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Diego Rivera / ART & REVOLUTION

Dangerous Liaisons, Personal and Political

In these excerpts from Patrick Marnham's acclaimed 1998 biography of Rivera, 'Dreaming With His Eyes Open,' the author details a typically complicated period in the artist's life when politics, art and romance were intertwined.

May 24, 1999

Liberated by Frida's lengthy absence, and liberated from the obligation to entertain the Trotskys, Rivera now abandoned his political activities. He resigned from the editorial board of Clave in January 1939 and was thenceforth free to concentrate on his work and his social life, hoping wherever possible to combine them. The Partisan Review manifesto had not ignited an artistic revolution, but Rivera retained enough interest in surrealism to paint a curious "Portrait of a Lady in White," showing a seated bride surrounded by spider webs with a prominent white sugar skull in place of the conventional bouquet in her lap. He used the same wedding dress as a prop for a straightforward bridal portrait in 1949. He also took a paternal interest in a young Mexican actress with the impossibly appropriate name of Dolores Del Rio, whose semi-nude portrait he had painted in 1938. She was to become one of his and Frida's closest friends. Rivera also developed an obsession with the large black North American erotic dancer Modelle Boss, who posed for a series of nudes in both oil and watercolor, which must rank among Rivera's most unusual pictures. By the end of the series, 12 in all, Rivera's fixation on the subject had transformed the dancer's hands, arranged above her head, into a scorpion's pincers. The studies of Boss may have been the world's first attempt at erotic surrealistic painting and were perhaps [French poet and surrealist intellectual] Andre Breton's sole contribution to Mexican culture.

In April 1939 Frida returned from a successful six-month trip to New York and Paris to find that her marriage was over. During her absence she is known to have had an affair in New York with her gallery owner, Julien Levy, and in Paris--where she was drinking a bottle of cognac a day--with Andre Breton's wife, Jacqueline, among others. She only came back to Mexico because a long-standing love affair with the photographer Nickolas Muray had ended. Once home she fell briefly in love with a Spanish refugee, Ricardo Arias Vinas. The strain of all these love affairs, coupled with Rivera's continuing resentment over [Kahlo's] liaison with Trotsky and his own hectic daily philandering, caused the Riveras to separate, and six months after Frida's return they were divorced. But their separation had little effect on their friendship. Frida continued to use her side of the house at San Angel when she wished, although the communicating door was now kept permanently locked. But she based herself in the Casa Azul, where Rivera visited her, her father, his children, her sister, his nephew and niece, and the Kahlo collection of small black monkeys and hairless dogs, at will. She felt free to welcome Nelson Rockefeller on his visit to Mexico City in 1939, presumably hoping to sell him some pictures, although there is no record of Rivera agreeing to meet this particular guest. . . .

Rivera, meanwhile, was enjoying a relatively tranquil interlude attending to his steady stream of young North American lady visitors, for whom a te^te-a-te^te with Mexico's most celebrated artist had become an essential part of the tourist experience. In August the Mexican section of the Fourth International denounced him for supporting the Conservative candidate, Juan Andreu Almazan, in the election to choose a successor to President Cardenas, but he remained serene. In the spring of 1940 the Paramount Pictures movie star Paulette Goddard visited Mexico City. Goddard, known as "Sugar," was married to Charlie Chaplin, had just finished shooting "The Great Dictator" and was the star of "Modern Times." She had a warm, lively personality, agreed to pose for Rivera and had an affair with him. One Saturday morning Rivera was at work in his studio on a double portrait of Goddard and a young Indian model when the news reached him that in the course of the previous night Trotsky's bedroom in his new house just round the corner from the Casa Azul had been riddled with 173 machine-gun bullets.

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