Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) has a unique international appeal, as both an artist and a personality. Her image in oil paintings and photographs is instantly recognizable.

This is a beautifully curated and designed exhibition which left me with a much deeper understanding of Kahlo’s life, her work, her toughness in the face of terrible adversity, and the Mexican roots of her distinctive and powerful self-image.

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The treasure trove

The pretext or premise or prompt for the exhibition was the discovery of a treasure trove. After Frida died at the horribly early age of 47, her mourning husband, the famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, ordered all her belongings in the famous ‘Blue House’ they shared together, to be locked up and sealed away.

Rather incredibly, it was only in 2004 that this room was re-opened, to reveal a treasure trove of Kahlo-iana – including her jewellery, clothes, prosthetics and corsets, along with self-portraits, diary entries, photos and letters. Together they shed a wealth of new light on her life, personality, illness and endurance, on her art and on her extraordinary achievement in fashioning herself into an iconic image and brand.

And this is what the exhibition is based on.

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Biography

The show is smaller than some recent ones at the V&A. Not so much a blockbuster, as an intimate portrait. It starts with a corridor-like room divided into small recesses, each of which take us briskly through a chapter in her early life, using black and white photos, a few early paintings and some home movies.

The key elements for me were that:

  • Her father was German, emigrated to Mexico in the 1890s and set up a photographic studio. She helped him and learned photographic technique, how to compose and frame a subject. No accident, maybe, that she is best known for her painted and photographic self portraits.
  • Her full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón. She always preferred Frida because it her father’s name for her. I was mulling this over when I came to the section describing her marriage to the, by then, already famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, in 1928, who was a lot older than her, 43 to her 22. I.e. a big, reassuring father figure. Daddy.
  • When Frida was 6 she contracted polio and was seriously ill. She was left with one leg shorter than the other.
  • When she was 18 she was on a bus which was in a collision with a tram, resulting in her being both crushed against the window and having a piece of metal penetrate her abdomen. This accident and her long recovery put paid to the idea of studying to become a doctor. Confined to bed for months, she began to expand the sketching, drawing and painting she’d already been toying with.

In the late 1920s she developed a kind of naive, symbolic style, drawing inspiration from Mexican folk culture. After marrying Rivera, she accompanied him on a number of trips to the United States, where he had been commissioned to paint murals, socially conscious murals being a big part of 1930s American artistic activity.

Here’s a good example, from 1932. I don’t know if I like it. I understand the fairly simple ideas: on the left are images of Mexico, Aztec ruins and figurines, flowers and agricultural produce, with their roots in the good earth: on the right is Detroit, highly industrialised ‘Motor City’ (the name FORD is spelled out on the smoking chimneys), the American flag, skyscrapers, and growing out of the soil are not beautiful flowers but lamps and fans.

And in between is a self portrait of Frieda in a formal pink dress holding the Mexican flag. Between two worlds, eh? I get it.

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Her naive symbolism matches the simple-minded ‘political’ attitude of Rivera’s murals. They both thought of themselves as communists and went on marches supporting strikers etc, but, nonetheless, liked visiting the heart of capitalism, America – or ‘Gringolandia’, as Frida called it. The money was good and there were lots of opportunities for Rivera to get commissions. And it was in New York, in 1939, that Frida held her first successful one-woman show. Capitalism is an awful thing – unless you can get money, commissions, promotions and sales out of it: the attitude of many 20th century artists.

One of the most interesting biographical facts is that Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known to the world as Leon Trotsky, having been exiled from the Soviet Union, was offered refuge by the revolutionary government of Mexico and came to stay with the Riveras, not for a few weeks, but for two years.

The exhibition includes a b&w film of Comrade Trotsky explaining, in English, how badly he has been treated by comrade Stalin. He insists he is really a man of honour – as anyone whose family was murdered by the Red Army he set up, would surely have testified.

Mexican roots

These early biographical roots are interesting but they are eclipsed by the power of the later rooms.

