Meet the Biographer: Catherine Reef

catherine-reefAward-winning author Catherine Reef has written acclaimed biographies of Jane Austen, the Brontë Sisters, Ernest Hemingway, and Leonard Bernstein, among others. Most recently, she published Frida and Diego: Art, Love, Life, a dual biography of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The book explores the couple’s art, political activity, and famously volatile relationship. This week, Reef spoke with Kidsbiographer about the joys and challenges of writing aboutthe pair’s art.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most intriguing fact or anecdote you uncovered while researching Kahlo and Rivera’s lives?

Catherine Reef: What could be more intriguing than an unsolved mystery? I came across one while doing the research for Frida & Diego, and of course I included it in my book.

It happened late in the artists’ lives, in 1952, when the Mexican government invited Rivera to paint a mural for display in Paris, at an international peace conference. Rivera, who courted controversy throughout his career, proclaimed that he would create a work “dedicated to peace,” but instead he produced what was essentially a communist propaganda poster. The Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace presented a beaming Joseph Stalin as the world’s peacemaker, inviting other nations to sign the Stockholm Appeal, a petition calling for a ban on nuclear weapons. Beside Stalin stood his partner in peace, a beatific Mao Tse-tung. And if communist leaders offered the dream of peace, then the United States—embodied by a machinegun-wielding Uncle Sam—was the land of greed and lynchings and represented the nightmare of war.

The thing is, it was all a lie. Rivera hated Stalin and his ruthlessness; and despite his lifelong commitment to communism, he adored the United States, its industry, and the opportunities it offered him as an artist. He can only have painted as he did to draw attention to himself and to gain favor with the Mexican Communist Party, which had expelled him in 1929 for his willingness to accept commissions from government and capitalist clients.

Rivera called the mural “the best thing I have ever done,” which is what he often did when a work fell short of his artistic ideals, but he fooled no one. Mexico’s leaders refused to display a painting that in their view insulted the nation’s allies, and the Communist Party declined to reinstate Rivera.

Then, somehow, this mural, measuring 40 feet long and 10 feet high, disappeared. Stories explaining what happened to it sound like urban legends. One theory has it moldering in a Moscow warehouse. According to another, Rivera presented it to China, and Mao ordered it destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. But we don’t know. The fate of Rivera’s mural remains among the art world’s most beguiling mysteries.

Kidsbiographer: All biographers begin the research process with some preconceptions about their subjects. How did your perception of Kahlo, Rivera, and their work evolve while you wrote Frida and Diego?

Catherine Reef: Spending so much time closely studying Rivera’s and Kahlo’s work greatly increased my appreciation of the pair as artists. Because Rivera painted on such a grand scale, many of us never have the chance to view his major works directly. The paintings of his that we see in museums tend to be his depictions of peasant life, often featuring the rounded human figures and lush bundles of calla lilies for which he is known. These works are lovely and full of feeling, but the splendor and majesty of his murals are missing from them.

Through this project I learned to fully admire—and marvel at—the enormity and complexity of Rivera’s achievement. He covered wall after wall with richly populated scenes of the present and past. In Rivera’s imagined world, Mexico’s early people share space with twentieth-century Californians; peasants rub shoulders with Jefferson and Lincoln; the whole of Mexican history plays out, from the pre-Columbian era through the bloody Spanish conquest of the 1500s and the revolution of Rivera’s youth. He painted optimistically, depicting his hope for the future in the clangorous machinery of modern industry as much as in the quiet lessons of an outdoor country school. Kahlo was right when she called Rivera’s painted world “a great fiesta.”

I had seen Kahlo’s paintings, of course, but upon viewing them in conjunction with a close study of her life, I came to understand how she created a very personal symbolic language with which to depict her inner life on canvas—she was pioneering in this way, really. Kahlo has been grouped with the surrealists, but I wonder if some of her imagery doesn’t prefigure magical realism. Think of the flowers with insects’ wings that hover above her head in Self-Portrait with Necklace of Thorns (1940); the vines that grow from her body in Roots (1943) or the varied images that float on her bathwater like tiny islands in What the Water Gave Me (1938).

Kidsbiographer: What are some of your favorite paintings by Kahlo and Rivera? Why?

