Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Mexico and Surrealism and Books to Buy

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Mexico and Surrealism and Books to Buy

Legend in my family is that my great-grandmother on my mother's side — who crossed the country in a covered wagon and lived to see a man on the moon — spent her final winters on her own in Mexico. She taught herself Spanish (I'm not sure she even graduated from high school) and travelled at 80 into remote areas to see sacred sites, riding in the back of cargo planes with no doors if necessary. She was thrice married, had a famous temper, and surrounded her Montana mobile home with prize-worthy roses. She saw value in beauty and thorns.

I've never been to Mexico, but I hope to go one day. As a home-schooled student of surrealism, I'm struck by the role the country played in the movement's development. Andre Breton spent time there in the late 1930s and he was disappointed to find that the country did not need him and his incendiary ideas. "Mexico is the most surrealist country in the world."

Two of my favourite art books at the moment feature work by two different but interrelated Mexican artists. I've had Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Photopoetry (Chronicle Books) for about a year or so and just acquired Finding Frida Kahlo (Princeton Architectural Press) this week (the Kahlo sending me back to the Bravo).

When I got Photopoetry — attracted by the title — I wasn't familiar with Bravo's name, but looking through the heavy, gorgeous book, I recognized several images, especially a devastating one of a murdered striking sugar-mill worker. The Irish novelist John Banville (there was a great interview with him in the spring 2009 issue of Paris Review in which he comes across as bracingly arrogant and brilliant) contributes an excellent essay ("A Magician in Light") about Bravo's genius. Bravo's pictures are breathtakingly brave and shock the eye with their energy and balance. His scope ranged from documentary photography to lyrically-charged landscapes. It is in no way an overstatement to call these compositions poems.

Breton himself stood before Bravo's lens, along with friends Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky. I used to be a big fan of Frida Kahlo's self portraits when I first discovered her work as a teenager, but they have been silkscreened onto so many tote bags, t-shirts, mugs, and refrigerator magnets that it is hard to see them with fresh eyes now. So I'm excited that Barbara Levine's Finding Frida Kahlo has made it possible to connect again with what touched me about the artist in the first place. A lovingly photographed archive of recently discovered personal effects — unsent letters, hand-painted boxes, love potions, recipes, sketches, and mash notes alongside gruesome diagrams on amputation and a pile of dessicated hummingbirds — the book reveals the woman behind the myth. Levine writes insightfully about how a private archive acts as a splintered, mysterious, and elliptical kind of self portrait. It makes me think of my grandmother's notebooks and how she transplanted a cutting from one of her mother's resilient Montana rosebushes to her own garden in the suburbs of Detroit. I wish I had pressed and saved one of its buds.

Frida Kahlo spent some time in Detroit in the early 1930s while (her husband) Diego Rivera worked on his notorious courtyard murals that the Detroit Institute of Arts commissioned him to paint to honour the city's car industry (and that the museum had to fight to keep on its walls during the anti-Communist panic of the 1950s). One of the pieces featured in Finding Frida is of a brightly coloured, chaotic image painted on the inside of an airmail envelope with the words "Detroit F.K." beneath it. Reading this book and looking at the photographs makes me feel like an invited spy, like I'm both trespasser and guest.

The story of how these treasure trunks were acquired is as strange and surreal as their contents. And in fact, both books feel like they hold pages torn from deep dreams. As I said, I hope to go to Mexico one day — on a cargo plane if necessary — to see these ghosts firsthand. And I hope to collect my own dreams as best I can, drunk as I am at the moment on this shadowy romance, building my own archive, my own painted boxes packed with the grotesque and the sublime, all petals and swords.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Damian Rogers

Damian Rogers lives in Toronto. Paper Radio (ECW Press) is her first book.

Go to Damian Rogers’s Author Page