This article is an extensively edited version of work presented at the University of Guyana and at the Octavio Paz Room in the Mexican Embassy by Visiting Lecturer Ellif Lara of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico).
I would like to approach Mexican culture through just two of the many paths we can use to get to an understanding of a foreign society; that is, through art and poetry. But although this discussion deals only with poetry and its relations with the visual arts in the country where I was born and raised, there are many other issues involved in both topics.
As you know, to get a better understanding of the artistic expressions of a society there are some fundamental factors. One needs to observe, analyse and interpret them from the point of view of political history, which affects the development of the arts not only inside the native country of the poets and artists, but worldwide. Also, we should make comparisons between the work we are studying and other pieces of literature or aesthetic expressions. Finally, it is possible to obtain many keys to open the secret meanings in a work of art using biographical data. These are only some examples of how the study of a painting or a lyrical text can reveal to us more than we think there is at first glance about an individual, a society, and of course about human nature, its anxieties and pleasures.
Let me synthesise these ideas: a painting, or a piece of poetry contains aesthetical values; in one case colours and forms, in the other rhythm and images. But both forms of art may also be considered as echoes of historical and ideological tensions. They are shaped by their particular artistic inheritance, and they engage in a very critical way, other works of art from their own country as well as from other cultural zones. These traditions cross over when a poet writes inspired by a piece of visual art, or when a painter illustrates a literary text. Moreover, the tensions I have mentioned ‘duplicate’ their power of suggestion; new meanings rise in these cases, due to the mutual enlightening that occurs from the contact between the two different works of art in this aesthetic experience.
These kinds of aesthetical relations are not as avant-garde as we would think. If we establish an arbitrary starting point in the European Renaissance, many paintings and sculptures were inspired by biblical scenes or episodes taken from Greek and Latin sources. Also, many opera scripts were written from literary sources which, by the talent of the composer, were translated into musical language. But it was during the Romantic period in the final decades of the eighteenth century and early in the nineteenth, that bridges were constructed among diverse artistic disciplines in ways not seen before in western art. To give some examples: the English poet William Blake illustrated his own poems; Richard Wagner advocated a global art that could reunite music, poetry and drama in the same artistic expression; Franz Liszt wrote pieces for piano inspired by Petrarch’s sonnets, while Dante Gabrielle Rossetti and William Morris practised their skills both with the pen and the brush.
Since colonial times, Mexican artists followed these European models of interaction between artistic disciplines. But from my point of view, it was not until the twentieth century that these sorts of aesthetic communications achieved a higher consciousness among Mexican authors. For a better understanding of this, and as an initial but fertile introduction to the arts produced in my country, let me present just two of the outstanding examples of painters that illustrated poems, of poets that wrote about paintings and of other unusual forms of love among the muses. I hope that this amorous embrace may awaken our curiosity to establish deeper relations with the Mexican culture, an attractive but far from shy lady.
I will turn to the cases of Carlos Pellicer and Frida Kahlo whose rise to prominence may be traced back to the Mexican Revolution. It erupted in 1910 among a population tired of thirty years of unfair conditions for both peasants and workmen. Although the Mexican economy enjoyed a boost and the country was maintained under peaceful conditions during the regime of Porfirio Diaz, the lack of democracy and the inequitable distribution of wealth inspired many social and political leaders to fight against his regime. The Mexican revolution lasted 10 years, mainly because some of those leaders fought against each other to obtain power after Diaz’s departure. The two decades that followed the end of the civil war were devoted to the reconstruction of Mexican society, including the arts. The younger authors and artists collaborated in this mission. These are the cases of Carlos Pellicer and Frida Kahlo, the creators we are going to mention now.
Carlos Pellicer (1897-1977) was related to a generation of writers that decided to update Mexican literature, to bring it closer to the new expressions from Europe and the United States. They drifted apart from those novels and short stories that described the Mexican Revolution from a critical point of view. Pellicer’s generation wrote between 1920 and 1950 inspired by such authors as T S Eliot, André Gide, Paul Valery, Luis Cernuda and others whose literary production was still developing at the time. Many of the Mexican poets of these years published in the same artistic magazine entitled Contemporáneos (Contemporaries). Their aesthetical proposals showed many differences, but they had in common the intention to explore universal motifs in their texts.
In 1953 Pellicer dedicated a sonnet to Frida Kahlo, who is today, the most famous Mexican artist. This marvellous woman, about whom at least two films have been produced and biographies published, was born in 1907. Since she had an accident as a teenager her father, a photographer of Austrian origin, showed her how to convert her sufferings in art through colours. Soon, Kahlo developed incredible skills and in the twenties married the man who would be her amorous obsession: Diego Rivera, a recognized muralist in Mexico and other countries. Although their tormented but constant relationship would invite us to think that there was a direct influence of Rivera’s style in Kahlo’s art, fortunately our artist knew how to find her own aesthetic road. She took the Mexican popular art as a model for her very personal creations, based upon her own sufferings, hopes and love. While we can find in Kahlo’s art the realistic style used by Rivera to represent form and figures, Kahlo used it to explore and to reveal to us (and to herself) the inner fountains of her emotions. This is analogous to what the surrealist painters tried, but the main difference is that the Mexican artist applied an evident system of symbols, that is, a clear order of images that may have emerged from the subconscious. Kahlo, a passionate communist like her husband, died in 1954 due to the precarious health she maintained all her life.
The first stanza of Pellicer’s poem establishes a connection between the aesthetic genius of the painter (“rose of colours”) and her biological inability to conceive a child. According to this, Frida’s art has the unique capacity to nurture the Earth returning a positive and bright image of nature in the paintings. Thus, Frida is transfigured by Pellicer in a mirror of the creative forces of the universe, forces represented in many cultures (especially in the pre-Columbian world) as a feminine figure. Frida is presented as a maternal goddess, who not only nourishes the creation but also grants it an aesthetical value.
The second stanza refers to a “nocturnal rose”; perhaps the ‘side B’ of the “rose of colours” from the first stanza. This may refer to the negative part of Frida’s personality, arising from sufferings that gave birth to self portraits that reveal “serene disasters,” just as one may find in many of her paintings. Despite such a tormented image, those nocturnal moments are defined as “holly nights like poinsettias,” that is, with a fertile result: the work of art.
In the third stanza we can discover a double implication in the word “sons.” First of all, Pellicer is referring to the painter’s works, her artistic sons to which she has given birth for the nourishment of the Earth, as we have already explained. On the other hand, the poet may be referring also to the many abortions that Kahlo suffered through her life: she could never conceive a child because her delicate state of health did not allow her to. Finally, Pellicer gives us a solar image of the artist, constructed by hope and light… unfortunately, one year later Kahlo passed away.
Sonnet to Frida Kahlo
If in your womb camped the splendid
Rose of colors, if your breast
Nourishes the land with brunette
Food of shining thickness;
If from your maternal wideness
The nocturnal rose of the holly nights
Like poinsettias brought your image with
Serene disasters in your populous face.
If your sons born with ages
That nobody could supply with hours
Because they speak solitude of eternities,
You will always be above the living soil,
You will always be riot full of dawns,
The heroic flower of successive dawns.