The Stalinist and the Stamp

by John J. Miller on August 3, 2010

in Articles,Culture

  • Sumo

July 6, 2001

The wonders of postal diversity


The U.S. Postal Service just tore down a social barrier that most Americans probably didn’t even know existed: It issued the first stamp honoring a Hispanic woman. Several Hispanic men have already appeared on postage — including the baseball player Roberto Clemente and the explorer Ponce de Leon–but not a female until last month, when the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-54) crossed the gender gap and landed on a 34-cent stamp featuring one of her self-portraits.

The post office is rather proud of this accomplishment. “The Frida Kahlo stamp allows us to reach out across communities to let everyone know that this organization has a commitment to diversity that involves both our customers and our employees,” explained Benjamin P. Ocasio, vice president for diversity development. “Our stamp program is a wonderful reflection of this commitment.”

Indeed, people don’t come much more diverse than Kahlo, if by diverse one means membership in a certified victim group. Not only was Kahlo Hispanic and female — she was bisexual and handicapped, too. That’s like hitting for the P.C. cycle, but there’s even more: Her husband, the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, was an abusive lecher. Their dysfunctional relationship included a marriage, a divorce, a remarriage, and at least two abortions.

Kahlo certainly had it rough, and her grim self-portraits display a span of emotions ranging from unhappiness to depression. “My painting carries with it the message of pain,” she once said. Many of her pictures are in fact wrenching to look at. Her 1932 painting “My Birth” graphically presents the delivery doctor’s view of that event. A white shroud covers her mother’s head and upper body. She is dead (even though she didn’t actually die in childbirth), and the infant emerging from her womb appears lifeless as well.

Predictably, Kahlo has become a cult figure in the American art world, and Hollywood is working on a movie of her life starring Salma Hayek. Kahlo’s appeal ultimately has more to do with biography than artistry, and it’s easy to think future generations won’t revere her as much as the current one does.

Except that stamps are powerful tools of commemoration that reach far beyond the thick and dusty books of philatelists. They are national symbols that can confer gravitas on almost any figure.

That’s particularly unfortunate in this case. There’s something to be said for U.S. postage that looks like America, even if it means a mild form of affirmative action in selecting people for stamphood. Yet Kahlo isn’t simply the first Hispanic woman on a stamp — she’s also the first avowed communist.

The postal service neglected to mention that little datum in press releases applauding itself for the Kahlo stamp, but not because it didn’t know her politics. “We’d like to emphasize her artistic achievements,” says spokeswoman Cathy Yarosky. “Besides, back in those days it was fashionable to be a communist.”

That’s debatable, but one thing’s for sure: Fashions come and go with the seasons, and Kahlo’s attachment to communism lasted her entire adult life. “I was a member of the party before I met Diego” in 1926, she once said. Her final painting — left incomplete on her easel in 1954, when she committed suicide at the age of 47 — was a portrait of Joseph Stalin.

Kahlo’s personal commitment to communism was so strong that she did more than merely wear hammer-and-sickle pins on her dresses. In the 1930s, she and Rivera opened their home to Leon Trotsky, who had fled Europe fearing that Stalin wanted him dead — a reasonable suspicion, as it turned out. Kahlo conducted one of her numerous affairs with the revolutionary leader but broke it off and later was implicated in his murder because she was a friend of the assassin. Police detained her in prison for two days, letting her go for lack evidence. Years afterward, Rivera boasted that he and Kahlo had been part of a plot against Trotsky — but then Rivera was a promiscuous liar.

Whatever the truth, Kahlo wound up denouncing Trotsky and becoming what Rivera biographer Patrick Marnham calls “a fervent Stalinist.” Her diary is cluttered with slogans (“Viva Stalin!”) and at times it reads like a mash note scribbled by a seventh-grader in a Kremlin finishing school: “I understand clearly the materialist dialectic of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tse. I love them as the pillars of the new Communist world.”

She even displayed the photographs of this quintet at the foot of her bed, as if she were 12 years old and they were the Backstreet Boys. Kahlo considered herself in league with her heroes: “I am only one cell of the complex revolutionary mechanism of the people for peace and of the new Soviet-Chinese-Czechoslovakian-Polish people who are bound by blood to my person.”

Rivera at least had a tumultuous relationship with communism — he was once thrown out of the party and had no qualms with accepting commissions from wealthy Americans, such as Edsel Ford and Nelson Rockefeller. Rivera, in fact, found plenty to admire in the U.S., even as he remained a left-wing extremist.

Kahlo’s view was somewhat different, and much cruder. One of her final paintings, “Marxism Will Heal the Sick,” shows a bust of Karl Marx floating over an image of the artist, his giant hands seeming to embrace her. To their right, a peace dove flutters above a representation of the Soviet Union, and blue rivers flow beneath. To their left is Uncle Sam, plus a mushroom cloud and a network of rivers running red with blood.

As the horror of communism fades into historical memory, including even Stalin’s crimes of mass murder, and as people begin to forget what all that fuss was about during the Cold War, it may be inevitable that the background of people like Kahlo will be deliberately ignored or played down.

That’s not to say it should be accepted, least of all by Hispanic women in the U.S. By honoring Kahlo, the Postal Service demeans the millions of Latin American immigrants who have come here in search of freedom and opportunity. It also says that not a single Hispanic-American woman, going back to the days of the first Spanish settlers arriving in what is now New Mexico, deserves a spot on a stamp before this communist foreigner whose art wasn’t especially good.

If ever a stamp cried out for cancellation, it is this one.

Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.

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