These start with the room on Kahlo’s Mexican roots. It explains that during the 1920s and even more so the 1930s, Mexico underwent a cultural renaissance. Part of this was the exploration and promotion of the country’s pre-Colombian culture, but it also included the first real appreciation of the folk customs and costumes of peasants and the poor around the country.

Interest in the country spread abroad, with American artists, photographers and film makers attracted to its sunny, bright and passionate culture. John Huston made films here. Even the young British writer Graham Greene made a tour of the country (he hated it) and then set his most powerful early novel here, The Power and the Glory. I’ve reviewed them both.

Frida and Diego were part of this revival of interest in Mexico’s culture and history. They both sought inspiration in the folk and workers culture of their country. In particular they were attracted to the area called Tehuantepec in the Oaxaca region. People here followed traditional ways, and the exhibition includes a whole wall of traditional icons of the Virgin Mary, establishing a link between these images of saintly femininity and Kahlo’s self portraits and explorations of her identity.

The dress room

The final room in the show is the biggest and I involuntarily exclaimed ‘wow’ as I walked into it.

Centre stage is a huge central glass case displaying some 20 of Frida’s dresses. Full length, made of colourful fabrics and bright designs, each one has been carefully displayed and annotated, giving a powerful sense of Frida’s sense of colour and dress.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

There are only 10 or so paintings in the whole exhibition and six of them are in this room. They’re later works, when she had realised that she was her own best subject and that self portrait was her best medium.

Looking out at the viewer, flat and unemotional, her iconic features by now well established – the monobrow, the faint moustache on her top lip, her strong brown eyes, the sideways pose – she is flatly, unashamedly, blankly herself.

In the painting below even the tears don’t really affect the expressionless face. Or they appear as surreally detached embellishments of the fundamental design. Much weirder is the ‘ruff’ dominating the image. The exhibition explains that this is a huipil de tapar, a traditional Mexican item popular in Tehuantepec, designed to frame the face and extend over the neck and shoulders. There is another larger painting of her wearing the same outfit and a full scale example of a huipil de tapar on a display mannequin for us to compare and contrast reality with painted depiction.

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Kahlo is, you realise, a perfect subject for the V&A because she was not only an artist, but someone with a fascination for clothes and costumes – in her case, of her native Mexico. The exhibition is less about the ar per se and more about how she drew heavily on these costume traditions and elaborated them into a highly colourful style of her own.

Hence there are more than twice as many dresses as there are Kahlo artworks. Hence, also, the display cases devoted to the heavy and ornate jewelry she wore, the elaborate ear-rings and thick heavy necklaces, set off against the bright and colourful hair ribbons.

In this respect it is fascinating to watch the 9-minute tourist film from the Tehuantepec region which is on view just next to the dresses and necklaces. Look at the colours and designs of the dresses, the heavy gold jewellery, and the brightly coloured ribbons in the women’s hair. In a flash you understand. Kahlo was a conduit for these traditional dresses, colours, fabrics and jewellery, into the international art world.

She gave it her own style. She combined it in her own way and, above all, gave it the imprimatur of her own face, of her very distinctive features (eyes, monobrow, moustache) and her unsmiling, detached, dream-like appearance.

But a great deal of her ‘look’ quite obviously stems directly from the traditions of the women of Tehuantepec.

Frida Kahlo on a bench, carbon print (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo on a bench (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The sick room

The big dress room is the climax of the exhibition, in terms of dresses, design, jewellery, paintings and photos.

But arguably the biographical core of the exhibition is the room before it, entitled ‘Endurance’. In an imaginative but spooky display, the curators have commissioned the creation of six small four-poster beds and made each into a display case which, along with photos and text along the walls, give a quite harrowing account of Kahlo’s many illnesses, ailments, treatments, and lifelong suffering.

