Naturaleza muerta

Naturaleza muerta

Harvard Advocate
Commencement 2011

There are two. The blue house in Coyoacán is Frida’s; the hacienda in Xochimilco—the one I think magnificent and the critics outrageous—that one is mine. On paper, of course, I own them both. Diego asked me to manage the museums there years ago. But in their essence, the way they rest within their spaces, it is clear one belongs to her and the other to me. A great deal of care was necessary to produce the elegance of my house, you know: the layers chiseled from stone, the surround of lush green tended by vigilant gardeners. And yet it’s hers I find myself wandering through again and again, blown through those passageways, drifting blind down that axis…

I have to stop. Already I feel my accuracy slipping. It would be nice if one could move oneself through rooms like that, fastening each door shut tightly behind. The truth is that my memory remains caught in places inhabited before, so that even now, for instance, I see various crews carrying out my instructions. A man with a face covered in sweat tugs at my sleeve: “Doña Lola, Doña Lola, this way, yes?” The statue’s feet are sticking up in the air; its head is buried in dirt. I’m not surprised at these people’s incompetence; for most of the population, getting things wrong is the natural condition. It is very difficult to make oneself understood by others. To most people I am simply Diego’s curator, and Frida is the woman who shaped his life; she and I hardly exchanged two words. But Diego and I had a friendship existing beyond the surfaces of our lives, one inevitably reduced by any attempt at description. The only thing a person can trust is her own mind, though even that gets turned wrong side up much of the time. Well, then: It may be true that in the end my own attempt will be no good either, this effort to explain how things are. Or—precision—how they were.

We first met at the Ministry of Education when I was sixteen, my hair done up in bright new ribbons. My mother, a schoolteacher, had come to process papers; leaning against the second level balcony, I waited, looking down at the courtyard hemmed in by walls. Blank then, those walls, though later covered by the famous murals. In the center below was the wide basin of a fountain, and I was trying to understand the water, how it tumbled over itself. I didn’t see him watching me, though I suppose he had been for some time. But my mother sensed it, hurrying back round the corner, opening her mouth to say something in protective alarm.

“Señora,” he said, by way of apology. “I would like to ask just one question.” Since he was Señor Rivera, of course, there was just one answer. Anyway, over the next few weeks, I came to his room as he asked, where with a vast sense of seriousness and cool ceremony, I posed. Head bent over the paper, looking up every so often, he worked away at his sketches. Thirty drawings were the result, of which he sent two lithographs to my house: one of himself and one of me, keeping the rest as models for his work. After dinner that night, as I rubbed soap against my hands in the sink, my husband—from England, already I was married then—came in and said he wanted to talk. Say what you want to say, I said. He gestured with his hands at some invisible rectangle. I publish an art magazine, he said, I’m familiar with the nude as form, but this gaze is not the gaze of the artist, there is more in it. What are you accusing me of, I asked, drying my hands on the cloth and looping it back on its hook. All I’m saying is that I’ve returned the drawings, he said coolly, and then all my rage was useless because that was in fact what he’d done, along with a note in bad Spanish explaining he was “not convinced they were offered in good faith.”

You must understand I loved my husband then very much. At the best moments we even felt like copies of one other: anyway, the mental terrain was largely the same. But Diego was a different matter. I called him “Maestro,” the only one I ever would call that; there was never another to whom I gave that respect. The truth is that it would not be wrong to say I felt a secret contempt for most people, that I was more confident and intelligent than they ever could be. With him, though, I was still always nervous, acting young and saying the simplest things. In my mind, God knew, there were edifices, whole architectures of thought, I simply could not express; sometimes the thoughts were formed completely but didn’t come out as I meant, other times they weren’t really verbal, were more like the curve of fruit or timbre of music than something I could write down. I thought then how inane the transcript would seem if someone did write down all the words we exchanged, overlooking how every word was linked with every other. The best thing most of the time was just to be quiet. We had other means: he could at least control color and texture, and I was coming to know the business venture, its strange energy and animal-like possibility.

La Tehuana hangs here in my old office. How amusing the colored fabric in my hair looks, the basket of rolls under my arm—and those ruffles! Just think of the starch that you would need. No wonder I’m smiling like that. But Diegochose to paint me in the traditional Tehuantepec skirts for a reason. Mexico was growing at that time, recovered finally from the devastation of the war years; there was a sense of it testing out its limits, building, expanding, carving itself into overpasses and skylines. But while it was growing outward it was also putting down roots; artists were trying to give it a sense of its own depths, its own history. He was working on traditional paintings of her at the same time, of course: the other one was always there, with her dark eyes and the firm line of her lips. Slimmer and more knife-like than I ever could be. She met him in the halls of the Ministry of Education too; but on top of that she painted, a source of great calm and a deep link to him. Summoning up all my strength, I made myself leave them to each other, turning my own interests in other directions. I can’t even call it jealousy now: she lives in the past, even if she hasn’t quite ever disappeared. In the cool second room of the gallery I keep copies of all their letters under glass, and there I could drive myself to endless distraction if I wished. “Carissimo Diego,” she wrote, in black ink on cream paper, the lines well spaced. “Mi querida amiga,” he would reply, or sometimes simply, “amor.” I can’t think too long about what lives on in history; it makes my stomach hurt and my head ache with dull pain, so that I wish every day really were a day reborn.