Catherine Reef: I am never good at choosing favorites, but I do feel drawn to Rivera’s murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts (1932-33). These twenty-seven panels celebrate industry, which in Rivera’s view offered hope to the laboring masses and made Detroit great. Grinding, turning machinery fills the largest panels. Workers operate drill presses, pull at handles, and seem to step off the walls and into the room. There’s a little bit of everything in the Detroit murals: smaller panels reveal the mineral wealth hidden below ground that made industrial development possible. Mighty hands emerge from the earth, peasants cradle fruit, a titan of industry looks down as if from a balcony, and a child grows in its mother’s womb. What a glorious achievement!

What I enjoy most about Kahlo’s work is her delightful attention to detail. Her style may appear primitive at first glance, but when we look closely we see that the thought and skill she applied to every aspect of her painting were really quite sophisticated. I love the way she painted her pet birds in Me and My Parrots (1941). I can see that she spent a long time studying the parrots’ coloration and character, and the fall of their feathers. She rendered each bird with great care, presenting it as a distinct individual. The fellow on Kahlo’s left shoulder has puffed out his plumage; the way the artist used dappling brushwork to capture this makes me smile.

I like looking at so many details in Kahlo’s work: her flyaway hair in Diego and I (1949), the yellows and pinks of the bright grain that forms a background to Self-Portrait with Monkey and Parrot (1942), and the twining tendrils in Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (1943), to name a few. This close study adds to my appreciation when I step back and view the paintings in their entirety.

Kidsbiographer: Frida and Diego explores the artists’ work and political activity. What was the most challenging aspect of conveying this often complex information for younger readers?

Catherine Reef: Art and politics were integral to the story I was telling, but it was a big challenge to decide how much information to include and where to place it. I was writing a biography, not an art book or a political history, so my goal was to weave these aspects into the subjects’ story but avoid long digressions.

When writing about the art, I needed to show how each subject developed as an artist and found his or her preferred medium and subject matter. I needed as well to provide enough information about the work to enable my readers to understand and appreciate what they were seeing. I also needed to place the work in its historical context: how did it build on the work of artists who had come before Rivera and Kahlo? Was it similar to or different from paintings being produced by their contemporaries? How was it innovative? I found it helpful to focus on major works and paintings that were pivotal in the artists’ development. I described these briefly and explained why they were significant. The fact that Frida & Diego is richly illustrated allowed me to go beyond the text in presenting some of the work; nevertheless, the number of images included is limited, as the book is, after all, a biography. It does contain a list of museums in the United States that have works by Rivera or Kahlo in their collections, and a number of these places make paintings available online. The back matter also includes a list of recommended books on the artists’ work for readers who want to explore further.

Now let’s consider politics. The artists’ long commitment to communism and Rivera’s troubled relationship with the Mexican Communist Party were integral to the drama of their lives. Leon Trotsky had an important role to play, so his predicament needed to be explained as well. I considered what my readers might already know or not know, and I anticipated questions that might occur to them as they read. Never forgetting that I was writing biography, I linked the discussion of politics to my subjects’ experience. For example, I showed the first stirrings of communist thought in Rivera’s mind by having him witness poverty in his youthful travels. When discussing the Mexican Communist Party’s activities in the 1920s, I emphasized Rivera’s role: marching, speaking at rallies, and helping to publish El Machete, the party newspaper. That the couple remained active participants in party activities throughout their lives is made plain by their participation in a political rally shortly before Kahlo’s death.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young adult readers will take away from Frida and Diego?

Catherine Reef: I hope my readers will come away from the book with a deeper understanding of two major figures in twentieth-century art. I hope they will have the foundation they need to delve into the artists’ work on their own and to form their own opinions about it. Ideally they will have found, in Kahlo’s paintings and Rivera’s murals, art that will continue to enrich their lives.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Catherine Reef: I am always happy to talk about new projects! In summer 2015, Clarion will release Noah Webster: Man of Many Words, a biography for young adults. Webster is known best for writing his great dictionary, so I got to delve into some fascinating aspects of the development of dictionaries and of written and spoken English. He was also an outspoken witness to the American Revolution and the formation of the early republic, so the book presents this part of our history along with his commentary, which was sometimes entertaining and always insightful. But behind the words and politics was a well-meaning if opinionated and socially awkward man, and the book is ultimately his story.

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