The polio left her with a limp. The bus accident left her with serious internal injuries. In the 1930s she began to experience back problems and underwent a series of treatments and operations to fix them. At the end of her life one foot became infected and then gangrenous, requiring the whole leg to be amputated. It’s gruesome stuff.

This room includes examples of the medical equipment she was forced to wear or endure. There are platform shoes for the shorter leg, a prosthetic leg made for her to wear after the amputation but, most evocative of all, a series of corsets, plaster casts and back braces to help support her failing spine.

Kahlo decorated, painted and embellished as many of these as she could. The plaster casts, in particular, are painted with abstract patterns. The most elaborate one carries a painted hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union and, underneath, an image of the foetus she was carrying before she had a miscarriage in 1932.

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

The record of her illnesses and, in her later years, the almost constant pain she endured, make for harrowing reading, but there are also two really powerful insights in this room.

1. Painting in bed

One is that she was, at various periods, confined to her bed, it being too painful for her to walk or even stand. (Imagine!) So she had a mirror rigged up in the canopy above her and an easel on the side of the bed. From here she could paint, but paint what?

The answer is dreams – surreal images based on dreamlike symbolism, repeated images of her or a body in a bed – and her face. Over and over again the face of someone in discomfort or pain, staring, blankly, inscrutably, down from the ceiling.

Photos show the actual set-up, with Frida lying in bed, beneath a big mirror, the easel right next to her, on which she is painting.

This sheds quite a lot of light on her subject matter, and lends a depth and dignity to the pictures. Modern critics, obsessed with feminism and identity, may well write about the paintings ‘transgressing’ this or that convention and ‘subverting’ ‘gender stereotypes’.

But they are also the image of someone in tremendous pain. Knowing this, getting the really deep feel for her physical suffering which the ‘Endurance’ room gives you – lends tremendous depth of character and meaning to the detached, slightly dream-like expression you encounter again and again in her paintings.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

2. The construction of the self

The other insight is easy to miss. Off to one side is a set of three black and white photos taken of Frida topless. They were taken by Julien Levy, the owner of the New York art gallery where she had her first solo show in 1939 and with whom she had an affair.

The insight comes in the text underneath, where Levy is quoted describing Frida doing and undoing her braids. First she undid the braids, carefully removing all the objects which were in them and held them in place, arranging them all carefully and in order on the dressing table. Later, she remade the braids, carefully and meticulously taking the ribbons and clips and other elements from their place on the dressing table, and putting them back in just the right places to create just the right effect.

In the context of the ‘Endurance’ room, next to so much physical pain and discomfort and demoralising bad luck – this ritual takes on a whole new significance.

You realise it was a way of controlling and ordering her life, a life of illness and pain which might so easily slip into indiscipline, depression or addiction. Instead she maintained control by paying minute attention to every element of her self-presentation. There are several cases showing the lipstick, and makeup, and nail polishes and eye liner and other accoutrements she used to create her image. To make herself up. To control, create and bolster herself.

Might sound stupid, but this knowledge makes the dazzling inventiveness of her self-creation seem genuinely heroic.

3. Long dresses

That’s why she liked to wear long dresses – because they hid her polio limp. This explains why all twenty dresses in the dress room are full length, reaching right down to and covering the feet. It’s a very Victorian effect, in some of the photos every inch of her body is covered save for her hands and face. But a Victorian outfit on acid, blitzed with brilliantly coloured fabrics and designs.

Conclusion

If you like Frida Kahlo this exhibition is a dream come true. There was a long queue to get in and the rooms were quickly packed out.

That said, there is remarkably little about her art, as art. A few mentions of the influence of Rivera’s socialist murals, a bit about Mexican symbolism, mention that the Godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, heavily promoted her, writing at length about the more surreal and dreamlike of her fantasy paintings (none of which are on display here).

But all in all, surprisingly little commentary or analysis of the paintings as paintings, except for comments about the dresses she’s wearing in them, the hair, the jewellery, the way she presents herself in them.

