Bob Gould, 2003

Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and the movie, Frida

Source: Marxmail, August 1, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Louis Proyect is rather scathing in his review of the the movie, Frida. I have a different point of view and perhaps in this instance, ouis is being a bit precious, maybe a little snobbish.

My tastes and interests are primarily political, social and historical, and even in the sphere of the novel, art, music and literature, the things I consume with pleasure and interest usually have a social or political aspect.

Nevertheless, my longtime occupation as a mainstream mainly secondhand bookseller and record seller has taught me that a snobbish attitude to any aspect of the popular culture is unsound from a Marxist point of view.

At the risk of sounding like an ultra-orthodox Trotskyist, I don’t believe that Trotsky’s approach to culture and literature, in Literature and Revolution, has been bettered by anyone. I’m always deeply suspicious of anything that smacks of any kind of proletcult.

When people come looking for work in my bookshop, I’m always cautious about employing people who immediately assert that they only read “good” books.

A certain snobbishness about popular culture is endemic in some sections of the middle class. I’m not accusing Louis of such extreme snobbishness, of course, but my reaction to questions of literary and cultural taste is always qualified by the bits and pieces in the back of my mind of different reactions to a multitude of different questions in the cultural arena. For instance, one person’s erotica is often another person’s pornography, etc.

I thought the movie was pretty good and rather exciting, and it certainly caught on here in Australia among the literate middle class, although it obviously wasn’t a mainstream blockbuster. I think its relative popularity had a certain political utility.

It was not primarily a political film. It was directed more at an audience interested in art and culture and it had some obvious defects. Geoffrey Rush, a brilliant character actor was rather miscast. He made a strange and improbable Trotsky.

Nevertheless, the bloke who played Diego Rivera was brilliantly cast, and his role was spectacular.

Objections on the grounds of historical accuracy have been raised to the lengthy scene in which the director compresses all the characters of Mexican cultural life into a complex scene at a party, but surely any artistic creation involves a big chunk of artistic licence.

The real issue isn’t that every detail should be right, but that the general spirit of the period should be captured, and it seemed to me the scene did that. (Similarly, objections are raised, usually by furious Stalinists, to Ken Loach’s wonderful film about Spain, Land and Freedom, that it’s not a naturalistic reproduction of every piece of historical detail, but that objection also fails on the point that Land and Freedom is a faithful artistic re-creation of real historical events, using the necessary reasonable artistic licence that a fiction film or novel allows.)

In the primarily artistically focussed film a number of the major political events in the lives of Rivera, Kahlo, Trotsky and Natalia Sedova do emerge as part of the narrative. For instance, the cultural clash with the reactionary philistine Rockefeller over the Radio City mural is captured brilliantly.

Again, the later capitulation to Stalinism of Rivera and Kahlo is introduced in a brilliantly understated way in the pan shot to a sinister portrait of Stalin on the wall of Kahlo’s sick room.

I don’t share the high-culture objection to the current Kahlo cult, one by-product of which is that it introduces, indirectly, many people with artistic interests to the big political controversies of the 20th century, in which Rivera and Kahlo were participants.

Now is obviously an appropriate time for some enterprising publisher to reprint Bertram Wolfe’s important biography of Diego Rivera or Baron Moss’s novel, The Big Wall.

In 1988, when I opened my bookshop here in Newtown, in inner Sydney, I indulged myself with my only little venture in a long life into being a patron of the arts. I paid a local artist to do a faithful reproduction of the Mexico City version of the mural that Rockefeller destroyed in the Radio City foyer, called Man, Controller of the Universe. It took the artist about a fortnight up on a scaffold, like Rivera, to do this work, about the size of the side of a double-decker bus (about 12ft by 30ft).

It is up high in the entry area of the shop, on five hinged panels, which also function as doors to storage shelves behind them. This mural always appealed to me because of its voluptuous quality and the political statement made by incorporating Lenin, Trotsky and other purged Bolshevik leaders in the political atmosphere that prevailed in the middle of the 1930s. This mural has attracted constant attention over the past 15 years (although it is surprising how many people don’t notice it until it is brought to their attention. For obvious reasons, we have recently exploited the Kahlo cult and the Frida film to draw wider attention to the mural, with notices in the window and at the till.)

An interesting sidelight on this mural concerns Egon Kisch, a pioneer German and Czech communist journalist and writer who came to Australia with the sponsorship of Willi Muenzenberg’s Comintern apparatus to attend a peace conference.

He and other overseas delegates were banned from entering Australia by the conservative government of the time. The mechanism for this was testing them in any European language, a curious feature of Australia’s then immigration laws, meant to entrench the White Australia Policy and keep out “undesirables”.

Kisch nearly beat that system by passing the test in about four European languages, until they finally defeated him with Scottish Gaelic. (In the subsequent court case, the Australian High Court ultimately found that Scottish Gaelic was not a European language, within the meaning of the act, which, of course, upset the highland Scots in Australia.)

