists, Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) and Diego Rivera (December 8, 1886–November 24, 1957) each possessed boundless talent bolstered by an unbending will. As partners, they possessed each other with a ferocious love, intense and complicated and all-eclipsing — the kind for which, in Rilke’s immortal words, “all other work is but preparation.” They wed when Kahlo was twenty-two and Rivera forty-two, and remained together until Kahlo’s death twenty-five years later. They had an open marriage long before the term existed as a trend of modern romance — both had multiple affairs, Rivera with women and Kahlo with both men and women, most notably with the American-born French singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker and with the Russian Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky. Still, both insisted that they were the love of each other’s life — a deep conviction crystallized in Kahlo’s passionate love letters and Rivera’s affectionate account of their first encounter.

But nowhere does their uncommon love come more vibrantly alive than in Kahlo’s short portrait of Rivera, included as an afterword to his My Art, My Life: An Autobiography (public library). In just a few wholehearted, wholebodied paragraphs, she captures the enormity of their love. Her sincere humanity radiates a testament to the enormity of all love as a transfiguring force, the ultimate wellspring of beauty and grace.

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Kahlo begins:

I warn you that in this picture I am painting of Diego there will be colors which even I am not fully acquainted with. Besides, I love Diego so much I cannot be an objective speculator of him or his life… I cannot speak of Diego as my husband because that term, when applied to him, is an absurdity. He never has been, nor will he ever be, anybody’s husband. I also cannot speak of him as my lover because to me, he transcends by far the domain of sex. And if I attempt to speak of him purely, as a soul, I shall only end up by painting my own emotions. Yet considering these obstacles of sentiment, I shall try to sketch his image to the best of my ability.

Under the wildly affectionate gaze of her sketch, Rivera — a man physically unattractive by our culture’s conventional standards of beauty — is transformed into an exquisite, magical, almost supernatural creature. We are left with a bone-deep awareness that the true splendor of a human being, as Ursula K. Le Guin so elegantly demonstrated a generation later, is something quite different from “beauty.” What emerges is ultimately a portrait less of Rivera than of Kahlo’s own astonishing capacity for love and beauty in the largest possible sense.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1933 (Photograph by Martin Munkácsi)

Kahlo sketches Rivera:

Growing up from his Asiatic-type head is his fine, thin hair, which somehow gives the impression that it is floating in air. He looks like an immense baby with an amiable but sad-looking face. His wide, dark, and intelligent bulging eyes appear to be barely held in place by his swollen eyelids. They protrude like the eyes of a frog, each separated from the other in a most extraordinary way. They thus seem to enlarge his field of vision beyond that of most persons. It is almost as if they were constructed exclusively for a painter of vast spaces and multitudes. The effect produced by these unusual eyes, situated so far away from each other, encourages one to speculate on the ages-old oriental knowledge contained behind them.

On rare occasions, an ironic yet tender smile appears on his Buddha-like lips. Seeing him in the nude, one is immediately reminded of a young boy-frog standing on his hind legs. His skin is greenish-white, very like that of an aquatic animal. The only dark parts of his whole body are his hands and face, and that is because they are sunburned. His shoulders are like a child’s, narrow and round. They progress without any visible hint of angles, their tapering rotundity making them seem almost feminine. The arms diminish regularly into small, sensitive hands… It is incredible to think that these hands have been capable of achieving such a prodigious number of paintings. Another wonder is that they can still work as indefatigably as they do.

Diego’s chest — of it we have to say, that had he landed on an island governed by Sappho, where male invaders were apt to be executed, Diego would never have been in danger. The sensitivity of his marvelous breasts would have insured his welcome, although his masculine virility, specific and strange, would have made him equally desired in the lands of these queens avidly hungering for masculine love.

His enormous belly, smooth, tightly drawn, and sphere-shaped, is supported by two strong legs which are as beautifully solid as classical columns. They end in feet which point outward at an obtuse angle, as if moulded for a stance wide enough to cover the entire earth.