But as I was saying, at that moment it was true that for me, and my country, time did seem only to contain the future. When an old-fashioned hand-operated brickworks went up for sale, I snapped it up with a loan from the Tacubaya branch of the Banco Nacional, going into business with Heriberto Pagelson. Pagelson was a German Jewish refugee, a veteran of the French army in North Africa, who with no passport or identity papers somehow managed to wash up on the shores of Mexico and travel inland. I met him at one of those endless parties at which I was host; even before I knew who he was I was interested, since he was the only stranger there. With great deliberation and the utmost delicacy I struck up a conversation, tapping him on the shoulder lightly and handing him a glass of champagne. That was the beginning of a thirty-year association, one which despite all expectations persevered, even while my marriage crumbled. My other partnership was with Bernardo Quintana, who ran Industria Cerámica Armada. Quintana had somehow laid his hands on the plans for a building block, lighter and more maneuverable than standard baked brick, based on a model just developed in Europe. It was a good thing and both of us knew it; we just weren’t sure what it could be used for quite yet. We had the product but not the application, and were just waiting for the winds to shift.

When President Alemán announced his plans to build, we jumped. He insisted on a grand new edifice, to be named after him, with construction using only the most advanced technical materials on the market: the sleekest and most western products around. Everyday Quintana’s black car would move through the narrow streets to the Zócalo; most days he would be granted an audience, if not with Alemán himself, then with one of his men in those offices, the hundreds in that palace all tucked away. There were others who wanted the consignment too, and they would pass in the halls on their way to Alemán, flitting past each other like giant fish, darting each other meaningful blank looks. When Quintana met me in the afternoons to report on his progress, he would stagger through the door into the thin air, saying his elbow kept twitching, and that his lungs hurt: all the classic symptoms of an instantaneous decompression. In the end, though, he was awarded the contract, greasing by effort and luck all the right palms; as it turned out it was the cook’s brother-in-law who was the key, in some obscure chain of connections.

The upshot is that my own company, Materiales Asociados S.A., a subsidiary of Quintana’s, had work. We were all struck then by the mad desire to build, filled suddenly with giddy exhilaration, like when you see, exiting air space, city lights in the dark. Sometimes I would even drive a truck myself, ferrying planks and steel, tired of the abstractions of scheduling, budgeting, planning, infrastructure. My children would pass out soft drinks, sandwiches, steaming thermoses of coffee to the workers bent beneath the sun. Their backs were curved like the workers in Diego’s murals, but they weren’t so glorious; they didn’t hearken back to some primeval past. Most of them swore more than they should, and probably could have stood a few more baths. If I had any criticism of Diego, it was that: that with him everything remained a model, a romanticized likeness of an imperfect truth, when sometimes truth just meant these people laying down one block, then another. Meanwhile Diego and Fridawere setting up their life together in their little blue house, and working for the communism they thought was the answer. They fought and made up; my firm kept growing. And in that way time passed.

It was 1954; Frida had died the year before. Some friends had invited me to take a boat out with them to the island of Janitzio, in the middle of Lake Pátzcuaro, to visit the famous cemetery. That day the sunlight was playing on the water, and everything was dazzlingly bright, so that all the colors seemed to fit in their contours just so. Looking up then, shading my eyes, all at once I glimpsed Diego. He was taking something out of a black case, or putting something back in. Does it matter? It had been twenty years. Washed up in that land beyond space and time, all logical thinking dissolved. Before I looked at him for too long, I deliberately reviewed how he’d made me feel when I was younger, because it could be what moved me was just those memories, or that light, that pure Janitzio light playing on the water. It took some time before I assured myself that what affected me was still his actual presence itself. Should I regret how easy it was to fall back into old patterns, even after that long absence? But he had a surprise in store. When the boat docked and we were back in the city, he told me to wait a moment; I stood outside his studio door, twirling my bracelet round my wrist, wondering. With a proud smile, he emerged, holding a box of carved mahogany: inside were the drawings he’d made so long ago, kept tucked away all of those years. Very seriously, he said then that I was the one he had chosen to manage his trust, which would pass on not only his legacy but the legacy of all Mexico, captured within each one of his works. That was the year I started to buy up his best paintings, meeting with collectors in Paris and catching early flights to auction houses in New York, tracking them down in private residences one by one. The MathematicianThe PicadorDancer in ReposePortrait of Pita AmorThe BoatsA Flower VendorA Mexican ChildThe FamilyThe Flower-Draped Canoe… All of it was only ever a pleasure. I had infinite faith in his work; there was something in it, something intangible, that made me unable to stop looking, and more than that, to stop living with it within me.