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

A moment’s googling shows that Frida Kahlo painted hundreds of paintings. Only ten are on show here. This exhibition is much more about the creation of her image, all the exhibits inhabit concentric circles spreading out from that premise.

I found it hard to get very worked up about 70 or 80 year-old makeup sets (in the outer circle). Her dresses and fabrics are colourful and interesting but, at the end of the day, not really my thing – though I could see plenty of women visitors being riveted by their designs and fabrics. Kahlo’s mural-style, political or symbolic art is sort-of interesting – although murals aren’t a format I warm to – and I found them less compelling than comparable murals by Stanley Spencer or Thomas Hart Benton.

No, it’s only when I came to her paintings of herself that I felt a real power and forcefulness in the image, the way they bring out her stern, unsmiling expression.

But even more central than her self portraits, and – in my opinion – at the absolute heart of the exhibition are the contemporary photos of Frida. It is the photos which bring together all the elements mentioned above, her great taste for colourful fabrics, bright designs, adventurous headgear, stunning jewelry and vivid lipstick to match, her deep sense of Mexican folk art and culture – all this funneled, channeled and focused in a series of stunning and powerful photos.

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Nickolas Muray

Thus it was often the photos which impressed me most in any given room. And looking closely, it quickly became clear that the photos we know, the ones we’re familiar with, and by far the best ones, were taken by Nickolas Muray.

There is almost no information about Muray in the exhibition, which is a shame because his images are iconic. According to Wikipedia, Muray had a ten-year-long affair with Frida, from 1931 to 1941. (During this period she divorced, then remarried Rivera. And sometime in there, she also managed to have the affair with Levy, which led to the nude photos. Those bohemian artists, eh?)

The only flicker of recognition of Muray’s role in helping to crystallise the Kahlo brand is a wall label next to one of the portraits. Here Muray is quoted as saying

colour calls for new ways of looking at things, at people

This struck me as pointing towards something very profound. Most of Kahlo’s paintings are striking in composition (and for their generally ‘naive’ style) but are surprisingly drab, especially the earlier, political ones. the later paintings are marvellously colourful and inventive. But in a way it is these photos alone which do justice to the tremendous colourfulness of her self-presentation.

According to Wikipedia, Muray was:

famous for his creation of many of the conventions of color advertising. He was considered the master of the three-color carbro process. (Nikolas Muray Wikipedia article)

In other words, Muray wasn’t just quite a good colour photographer – he was one of the inventors of colour photography for the modern age.

This knowledge goes a long way to understanding why Muray’s photos of Kahlo stand out from the other contemporary photos of her, done at the same time, by other photographers. The coming together of Muray and Kahlo’s bodies in their long affair is trivial compared to the coming together of their shared understanding of colour and design – with phenomenal results.

The (admittedly black and white) photo of her by Florence Arquin makes her look like a person, an ordinary human being, squinting in the sun. But the three photos I’ve included by Muray give Kahlo a feeling of power, self-control, majesty, an almost goddess-like calm. In Muray’s hands Kahlo becomes an icon to be worshiped.

You can imagine these images of Frida Kahlo carrying on being iconic for a very long time. Iconic of what, exactly? Whatever you want: our current cultural obsessions are with gender, sexuality, race, identity and so on. But I think her image transcends any one set of ‘issues’ and lends itself to infinite reformulation. Which is one of the characteristics of great art.

The movie

A film of her life was released in 2002. According to the trailer, Frida was ‘one of the most seductive, and intriguing women, of ours or any time’, and it features numerous clips of her jumping into bed with men and women, with little of no mention of the physical disabilities and ailments.

The shopping

Kahlo was an ardent communist. Today she is marketed as a fashion icon, feminist saint, and, more to the point, the inspirer of a whole world of merchandise.

In the shop you can buy some 134 items of merchandise including at least 20 books about her, notebooks, greeting cards, pencils, lapel badges, earrings, necklaces, brooches, jewellery, sunglasses, scarves and shawls, t-shirts, handbags, tote bags ( I counted 20 different design of bag), a Mexican cookbook and ingredients, pillows and socks – yes, socks.