He sleeps in a foetal position. In his waking hours, he walks with a languorous elegance as if accustomed to living in a liquefied medium. By his movements, one would think that he found air denser to wade through than water.

Art by Yuyi Morales from Viva Frida, a lovely picture-book celebrating Kahlo’s life and legacy

At the very end of the piece, Kahlo addresses that gruesome yet all too common human tendency to judge other loves from the outside — a violent flattening of the nuance and dimension and enormous richness that exist between two people, perceptible to them alone. She writes:

Perhaps it is expected that I should lament about how I have suffered living with a man like Diego. But I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow, nor does the earth suffer because of the rains, nor does the atom suffer for letting its energy escape. To my way of thinking, everything has its natural compensation.

Complement My Art, My Life with Mary Oliver’s equally, very differently beautiful tribute to the love of her life, then revisit Kahlo’s illustrated love letters to Rivera.

BP

Einstein on Grief, Time, Eternity, and the Privilege of Old Age: His Beautiful Letter to the Bereaved Queen of Belgium

“…and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be.”

Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) is celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius.” But surely there is something more expansive than his undeniable scientific brilliance to warrant such high reverence — something that transcends the practical value of his intellectual contributions and opens into a larger enrichment of the human experience.

In addition to his groundbreaking discoveries in physics, which changed our understanding of time and fostered a common language of science, he was also a man of enormous wisdom, empathy, and emotional intelligence, which he channeled in his voluminous correspondence with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers — he wrote breathtaking love letters, counseled his young son on the secret to learning anything, assured a little girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared her gender would hold her back, shared the secret to his genius with an inquisitive colleague, and corresponded with Freud on violence, peace, and human nature.

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But one of his most poignant and humane letters was addressed to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, with whom he had cultivated a warm friendship. After the sudden death of her husband, King Albert, followed closely by the death of her daughter-in-law, Einstein reached out to offer thoughtful and tender solace to his bereaved friend. Penned in 1934 and cited in Krista Tippett’s wonderful book Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (public library) — which also gave us cosmologist Janna Levin on mathematics, truth, and free will — the letter is at once a gift of warm consolation for the Queen’s grief and a timeless meditation on time, eternity, and the privilege of old age.

Shortly before his 55th birthday, Einstein writes:

Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you.

And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.

Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation — a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.

Einstein’s God, it bears repeating, is a magnificent read in its totality. Complement it with Einstein’s letter to a young woman who had lost faith in humanity and the childhood epiphany that shaped his life, then revisit Oliver Sacks on the gift of growing old.

BP

Maurice Sendak on Storytelling, Creativity, and the Eternal Child in Each of Us: His Marvelous Forgotten 1970 Conversation with Studs Terkel

On the lifelong pleasure of “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.”

Maurice Sendak on Storytelling, Creativity, and the Eternal Child in Each of Us: His Marvelous Forgotten 1970 Conversation with Studs Terkel

“One of the most powerful men in the United States is a dark-haired young bachelor with a mobile face, who was born in Brooklyn in 1928.” So wrote Brian O’Doherty in his 1963 New York Times profile of Maurice Sendak, a storyteller whose work “springs from his earliest self, from the vagrant child that lurks in the heart of all of us.” (Beautifully true as the rest may be, one claim was an ugliness of the era’s pre-DOMA bigotry: Sendak wasn’t a bachelor at all — by that point, he already lived with Dr. Eugene Glynn, who would be his spouse for the remaining half-century of Glynn’s life.)

But the most timeless truth about Sendak’s genius lies in how his books granted and continue to grant validity to children’s imagination — not only in its boundless light but in its deepest darkness, too. For the latter he offered solace not through escapism but through solidarity: Yes, he seems to say, life is difficult and scary — but if we spend half of it in darkness, we might as well find rays of hope in the shadows and befriend the monsters lurking there as indelible companions in our conquest of the luminous half.

