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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.”

Art, Atheism, and the Freedom of Expression: Frida Kahlo’s Searing Protest Letter to the President of Mexico

“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.

Diego Rivera. Dreams of a Sunday in the Alameda.

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.

The controversial detail of Rivera’s mural.

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.

Frida Kahlo by Nickolas Muray (Brooklyn Museum)

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:

Miguel Alemán:

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.

Frida Kahlo. Self-Portrait as Tehuana: Diego On My Mind. (Brooklyn Museum)

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.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair. (Museum of Modern Art)

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.

Frida Kahlo by Lucienne Bloch (Brooklyn Museum)

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.

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I Like You: An Almost Unbearably Lovely Vintage Illustrated Ode to Friendship

A touching serenade to the little things that add up to the bigness of a true platonic love.

I Like You: An Almost Unbearably Lovely Vintage Illustrated Ode to Friendship

“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship,” Seneca counseled two millennia ago in his timeless meditation on true and false friendship, “but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul.”

I often ponder friendship — that crowning glory of life — and the strain of protecting its sanctity from the commodification of the word “friend” in this age of social media. Adrienne Rich exposed the naked heart of it in her bittersweet assertion that “we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.” I side with astronomer Maria Mitchell in that the few who do accompany us intimately along the walk of life shape who we become, and with poet and philosopher David Whyte in that “all friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.”

But what, really, is the meaning and measure of friendship? Like most things of beauty, it is slippery to define yet deeply felt. Paradoxically, devastatingly, it is often recognized most acutely through its sudden loss. It lives most intimately not in the grand gestures but in the littlest things that add up, in the final calculus of life, to the bigness of any true bond.

That is what children’s book author Sandol Stoddard and illustrator Jacqueline Chwast explore with immense sweetness and sensitivity in the 1965 gem I Like You (public library) — one of the tenderest and most touching presents I’ve ever gotten, from one of my dearest friends, and the platonic-love counterpart to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s classic romantic-love sonnet “How Do I Love Thee?”

Stoddard — who wrote more than twenty children’s books and the first major book advocating for human-centric end-of-life care, lived to be 90, and died the mother of five children, ten grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren — was once asked to identify the underlying theme across all of her books.

She answered simply, “Love.”

And love — that sweetest, most knotless and untroubled kind — is what radiates from these simple, surprisingly profound verse-like meditations on friendship, illustrated with the kindred sensibility of Chwast’s simple yet richly expressive black-and-white line drawings.

Published the same year as Love Is Walking Hand in Hand — that charming catalogue of little moments that define love, channeled by Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the rest of the Peanuts — the book confers upon friendship the delight and dignity we tend to reserve, foolishly so, for romantic love only.

More than half a century later, I Like You remains a timeless treasure, as delicious to give and as it is to receive. Complement it with Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on losing a friend and Kahlil Gibran on the building blocks of meaningful connection, then revisit two other charming picture-books about friendship from the same era: Ruth Krauss’s infinitely delightful I’ll Be You and You Be Me, illustrated by the young Maurice Sendak, and Janice May Urdy’s clever reverse-psychology gem Let’s Be Enemies, also illustrated by Sendak, just as he was beginning to dream up Where the Wild Things Are.

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Advice to a Daughter from Pioneering Political Philosopher and Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft

“Always appear what you are, and you will not pass through existence without enjoying its genuine blessings, love and respect.”

Advice to a Daughter from Pioneering Political Philosopher and Feminism Founding Mother Mary Wollstonecraft

Six years after Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) composed her epoch-making 1792 treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which became the foundation of what we today call feminism, she fell in love with the radical political philosopher William Godwin. The two forged the original marriage of equals and conceived a daughter — future Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

Ten days after giving birth to baby Mary, Wollstonecraft died at only thirty eight, leaving behind the foundation for the next two centuries of humanity’s model of gender equality, and a half-orphaned baby daughter who would come to know her mother through her writing.

Mary Wollstonecraft shortly before her death. Portrait by John Opie.

In the final years of her life, Wollstonecraft had begun working on Maria; or The Wrongs of Woman (free ebook | public library) — a philosophical novel intended as a sequel to Vindication and laced with strong autobiographical strands, exploring subjects like slavery, class, marriage, motherhood, female desire, dignity, and the wellspring of agency. Unlike the astonishing rapidity with which Wollstonecraft the political philosopher had composed her humanist treatises, Wollstonecraft the literary artist struggled to complete the novel, doing more research for it than for any of her nonfiction. Godwin would later recall that “she was sensible how arduous a task it is to produce a truly excellent novel; and she roused her faculties to grapple with it.”

Before she could finish the manuscript, Wollstonecraft died of complications from childbirth — a devastatingly common killer of women for the vast majority of human history. Godwin published the novel a year later, as part of a collection of Wollstonecraft’s posthumous works. Their daughter, who learned to read partly by tracing the letters on Wollstonecraft’s gravestone, would spend the rest of her life trying to get to know her mother through her work, of which Maria was in many ways the most personal.