Now that we were back together I wouldn’t let him leave again so easily. I asked him to come with me to La Pinzona, the house of mine in Acapulco overlooking a sea cliff. There he could watch the wide sea watched over by gulls, composed of the shadows of their long low flight. Concentration became impossible without him there; without him I became only a mind, all my entrepreneurial ambitions lacking something essential. The cries of the children coming to me from the other room seemed a comfort when Diego played with them, preferring the juegos de pelota based on the old games. Much of the time, though, it was quiet, and that would mean he was at work. How well we knew that little room—I’d bring out oranges and hot coffee in a clay pot to where he was sitting, sugar but no milk the way he liked. He always kept his back to the door: just the shock of his dark hair and his big body, a little clumsy, between that statue and that yellow vase. All day long he’d sit and paint as the afternoon sun climbed, tracing mad shadows against the walls.

Sometimes he would stop his work and drink his coffee while reading me the newspaper headlines; other times when I put my hand on his shoulder he would pretend I wasn’t there and keep working. Then I’d leave silently, understanding. That’s the kind of man he was: the kind who would, as they say, wound himself against his own bones, the kind who instead of the final judgment worries about the final dream. And this is one truth, the greater of them. But if I want to capture this exactly, I’ll have to tell you an equal truth, the other reason I brought him to La Pinzona. I fully realized how ill he was becoming: how hard he’d driven himself on his visits to the Soviet Union, how grave the disease eating away at him was even then. Despite the private doctors I brought in, the cobalt radiation treatments I arranged, he only kept on getting worse. And at some point I knew there was nothing more I could do, except keep bringing him that coffee, those oranges.

In the unfathomable distance, a vulture turns against the sun. Here, now, looking up at its intense clarity and deceptive transparency, I find all of it, somehow, deeply disappointing. My need for a kind of understanding that goes beyond particulars overwhelms me, so that often I wonder just what it all meant. In June the wide streets in this part of the city suffer from the prickly heat, and so I move to the house, which seems like a refuge. There I run my finger across the titles on the shelf: Chase’s The Tyranny of Words, Wyer’sThe Disappearance, a volume on Lucretia Borgia, the 1931 Bliss Collection, La Linterna MágicaRed Virtue, La Hija del Coronel. How carefully I chose them all, how carefully I laid out the floor plan for the foreign visitors whom I knew would pass through. As I watch, a woman begins laughing softly, pressed against a man who seems self-consciously serious; together they move slowly through the exhibit, remarking in American accents on the phrase used in the Spanish labels. “Naturaleza muerta”—how infinitely more visceral that seems than “still life,” not just frozen but dead, dead nature, dead like the human body even as meaningless words like these remain. The year after Diego left me, on the Day of the Dead, I placed his picture on the altar, surrounding it with his favorite dishes of mole, tamales, atole, and fruit; with sweets made of squash, traditional sugar skulls, special bread adorned with crossed bones; with masses of marigold blossoms and Mexican crafts. And then, somehow, I moved on. I got married again, to the bullfighter Hugo Olvera, founded a bullfighting company, doubled and doubled again my wealth, allowed the memory of Diego to fade.

I’ve never written these things down before. I’ve waited until he was gone, because I didn’t know how to say them and because in the way he praised the few things I wrote his distaste was clear. Let me be the first to say that his work wasn’t perfect either: it glorified primitivism, its politics were too overt, it elevated manual work into a dignified realm that for today’s factory workers does not, and cannot, exist. But as one of the writers I liked to read said, the truth may not be beauty, but the hunger for it is. Meanwhile the collection ofDiego’s paintings in my museum continues to grow, covering the walls, spreading out from the first room to dozens of others. Plans for new wings are made, then executed. A special gallery at one of the entrances houses a collection of miniatures by Angelina Beloff, a Russian painter and Diego’s first wife. She is the one he met in Europe and nobody remembers, because her life seems so shadelike next to Frida’s and, I’ll admit it, my own. Nevertheless I have set out her woodcuts and engravings carefully, as a kind of tribute. When I look around, I am proud. With these museums, all the beautiful thoughts dancing in my head—which were never really thoughts at all but more like colors, or the spaces found between movements—all of them can now be turned outward, made at last external and real. They can say what perhaps I never once said aloud. Because thoughts aren’t enough; you need something you can see, or touch, something like the note that arrived with a painting dated 16 August 1955: “To Lola Olmedo, with the love and admiration of twenty-five years (now she will believe it). I am sure she knows that her great love has returned to her.”

Finally I should mention that I began collecting Frida’s paintings too: at first viciously, because I was happy to see the broken columns mourning her barren body, which a trolley accident had made unable to bring a child to term; then because I thought I might somehow see in her work traces of his love, love linked in some mysterious way to what he’d had for me. With him it had always been a game of connections anyway: the way names repeated, the syntax of phrases, the choice and arrangement of certain images. Soon it all became too much. But even then I kept collecting her work, and his—out of habit, out of the desire for completion, out of the pure act of repetition—and finally, out of the simple knowledge it was good, it was art, and ultimately it would be what remained.

 Dolores Olmedo Patiño died in Mexico City in 2002.

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