Here’s the full list of Kahlo merch:

Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

The Power and The Glory by Graham Greene (1940)

This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven. (p.125)

In 1938 Greene was commissioned by the publisher Longman to go to Mexico to report on the revolutionary government’s repression of the Church and anti-clerical pogroms. The trip produced the factual travel book, The Lawless Roads, published in 1939, and the novel The Power and The Glory, in 1940.

A worldview finds a home

God, Greene must have been thrilled to bits when he saw Mexico. In London or Brighton, in a sensible well-organised civilised and boring country, Greene’s bleakly pessimistic worldview combined with his fondness for an atmosphere of menace and fear often seem more than a bit ludicrous.

In revolutionary Mexico, on the other hand, the sense of life’s futility, its cheapness, squalor and poverty, along with a constant menace from the revolutionary authorities, streaked through with a melodramatic heroism of the repressed Catholic church – this is the world he had been looking for, had been expressing in fiction for a decade – and it actually existed!

I’ve argued that his previous books had been themes and worldviews in search of a plot which could justify them – the bitterness, the horror and the menace expressed by characters and narrator in his first half dozen or so novels never really being justified by the small-scale, petty and often silly plot structures.

Here, in the brutal, poverty-stricken, violent, repressive, godforsaken south of Mexico, he found the living embodiment of everything he imagined, everything he loathed and feared and hated and which his fiction revels in: life at its most squalidly cheap and nasty; a cast of vicious, pathetic, defeated human animals set against a pitiless and abandoned landscape.

The Power and The Glory is routinely described as Greene’s first great novel. I am arguing it is ‘great’ because he has finally found a subject which justifies his obsessions and the bleak, cold-eyed style he had developed to express them.

As a small example: in these early novels the characters often feel uniquely cursed, as if they carry a blight, an evil fate around with them, like Pinkie in Brighton Rock or D. in The Confidential Agent who, as I’ve noted in a post on that novel, repeatedly uses the word ‘infection’ and typhoid to refer to himself. But the whisky priest is finally a character who can really justify the solipsistic self-pity so many Greene characters feel, for the army starts taking hostages from the poor villages where he passes and shooting them if no-one will betray him.

Nobody would stop him, saying a woman was ill or a man dying. He was a sickness now. (p.64)

He alone carried a wound, as though a whole world had died. (p.68)

A virtuous man can almost cease to believe in Hell, but he carried Hell about with him… Evil ran like malaria in his veins. (p.176)

Plot

There is no plot. The unnamed whisky priest has been hiding for ten years (!) while his colleagues are either shot by the authorities or give in and marry, abandoning their vows. The army, led by the unnamed lieutenant, are after him but not very hard.

For most of the novel there is no sequence of events linked by meaningful interactions, or unfolding of a plot. It is not even a chase, more of a trudge or traipse or godforsaken stumble through the jungle and landscape of southern Mexico in which the priest has encounters with various people. He covers hundreds of miles from the banana port where he tangles with Mr Tench the dentist, to his home village of Concepcion where the peasants are desperate to get rid of him, to some place where he sees the child (Coral) he fathered illegitimately – thus, oooh, placing himself in a state of mortal sin – then crossing some river, getting latched onto by a probably criminal half-breed, then on to the capital where he buys wine only to see it drunk by idiots and gets thrown into a squalid prison cell stuffed with crims, then back to the mud village.

Maybe it’s intended as a kind of parody of the Stations of the Cross but it’s more like Waiting For Godot in that, at every one of his stopping points he loses a belonging: his missal, his smart clothes, his wine, finally the last scraps of writing he has. He staggers blindly scores of miles accompanied by an Indian woman he can’t communicate with, who’s carrying the corpse of her three year-old son, murdered by some Yankee gunshooter. Slowly, steadily the protagonist is humiliated and stripped of all dignity until he is reduced to a bestial level, sucking the moisture from his wet trousers, fighting with a crippled dog about a bone with some raw meat still on it.

