Sunday 20 December 2009
The Artists and the Revolutionary
When I was in Mexico city a couple of years ago one of the places I visited was La Casa Azul –the Blue House-in the suburb of Coyoacán, where Frida Khalo, the painter, was born and where she lived for so many years with Diego Rivera, her husband and Mexico’s greates muralists.
I also visited, not too far away, the house that Leon Trotsky lived in during the last part of his Mexican exile, where he was murdered with an ice pick, and in the grounds of which he is now buried. Both of these palaces are now museums. The Trotsky museum is particularly poignant in that the bullet holes from an earlier assassination attempt that same year can still be seen on the walls of one of the bedrooms.
The destiny of the artists and the revolutionary were closely connected. Trotsky, under permanent threat from the Stalinists, found refuge in Mexico after Rivera intervened on his behalf with President Lázaro Cárdenas. Once there he and Natalia Sedova, his wife, were accommodated by Frieda and Diego in the Blue House.
Frida had a brief affair with Trotsky in the summer of 1937, not long after he came to Mexico, sometimes suggested as the reason for his break with Rivera. But this did not come until the winter of 1938-39, while Frida was absent at an exhibition of her work in New York and then Paris.
The breach, according to Hayden Herrera, the author of Frida, was caused by a combination of personal and political differences. Rivera had an expansive personality, one that did not harmonise well with that of the didactic and humourless Trotsky. More and more the two men came into open disagreement, over the nature of the Soviet state, over trade union work, and over Rivera's support for Francisco Mujica's bid for the Mexican presidency.
But these disagreements in point of detail came down to one big thing: Riviera was simply not the kind of man who could fit easily within the narrow political and personal discipline demanded by people like Trotsky. He was, as he told the old Bolshevik, 'a bit of an anarchist', which is as good an assessment of his politics-and his personality-as any. In Paris Frida reported the breach in a letter to a friend "Diego has now fought with the Fourth International and told piochitas [Trotsky] to go to hell in a very serious manner." And as far as she was concerned he was completely right, despite their earlier relationship.
It was after this that Trotsky and Natalia moved to the house in Avenida Viena, a place that was effectively turned into a fortress. It was there in February 1940 that he wrote what was to become known as Trotsky’s Testament, which concludes by thanking his wife before descending in to whimsy;
In addition to the happiness of being a fighter for the cause of socialism, fate gave me the happiness of being her husband. During the almost forty years of our life together she remained an inexhaustible source of love, magnanimity, and tenderness. She underwent great sufferings, especially in the last period of our lives. But I find some comfort in the fact that she also knew days of happiness.
For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionist; for forty-two of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again I would of course try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth.
Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence, and enjoy it to the full.
Standing in that place, in the room where he was so brutally murdered it is possible to feel something of the personal tragedy of the man, of the tragedy of the history. But one has to reflect that, in his days of power, it was he who denied life to others, who acted in a brutal and oppressive fashion, a fashion that closed so many futures forever. Too much was sacrificed on that abstract alter to which he dedicated his life, the alter of a frightful idol. We all, each and every one of us, only ever live in a perpetual present. It is a terrible thing to destroy others in the name of a bloodless utopia.