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death)” by William Blake

One particular passage from the seventh chapter, chillingly prescient given Wollstonecraft’s fate, would endure for Mary as the sage and empowering life-advice her mother never lived to give her:

Death may snatch me from you, before you can weigh my advice, or enter into my reasoning: I would then, with fond anxiety, lead you very early in life to form your grand principle of action, to save you from the vain regret of having, through irresolution, let the spring-tide of existence pass away, unimproved, unenjoyed. — Gain experience — ah! gain it — while experience is worth having, and acquire sufficient fortitude to pursue your own happiness; it includes your utility, by a direct path. What is wisdom too often, but the owl of the goddess, who sits moping in a desolated heart.

In consonance with E.E. Cummings’s invigorating wisdom on the courage to be yourself, Wollstonecraft adds:

Always appear what you are, and you will not pass through existence without enjoying its genuine blessings, love and respect.

Complement with Maya Angelou’s letter to the daughter she never had and W.E.B. Du Bois’s magnificent life-advice to the daughter he did have, then revisit Wollstonecraft on loneliness and the courage of unwavering affection, her stirring love letters to and from Godwin, and her moral primer for children, illustrated by William Blake.

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Ancestor Worship with Mother Nature: How Indigenous Death Rituals Illuminate the Web of Life

“For almost all oral cultures… the body’s decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.”

Ancestor Worship with Mother Nature: How Indigenous Death Rituals Illuminate the Web of Life

“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” the poet Marie Howe asked in her sublime ode to our belonging with the universe.

My dear friend Emily Levine, who awakened my love of poetry long ago, entered the final stretch of her life with an uncommonly beautiful orientation toward death. Beneath the inescapable sorrow of impending non-being was a buoyancy of being springing from her Augustinian excitement to return her stardust to the universe that made it — to belong once again with all the matter that ever was, with every other creature who ever lived and died, with raven and river and rock. She wanted to go into the earth not in a casket and all its attendant human pomp but in a mushroom burial suit that would slowly reweave “her” atoms into the great web of life.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

It may be one of the great bittersweetnesses of human life that nothing brings that vitalizing sense of belonging into the centerstage of consciousness more clearly than death. This has been the case across epochs and cultures and civilizations, and this is what ecologist and philosopher David Abram explores in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (public library) — his wonderful inquiry into the ancient wisdom of nature, witnessed and reverenced in the traditions of various human cultures across the span of millennia and meridians.

In a testament to Robert Macfarlane’s poetically phrased observation that “into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save,” Abram writes:

Our strictly human heavens and hells have only recently been abstracted from the sensuous world that surrounds us, from this more-than-human realm that abounds in its own winged intelligences and cloven-hoofed powers. For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body” — whether human or otherwise — is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but is a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.

Each indigenous culture elaborates this recognition of metamorphosis in its own fashion, taking its clues from the particular terrain in which it is situated. Often the invisible atmosphere that animates the visible world — the subtle presence that circulates both within us and between all things — retains within itself the spirit or breath of the dead person until the time when that breath will enter and animate another visible body — a bird, or a deer, or a field of wild grain. Some cultures may burn, or “cremate,” the body in order to more completely return the person, as smoke, to the swirling air, while that which departs as flame is offered to the sun and stars, and that which lingers as ash is fed to the dense earth. Still other cultures may dismember the body, leaving certain parts in precise locations where they will likely be found by condors, or where they will be consumed by mountain lions or by wolves, thus hastening the re-incarnation of that person into a particular animal realm within the landscape. Such examples illustrate simply that death, in tribal cultures, initiates a metamorphosis wherein the person’s presence does not “vanish” from the sensible world (where would it go?) but rather remains as an animating force within the vastness of the landscape, whether subtly, in the wind, or more visibly, in animal form, or even as the eruptive, ever to be appeased, wrath of the volcano.

Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Elbruch

Nearly a century after Henry Beston contemplated difference, belonging, and the ample superiorities of non-human creatures, insisting that “in a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear,” Abram adds:

“Ancestor worship,” in its myriad forms, then, is ultimately another mode of attentiveness to nonhuman nature; it signifies not so much an awe or reverence of human powers, but rather a reverence for those forms that awareness takes when it is not in human form, when the familiar human embodiment dies and decays to become part of the encompassing cosmos.

This cycling of the human back into the larger world ensures that the other forms of experience that we encounter — whether ants, or willow trees, or clouds — are never absolutely alien to ourselves. Despite the obvious differences in shape, and ability, and style of being, they remain at least distantly familiar, even familial. It is, paradoxically, this perceived kinship or consanguinity that renders the difference, or otherness, so eerily potent.

Complement The Spell of the Sensuous with evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis on the interleaving of life across time, space, and species and pioneering naturalist John Muir on the transcendent interconnectedness of the universe, then revisit Mary Oliver on mortality and the key to living with presence.

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