The text is divided into four parts, the first and longest two describing his steady deterioration on the run. In part three there is an interlude: he stumbles over a civilised plantation run by two German Lutherans, where is is fed and rested and recuperates. He is given money and food and is actually on the mule which will take him north to the city in the next state, to safety and lights and civilisation, when the mestizo from earlier in the novel appears like an evil daemon to tell him the Yankee gunshooter is lying dying and has asked for confession. He knows it is a trap, but the whisky priest goes, nonetheless.

It is a trap – the Yankee is there but dies absurdly without giving confession or receiving the last rites. In every possible way Greene makes his priest a failure. The army lieutenant, who was lying in wait, takes him back to the capital, they have some pseudo-philosophical discussions, but then the priest is locked in a cell to drink the last of the brandy and cry with fear.

Part Four uses the same technique as the final part of A Gun For Sale, namely it’s a short round-up of the fate of all the minor characters in the text: which has the modishly distancing affect of showing that life goes on (in what Greene sees as its silly tawdry way): Captain and Mrs Fellows bicker about whether to go back to England; the unnamed peasant mother finishes reading the life of a young martyr to her impressionable children. The heart of this alienation or distancing technique, is that Mr Tench the dentist who we met on the first page, is doing dental work of the chief of police at the moment the whisky priest is executed, and we witness the execution through his eyes, as he looks down from the chief’s office into the courtyard.

And in the final paragraphs, late one night, to the house of the believing woman, arrives in the final sentences of the novel – another anonymous priest. The Church’s work goes on! Although I didn’t enjoy a lot of what went before, the sheer theatricality of these final passages and the boom boom ending give a rewarding sense of completeness.

Characters

Greene is skilled at creating vivid characters with deft pen portraits of their physical appearances.

The lieutenant walked in front of his men with an air of bitter distaste. He might have been chained to them unwillingly – perhaps the scar on his jaw was the relic of an escape. His gaiters were polished, and his pistol-holster: his buttons were all sewn on. He had a sharp crooked nose jutting out of a lean dancer’s face; his neatness gave an effect of inordinate ambition in the shabby city. (p20)

The Chief of Police came breezily in, a stout man with a pink fat face, dressed in white flannels with a wide-awake hat and a cartridge-belt and a big pistol clapping his thigh. He held a handkerchief to his mouth: he was in distrees. ‘Toothache again,’ he said. (p.21)

The old man sat [the renegade priest] on a packing-case in the little dry patio. He was very fat and short of breath; he panted a little as if after great exertion in the heat… He wore only a shirt and trousers; his feet were bare, but there remained something unmistakably clerical in his manner. Forty years of the priesthood had branded him. (p.28)

[The mestizo] was wearing a shirt, a pair of white trousers, and gym shoes through which one big toe showed – plump and yellow like something which lives underground. He scratched himself under the armpits and came chummily up to the priest’s stirrup. (p.86)

On the first floor a man dressed in formal dark trousers and a white skin-tight vest came out of a bedroom with a towel over his shoulder. He had a little grey aristocratic beard and he wore braces as well as a belt. (p.106)

Theology and existentialism

I’m not interested in the Catholic ‘theology’. In Greene’s hands it’s mostly morbid self-pity dressed up as principle. Eg:

Why should anyone listen to his prayers? Sin was a constriction which prevented their escape; he could feel his prayers weigh him down like undigested food. (p.151)

‘Theologically’, I think this is meaningless. Dramatically, it is yet another of the thousands of ways, of phrases, Greene uses to make the priest feel sorry for himself.

I was more struck by the way the novel creates an archetypal landscape, a symbolic landscape, depicting man’s abandonment in a godless universe etc, a very existentialist notion, very of its time, very dated. And an idea, like many of the others in the book, which is rammed home by repetition.

