On the spectrum between starting a business and getting married — perhaps two of the most optimistic things one can do — where would you put painting a portrait of yourself beside Diego Rivera?
Ask Frida Kahlo. She made this double portrait in San Francisco in the spring of 1931, two years after marrying Rivera. It’s a simple image, in the same way that marriage is a simple idea — only it turns out to be a hall of mirrors: Who’s up, who’s down, who’s doing the real work, whose heart is most fitted out for love?
At the end of 1930, Kahlo and Rivera had arrived in America — a country convulsed by the Great Depression. Kahlo found it “ugly and stupid.” She grew to like San Francisco, but she longed to return to Mexico.
Together, the two of them were building a business, a brand. Rivera was a double-chinned communist, an avowed atheist who could tickle the sentimental hearts of America’s titans of industry. He had been a denizen of bohemian Montparnasse, a friend of Modigliani and Picasso. His murals made him a hero back in post-revolutionary Mexico.
He was in San Francisco scooping up commissions to paint more murals — for the Luncheon Club of the Pacific Stock Exchange (not known for its communist sympathies); the California School of Fine Arts; and the widow of a former president of Levi Strauss. He was to have a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in late 1931.
Rivera was the big cheese in their fledgling marriage. Kahlo was just starting out.
It’s the fashion among Kahlo cultists (and I’m a paid-up member) to make Rivera the bad guy. But their marriage had already, by this time, corkscrewed down into a category of amorous rivalry that renders notions of “good” and “bad” redundant. Whatever they were in, they were in it together.
The banner above Kahlo’s head is in Spanish. It begins: “Here you see me, Frieda Kahlo, with my beloved husband Diego Rivera.” Straightforward, as I said. But how strange, on reflection, that he is depicted as the painter in a picture that she has painted.
Rivera holds his palette and brushes the way Saint Peter holds the keys to heaven or Edsel B. Ford holds a car designer’s compass (in a portrait Rivera made in Detroit the following year). Beside him, Kahlo tilts her head demurely. The way they are grasping hands calls to mind the uncanny, dead-or-alive couple in Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait.” Kahlo wears a dark green dress and an orange Mexican shawl. Beside Rivera’s great, clomping shoes, her green ones adorned with red polka dots are almost comically tiny.
It’s as if she is saying (with who knows what degree of affectionate irony): Look, gringos, at me and my big handsome husband. (Rivera was as ugly as sin, but love’s lens — it is well documented — generates powerful distortions.) Feel his heft and girth, the thunderous wave of his charisma, the globe-encompassing magnitude of his mirthful eyes . . .
Of course, in their symphonic relationship, Kahlo’s “smallness,” and her work’s concentrated potency, hum in continuous counterpoint to Rivera’s largeness — the fat, thumping chords of his big politics, his big pictures, his great-man bloatedness. But it’s her melody we remember best.
Great Works, In Focus
A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”
Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.” He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.