Review: Marc Petitjean’s “The Heart: Frida Kahlo in Paris”

Freda Kahlo‘s brief sojourn in Paris, in 1939, was preceded by an equally brief stay in New York City, both encouraged by Diego Rivera, her husband, who was not only Mexico’s most famous artist, twenty years older than Freda (and a couple of hundred pounds heavier), but, worse, his ruse to get rid of her while he was having an affair with her younger sister. Such is the attraction, or more likely, the power of men over women, especially during the era when the two were married. In New York City, an exhibit of her work was fairly successful, resulting in the sale seven of her paintings (and commissions for more). Sadly, there were no sales from the exhibit in France, but the surrealists did appropriate her work because of its so-called exoticism.

André Breton and his wife had visited Mexico, and stayed with Rivera and Frida before these events, and promised Frida that if she came to Paris with her paintings, he would mount a show of her work. But when Frida arrived he reneged on that plan and suggested a wider “Mexican” exhibit that would include her work; but Breton’s taste was more ethnographic than artistic so the proposed show included some of the hundreds of Mexican artifacts (“a large number of everyday items”) he had acquired on the trip. Most of them were anything but extraordinary. Worse, when Frida arrived, the space that the Bretons had planned for her stay in their apartment was little more than a child’s bed.

She fled to a hotel, disturbed by any number of things that Breton has used to take advantage of her, especially the surrealist context. It’s February 1939, and her room is on the sixth floor, without any water, and the bathroom is way down the hall. That’s a bit of a problem because when she was a child, Frida contracted polio, which left one leg deformed. Worse, when she was eighteen, “A trolley car ran into the bus I was on… [And] a metal handrail had gone right through my body. It went in at the back…and it came out through my vagina….” The impalement “caused fractures to several vertebrae, her pelvis, and her right foot. The abdominal injury, where she was punctuated by the handrail, also caused acute peritonitis. She had to wear a full body cast for months. Her general health did not recover with the passing years: she underwent many painful operations that necessitated long periods of bed rest. She also complained of chronic fatigue and pain in her back, legs, and feet until the end of her life.”

I dwell on these physical complications because they are depicted in one of her most famous paintings: “The Heart.” It shows Frida with a metal rod through her body, where her heart would be, with a shoe on one foot and what looks like a slipper on the other. To her right, handing on a rope from the sky is a schoolgirl’s uniform, with one arm sticking out of it; to her left, a Mexican skirt and top, with its single arm looped inside of Frida’s left arm. Her hands are not visible at the ends of the sleeves and—most important—a huge bloody heart on the ground, next to her on her right side. This is “The Heart,” a painting she gave to Michel Petitjean, the author’s father, after their two-month affair, just before she returned to New York (and then back to Mexico). It’s easy to understand why the surrealists identified with the painting’s grotesqueness. Marc Petitjean says that as a child he observed the painting every day hanging in their living room.

Michel Petitjean was 29 when he met Frida for the fist time; she was 32. Michel described himself as Marcel Duchamp’s assistant and seemed to know all of the surrealists intimately, including Pablo Picasso, André Breton, Dora Maar, Salvador Dali, and Marcel Duchamp. His son describes his father as a seducer. When he met Freda (and afterwards), he was carrying on a lengthy affair with Marie-Laure de Noailles, who had inherited a vast fortune and subsidized many of the artists of the time. Freda had had her own share of lovers (including women) before she arrived in Paris, and in New York City, and—while still back in Mexico, Leon Trotsky, whom she claimed to loathe, except that she admired his politics. Most of the celebrated artists at the time were Leftists, Communists, given to free love, including Diego Rivera, was also described as physically unattractive but a great artist. The fusion of art and politics was no sop for the prurient.

Michel Petitjean spoke no Spanish, Frida no French, but their affair—much of it speculation by Michel’s son—was intense, according to the few available documents and witnesses. What it apparently did for her—as well as resulting in her divorce from Diego Rivera after her return to Mexico—was change the perspective of others who began to look at her as Frida Kahlo, and no longer as “Mrs. Rivera.” She was freed from her past.

Marc Petitjean ends his account of Frida’s two-month sojourn in Paris by saying that when his father was dying, in 1992, he sold “The Heart” for nearly a million dollars. The last sentence in his captivating story of the lovers sadly concludes, “I have never managed to discover who bought it or where in the world it now is.” At least there is a full-color reproduction of the painting in the book.

The Heart: Frida Kahlo in Paris is much more than the broken hearts of the two lovers. It’s a song of artistic rebellion, of endless struggle—two components of great art—as well as a kind of swan’s song of the surrealist movement. A beautiful book, rendered in a superb translation by Adriana Hunter.

Marc Petitjean: The Heart: Frida Kahlo in Paris
Trans by Adriana Hunter
Other Press, 195 pp., $25.00

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.