He bellowed after [the departing boat], but it wasn’t any good: there was no sign of a [anaesthetising] cylinder anywhere on the quay. He shouted once again, and then didn’t trouble any more. It didn’t matter so much after all: a little additional pain was hardly noticeable in the general abandonment. (p.18)

He knew what it meant: the ship had kept to timetable: he was abandoned. (p.19)

Their little shameless voices filled the patio, and he smiled humbly and sketched small gestures for silence, and there was no respect anywhere left for him in his home, in the town, in the whole abandoned star. (p.30)

There was a sense of abandonment, as if he had given up every struggle from now on and lay there a victim of some power…(p.96)

It was an odd thing that ever since that hot and crowded night in the cell he had passed into a region of abandonment… (p.147)

It was loneliness he felt now – even the face had gone, he was moving alone across thatblank white sheet, gong deeper every moment into the abandoned land. (p.157)

His head drooped between his knees; he looked as if he had abandoned everything and been abandoned. (p.205)

Greene manufactures characters by giving them a handful of fictitious memories which the text then adverts to again and again to create a spurious sense of personality. Something similar might be said of the ‘themes’ of the novel: that repeating them is an attempt to deepen them, to give them more meaning. Not for me. They remain outdated clichés, like Dickens’ sexless heroines or Fielding’s hearty squires: they are sociological constructs of the era – the conflicted 1930s – which we look back at with interest and detachment.

The Greene Creeps

Greene is never happier than when nosing out pain and suffering and humiliation and shame and embarrassment and squalor and seediness and sexual failure and bitten fingernails and balding scalps and bad teeth and then recklessly using these as ‘proof’ of the whole universe’s beastly heartlessness.

[His father’s dental cast] had been [Trench’s] favourite toy: they tries to tempt him with meccano, but fate had struck. There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. The hot wet river-port and the vultures lay in the wastepaper basket, and he picked them out. We should be thankful we cannot see the horrors and degradations lying around our childhood, in cupboards and bookshelves, everywhere. (p.12)

It infuriated [the lieutenant] to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy – a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew. (p.25)

The novel gives hundreds of instances, great and small, of people’s shabby physical appearance and sordid behaviour. A high/low point in Greene’s love of the squalid is when the priest is stuffed into a prison cell crammed with people and reeking from the overflowing bucket of faeces, and he hears the unmistakable moaning of a woman as somewhere in the filthy stinking darkness a couple have sex.

Details

I don’t much like the lengthy theological self-pity, and find a lot of the dwelling on squalor so pathological as to be unintentionally funny. But what I enjoy most about Greene’s novels is the attention to detail: the deft character creation from a few strokes, the handful of details which create a locale, the steady stream of arresting details. Details expressed in clear, uninflected language, details which leap from the page carrying complete conviction, details which indicate how deeply Greene has imagined the scene.

Suddenly, out of the forest, a hundred yards away, an officer rode. In the absolute stillness you could hear the creaking of his revolver-holster as he turned and waved. (p.72)

A rout of pigs came rushing round the corner of a hut, taking no notice of anybody. The soldier finished his puttee and stood up. The sunlight coming up above the forest winked on the bottles of the gaseosa stall. (p.77)

The mestizo watched the mules pick their way along the narrow stony path with a look of wistful greed; they disappeared round a shoulder of rock – crack, crack, crack, the sound of their hooves contracted into silence. (p.184)

As Evelyn Waugh pointed out: Greene has a very unsensual use of language, no particular use of symbolism, no unusual vocabulary. All is plain and blunt and limpid. It is the arrangement of the aperçus, of the detailing, their quick juxtaposition, the lack of linking passages, almost like cuts between shots in a movie, which give Greene’s prose its imaginative power.

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Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Power and The Glory: illustration by Paul Hogarth

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Power and The Glory, illustration by Paul Hogarth

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.
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