Kisch eventually jumped off the ship on which he was being held, on to the wharf, broke a leg, and subsequently escaped from police custody and went underground as a kind of Scarlet Pimpernell on the run in Australia, addressing public meetings and being whisked away, until he finally won the court case.

The battle over Egon Kisch and his fellow delegate, the New Zealander Gerald Griffin, was the big political event in Australia in 1934. Kisch subsequently wrote a very insightful book about Australia and his experiences here, called Australian Landfall, which is the best book about Australia by any Marxist outsider.

Many of Kisch’s immediate contemporaries and associates, such as Willi Muenzenberg and Kisch’s close friend, Otto Katz, were later murdered by Stalin, Katz in the witchcraft trial in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s.

Kisch went back to Czechoslovakia after World War II and was lucky enough to die peacefully before the purge trials in which many of his associates were murdered on Stalin’s orders.

The Australian anarchist A.D. Howells (Bluey Howells), was the secretary of the Kisch Griffin Defence Committee during the whole affair in 1934.

In an article in the leftist literary magazine, Overland, in the early 1990s, Howell describes how in 1940, he went on holiday to Mexico and met up with Kisch in Mexico City, where Kisch spent part of his exile from Europe.

Kisch showed Howells the sites of the city, including the Diego Rivera work in the national museum. When they looked at Man, Controller of the Universe, Kisch, who had originally been a left-wing Social Democrat and then a founder the the Czech Communist Party, pointed to Trotsky and the murdered Russian oppositionists in the mural, and said cryptically, with obvious pain: “They were good men”.

On another matter, a few years ago the US SWP made a big feature of a very large revolutionary mural that they had painted on an outside wall of its building in New York. Does anyone know what happened to the mural when they sold the building?

Clancy Sigal and Frida

I can’t say much more about the film than I said in my original comments and I’m pleased that Clancy thinks it’s a reasonable take on the film.

I might also add that the other major film about the Trotsky assissination was the repellant Assassination of Trotsky produced by the Stalinist Lohsey, and Joe Hansen’s brutal but necessary demolition of that film stands the test of time.

I agree with Fred Feldman’s point about the inaccurate-by-casting picture of Trotsky as a political figure. The weakness was in the casting. Geoffrey Rush, one of my favourite character actors by a country mile, was badly miscast playing Trotsky, and Clancy’s response to Louis about the mechanics of making a major feature film seems reasonable.

I have, however, a strong political disagreement with Clancy Sigal about Trotsky. The proposition that he would have been a more literary version of Stalin had he held power is deeply flawed.

All the biographical material about Trotsky shows him to have been a slightly aloof, slightly authoritarian kind of man, without the attractive flexibility that one associates with Lenin. Nevertheless he was a man of the highest moral principle.

An analogy between Trotsky and Che Guevara springs to mind. Both were highly moral men of the deepest political principles, although a bit inflexible in their approach.

I object to retrospectively linking Trotsky and Stalin. The Stalinist coup was a counter-revolution against the old Bolshevism of Lenin, Trotsky and all the revolutionary martyrs murdered by the Stalinist meat grinder.

Trotsky’s inflexible personality and a certain hubris had something to do with the fact that the Stalin faction won the day, but had the Left Opposition and Trotsky not fought the necessary battle for traditional revolutionary Marxism against the Stalinist counter-revolution there would be little left today of the Marxist tradition.

Had I been around at the time, I might not have got along terribly well with Trotsky, while I would have followed Lenin almost anywhere, but none of that personal psychology, while it’s of interest to us all, is the central thing about Marxist politics.

Without Trotsky and the other figures in the Left Opposition, Leninism and Marxism would have disappeared. Surely anyone can see that, looking back on the 20th century — utterly degenerate, still significant, Stalinist parties in some countries notwithstanding.

On a more literary, note I have a considerable soft spot for Clancy Sigal. Having come out of the orbit of the Stalinist movement in 1956 as a young bloke, I read a publisher’s proof of Going Away and at about the same time I read Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook, which both blew me away.

In the early 1970s I acquired 100 copies of Going Away as a publisher’s remainder from Jonathan Cape in Britain. In the same bundle of remainders I also acquired Marcel Liebman’s book on Leninism, and I sold every copy of both over the next couple of years.

I picked up that Clancy Sigal was the American in the Golden Notebook and I used to associate the two to people.

In the 1960s and 1970s and even later, I was a bit gregarious, so to speak. If I had some interest in a woman, I would often sell or lend her the Golden Notebook and Going Away. I wasn’t terribly interested, anyway, in women to whom those two books might not have some resonance, and at a personal level that literary device worked pretty well.

With the later changes in social behaviour, I’m not sure that either book has the same resonance now among the younger generation, but they had plenty of resonance for people of my generation.

I can forgive Clancy Sigal for his cavalier attitude towards Trotsky, while arguing strenuously against it, and while not making any concessions to Doris Lessing’s current rather conservative views, and while being rather bored by her later novels, I remember the profound radicalising influence of her work until about the time of the Golden Notebook.