Books: Desperately seeking Diego and Frida

Anyone hoping to track down lost portraits of Diego Rivera in Mexico should bring infinite patience and a stock of wet handkerchiefs; Dreaming with his Eyes Open: a Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham Bloomsbury pounds 20 Diego Rivera: a Retrospective intro by Linda Downs Detroit Art Institute/Norton pounds 60
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Summer 1995: Mexico City. I am preparing a photo-exhibition on a theme that's natural here. Death. Every artist I speak to has a project on the subject, and presumably t'was ever thus, or at least since the Aztecs. On going north to check out historical material at the photo- archive in a small mining town called Pachuca (where miners are called "pasties" after the number of Cornishmen who emigrated there - but that's another story), I find I'm sharing a lift with British author and former Indy Paris correspondent Patrick Marnham. He's researching a biography of muralist Diego Rivera, now in the fashionable shadow of his wife and fellow artist Frida Kahlo. This is largely down to Madonna's raising of Frida's saleability stakes, along with those of photographer Tina Modotti. Patrick is out to find Tina's portraits of Di and Fri. Pachuca is at the stage of installing computers incompatible with finding anything.

Spring 1998: London. Patrick phones to say that No, Pachuca never did yield up its store of promised portraits: Di and Fri with/ without each other and/or further spouses and lovers; beside or outside their black and blue houses; in, on or out of bed or studio, foreign jaunts or remoter exile. Nor is he having better luck in obtaining prints of Diego paintings for reproduction, having rashly assumed it to be within the remit of the US publisher's rights department. Did I happen to know a Spanish-fluent picture researcher, preferably a specialist in Mexican art history? A degree in copyright law and an uncle big in banking would be distinct advantages. The real problem is that these are but details compared with the quantity and acumen of strategies vital to dealing with the accumulated bureaucracy of the last 80 years run by a single political party, the numbingly named Party of the Institutionalised Revolution (PRI). And it owns everything, Diego included.

The PRI is but the first of the acronyms. Before I can start phoning and shedding friends in the fruitless pursuit of a putative picture researcher, the acronyms are stacking up ferociously. The INBA (National Fine Arts Institute) owns the copyright to whatever's declared within the "national patrimony"; the SOMAAP (Mexican Society of Authors in the Plastic Arts) handles the repro rights; adminstrated through overseas holding agencies (VAGA & DAP: I give up on the transliterating) in both the States and the UK. The CENIDIAP (National Centre of Picture Investigations) is responsible for making the relevant photographic reproductions. Each one has their own scale of permissions and charges.

As faxes and e-mails fly my heart sinks. If I can't even get my head around the plethora of acronyms, what chance of locating every requested image in every relevant gallery, public space, museum or private collection, of which I'm accumulating a weighty catalogue? The irony is that all these collecting agencies are lining not only their own institutional pockets but the vaults of the Banco de Mexico. In other words the nationalised National Bank, true heir to the 1910 Revolution.

For Diego was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party for long enough to know he didn't believe in inherited wealth. Given the complications of his domestic situations and the quantity of his offspring, the personal could only have reinforced the political decision. Hence, on his death in 1957, his artistic estate was bequeathed to the nation whose 1917 Revolutionary Constitution anticipated even that of his beloved Soviet Union. A goodly chunk of said estate is anyway on the walls and buldings of said nation, so this seemed entirely rational. But it still has to be administrated ...

By late April my contacts here and in Mexico were exhausted in both senses of the word. Me too - exhausted with phoning after midnight to match the hours and cheapen the rates, arriving little nearer the required results and a lot nearer the cost of an air ticket to Mexico. And to the picture deadline. For all my stash of acronyms and reams of faxes, there still wasn't a single permission or copright granted. And the Mexican I'd subcontracted to "chase things up" (but how do you chase the immovable?) could only repeat: "You know this country. Personal contact is all that counts, you have to make them FEEL the urgency."

By late May I was back in Mexico City. Well before I could start personally persuading anyone to feel my urgency, I found I'd landed in a State of Emergency. Or, on reflection, in a state of extreme air pollution designated a "pre-emergency situation". Gasmasked government officials dolefully served writs warning children not to attend school; the elderly not to leave home; everybody else to avoid private or public transport; and those who insisted on walking to cover their mouths with damp hankies. The message was to stay indoors, windows blocked, even in 40C+ heat. Still not as hot as the forest fires ringing the city.

It was a lovely pretext. There was no mistaking the glee with which state- run agencies and major enterprises slammed doors even as you arrived. Daily appointments at the national newspaper, Excelsior, were daily broken on the wheel of unavailable security passes. The security passes kiosk was barricaded against the smog. Without one there was no visiting their picture library, and no pictures of Di and Fri painting at their easels; taking tea with Trotsky; demonstrating against CIA interventions or attending the funerals of the fallen.

As Lenin said in an only mildly different context: What Is To Be Done? And as someone else, similarly decontextualised, answered: Seize the Moment. The brother of my assistant's assistant abandoned his theoretical degree course for a little practical economics: $80 a day to motor me around this immense and decomposing dinosaur with its population of over 20 million, many of whom seemed suddenly to have some sort of a claim on Diego. Once I decided to move from the collections to the relations, I started doing a lot better. Cristina Kahlo, Frida's sister, decanted attics in search of old photos; Lupe Marin pulled prints off walls for reproduction purposes; Manuel Alvarez Bravo, the Grand Old Man of Mexican photography, now in his nineties, and his wife Colette Urbachtel also opened their albums of Diego, Frida and Tina (must shed this shorthand of Di, Fri and Ti ...).

But the hero of the hour was undoubtedly the artist's nephew, Juan Coronel, Diego author and exhibition curator. When I'd wasted two days at his publisher's, selecting all the images we needed from their slide archive but which were never produced, he simply opened up his front room. Or rather the floor and walls of his front room. Across them were spread not only original images by his uncle, but works from his personal collection, woodcuts by Posada, contemporary newspapers and family albums. Much is already on loan to exhibitions in Tokyo and Paris, but what remains is still a treasure trove. And, almost as important, in a country where "everything goes by personal contact" and cultural circles are ring-fenced, he can open doors to houses beyond his own.

In the end, the pictures are finally gleaned from a variety of often surprising sources. The original assistant knew what he was doing when he restricted himself to researching just one image: a photo he took himself (of Diego's "mausoleum" at Anahuacalli). Edith, his replacement, was employed full-time in obtaining material from the CENIDIAP, fortunately across the road from where she worked anyway - so whenever she was advised to "return manana", she could return and resume the fray within ten minutes. The other discovery was Dutch/Mexican photographer Bob Schalkwijk who was hired to keep circulating, copying the remaining Diegos he didn't already possess in his portfolio. And the private collectors and public galleries who generated an impressive flow of demands for payments over and above those due to the Acronyms were ultimately referred to the publisher's New York Rights Department.

Dreaming with his Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera is now colourfully in print. As a text-led biography, it simply has three sections of drawings, photographs and colour reproductions. As a team effort, it finally came together, though it might have been useful to know who was batting and who bowling from the start. By the time you've learnt how to play, the game is over. As in life. So no, I won't be giving up the day-job to hold my breath for another picture-searching commission in Mexico. For that's another ballgame it seems to require a lifetime to play.

Amanda Hopkinson is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Wales, Cardiff