Sunday, January 7, 2024

The Martyr

Katherine Anne Porter (1890–1980)
From Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories & Other Writings

Creation, 1922–23, encaustic and goldleaf mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera (1886–1957), in the auditorium of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, Mexico City. The figure of Wisdom, an element of Porter’s story, is in the sky on the left, opposite the figure of Science. (
In 1965, Hank Lopez, editor of Dialogos, a prominent cultural magazine in Mexico City, interviewed Katherine Anne Porter about her life in Mexico during the early 1920s and early 1930s. When he asked what prompted her to move there, she replied:
I was brought up in San Antonio, which was always full of Mexicans really in exile. . . . It was a revolutionary city, so, we kind of kept up with things in Mexico. But in New York almost the first people I ran into were all these charming young Mexican artists, and Adolfo Best-Maugard was among them. He died a few days ago; was a lifelong friend of mine from that day to this. And there was a wonderful lad—he called himself Tata Nacho [Ignacio Fernández Esperón]. He’s still living—he was at Adolfo’s funeral the other day. He was playing the piano in a Greenwich Village cabaret to make his living, and he was a great revolutionary. I was living in Greenwich Village, too, and we got to be friends: I was thinking of going to Spain. But they told me, “Don’t go to Spain. Nothing has happened there for four hundred years. In Mexico something wonderful is going to happen. Why don’t you go to Mexico?”
Porter took a train to Mexico City in October 1920 with reporting assignments from The Christian Science Monitor and the promise of a job as the managing editor of the new English-language Magazine of Mexico—which, alas, would lose its funding after only two issues. Soon after her arrival, she met American journalist Thorberg Haberman, editor of the English-language section of the daily Heraldo de México, and her husband, Robert, a labor organizer and speechwriter for Mexican president Alvaro Obregón. Porter soon became acquainted with Obregón, as well as many other prominent figures in the new government, the labor movement, and the press.

Like most of the members of her new social circle, Porter favored Obregón, who was elected in 1920—the twelfth president in the chaotic and violent years since Porfirio Díaz’s 31-year regime came to an end in 1911. “After the scintillating procession of remote and inaccessible rulers,” Porter extolled to readers of the Magazine of Mexico, “there came up from the land a farmer, Alvaro Obregón, prosperous and well acquainted with his country in its working dress; a man of straight literal mind, with a detached legal passion for setting disorder to rights.” The following year, Obregón appointed Porter as the American curator of a state-sponsored exhibit designed to tour the U.S. While writing and researching the exhibition catalog, she became an ardent admirer of artists Diego Rivera and Xavier Guerrero and caricaturists José Clemente Orozco and Miguel Covarrubias.

“Mexico was wonderful—a crowd of us were there, perfectly free of each other, yet happily knit together by our interest in Mexican art,” she recalled in one interview four decades later. Rivera had recently returned from fourteen years in Europe, and Porter would meet up with him, his soon-to-be second wife, Lupe Marín, and several of their friends in various spots, including the Café de los Monotes*, which was owned by Orozco’s brother and which featured Orozco’s and Covarrubias’s caricatures on its walls. She also visited Rivera while he worked on Creation, the famous mural commissioned by the Obregón government for the auditorium of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory School). After she finished the exhibition catalog, Porter and Rivera collaborated on two publications; in 1924 “The Guild Spirit in American Art, as told to Katherine Anne Porter by Diego Rivera,” appeared in a special issue on Mexico of Survey Graphic magazine, and the following year Porter translated excerpts from Rivera’s notebooks for Arts magazine.

In various essays and reviews, Porter commented on how “there is no conscience crying through the literature of the country. A small group of intellectuals still writes about romance and the stars, and roses and the shadowy eyes of ladies, touching no sorrow of the human heart other than the pain of unrequited love.” Yet she acknowledged that “a literature of revolt” would not reach the masses in a country with such a low literacy rate; she had high hopes instead for the influence of the visual arts on Mexican life. The murals of Rivera (and his compatriots) could be “as immediate, disturbing and almost as dangerous as a Presidential election.”

Privately, however, Porter became disillusioned by Rivera and by the revolutionary spirit in general—or more accurately, by the failure of the national culture to aspire to her own idealistic notions of what a people’s revolution should entail. She complained that Rivera’s artistic circle, with rare exception, had diluted their talents with foreign influences and had abandoned the purity of “the art of the Indian in Mexico”; that his peers “had fled out of Europe with years of training and experience, saturated with theories and methods, bent on fresh discoveries”; that the “pure-blooded Indian artist” did not exist. Forty years later, during her interview with Lopez, she recalled, “I never (after sort of being hoodwinked by that particular school of art) appraised Diego quite the same way. Before I was finished I didn’t like his character—he was a treacherous man and a dishonest artist.”

A story from 1923—the second piece of fiction she published—shows her early disenchantment. Written while she was still working with Rivera, “The Martyr” is (as she put it in 1965) a “little tirade against Diego Rivera and his wild woman Lupe Marín.” In this work of satire, the artist is nearing completion of a mural featuring twenty female figures when his fickle wife, who is his model, abandons him, and he becomes unable to finish the nineteenth figure. As Darlene Harbour Unrue has pointed out, Creation has twenty figures (which conservative critics mocked as “Rivera’s monkeys”). The nineteenth represents “Wisdom,” which according to Rivera’s notes for the mural “is a vigorous figure of a southern Indian” that “unites the group to the central focus.” By turning the painter’s theme from revolutionary idealism to “the pain of unrequited love,” Porter is effectively comparing Rivera to the writers of popular Mexican novels; his work has lost its central focus, its Wisdom.

“The Martyr” was one of Porter’s several attempts to satirize Rivera—but it was the only one she finished. She published it in Century magazine in 1923 but a decade later chose not to include it in the collection The Flowering Judas and Other Stories. In 1965, she added the story in “The Flowering Judas” section of her Collected Stories, claiming she had forgotten why it had been omitted from the earlier edition.

* Monotes can refer to large monkeys or giant puppets, especially of the type used in parades; it was the Orozco brothers’ sly reference to the oversized caricatures on the walls of their café.

Many of the above details about the connections between Katherine Anne Porter and Diego Rivera are discussed in Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction and Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist, both by Darlene Harbour Unrue.

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Rubén, the most illustrious painter in Mexico, was deeply in love with his model Isabel, who was in turn romantically attached to a rival artist whose name is of no importance. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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