Illustration from Kenny’s Window, Sendak’s deeply philosophical first book

In 1970, 42-year-old Sendak sat down with Pulitzer-winning oral historian and interviewer extraordinaire Studs Terkel (May 16, 1912–October 31, 2008) for a wide-ranging conversation about his creative evolution as a storyteller; about his influences and the inspiration behind his most celebrated books; about starting out as an illustrator of other writers’ stories — most notably, his early collaborations with Ruth Krauss — and then becoming a writer himself with the 1957 publication of his first solo book, the forgotten and wonderfully philosophical gem Kenny’s Window. “If you’re an illustrator,” he tells Terkel, “you’re almost a writer — or you want to be a writer. You sort of hug words when you illustrate a book, and eventually do think you’re going to be a writer — and then, hopefully, you become a writer.”

The conversation became the sincerest and most creatively revealing interview Sendak ever gave.

Nearly half a century later, the Studs Terkel Radio Archive — a wonderful cultural preservation initiative by Terkel’s home radio station, Chicago’s WFMT — is enlisting the help of the public in transcribing and digitizing a thousand of his most notable interviews, including this one, which they have kindly offered as a Brain Pickings exclusive.

Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

On why William Blake became his great lifelong influence:

I love … Blake’s adoration of the child self as being the best part of the human self. How sad that as adults, we just drop it along the way — or are embarrassed by it, often. There are so many adults who enjoy a book for children but are vaguely embarrassed at enjoying it, as though only their children should enjoy it and there’s something strange about them enjoying it — which is such an odd twisting and distortion of the pleasure of having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of.

One of Sendak’s rare 1967 illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence

On how ideas are born:

It’s an emotional quality — and they come up, they really well up, like when I wrote In the Night Kitchen… As the book grew, you’re just never so happy… You’re living two lives — you’re a 42-year-old man, and you’re a four-year-old boy. And it’s a little confusing, but it’s memorable. It’s a stupendous feeling — it’s the greatest joy in the world. And you know the validity of it because it comes pouring into your head.

On the artificiality of designating something as a “children’s book,” against which Tolkien too admonished and which Sendak repeated in his last on-camera interview shortly before his death:

I don’t set out to write for children. I don’t consciously set out to write a book for some imaginary child. I just write the book because I have to… I don’t have any audience in mind except my own pleasure.

One of Sendak’s 1973 illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

On the secret to illustration as a storytelling medium and the relationship between text and image:

What I love [about] illustrating a book is that words and pictures do things for each other. To just illustrate a word is pointless — you’re just laying down a picture. But if you have the picture doing something other than what the word is doing, then something marvelous might be happening… You get a dimension in a book.

[…]

That’s the beauty of book writing and illustrating. There’s nothing so dull as translating books that are beautifully written into a picture — the author’s already done that, so you as an illustrator must contribute something else: adorn the word, or go inside the word, or go around the word, but extend it in some marvelous way to make it a beautiful thing. And that’s the great fun.

On the fragmentary nature of creativity, which David Lynch echoed decades later, and the incubation period of ideas, which T.S. Eliot extolled decades earlier:

There are always ideas that sit in your head… A stray sentence from ’58 sits in my head, a stray sentence from ’62 sits in my head; I have a title for the past eight years now, which I just love, but I don’t have the story to go with it; I even have a subtitle, but don’t have a story to go with it… You get these little hunks of fragments [and] you just wait, and you’ve got to be very patient. Eventually, if they’re good enough, they come together. If they stink, they fall away.

One of Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters celebrating libraries and reading

On honoring children’s inherent Baloney Detection Kit:

Be as foolish and as silly and whatever as you want, but you tell the truth in some way… Kids know instantly when you’re not, and how awful to not tell the truth — what’s the point, really?

Complement with Sendak’s darkest yet most truthful and optimistic book, his rare and formative illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence, and his posthumous love letter to the world, then join me in supporting the Studs Terkel Radio Archive digital conservation initiative.

BP

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