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Afterwords: Tepoztlan

A word or two of explanation about the three Afterwords here.


To judge from what you can find on the Web via Google, and in guide books, Tepoztlán nowadays is considerably more populous and has considerably more amenities—and at times, it would seem, more drama—than when we knew it.

When we turned up there in 1969, there was only one hotel (the elegant Posada Tepozteco) and one restaurant aimed exclusively at the gentry (in the Posada). The other restaurants, down on the plaza, were simply the kind of clean, small, one-room places with basic dishes that you would find in any small town. And there was only one crafts shop.

At that time, too, no-one had had the lunatic idea of trying to install a water-guzzling golf course further down in the dry valley, which resulted in an armed confrontation in the mid-Nineties. Nor did we ever hear talk about UFO’s visiting the valley, or about Tepoztlán being (for topographical reasons?) some kind of mystical center.

God only knows what the rentals must be like there now!

So to convey some more of the flavour of Tepoztlán thirty years ago, here is an excerpt from an article of mine, “Reflections on the Organic Community,” that I wrote in 1973 and which was published the following year in that excellent and too short-lived British journal Ian Robinson’s The Human World.


As to the dialogue about Mexico that comes after it, this is taken from a long self-interview, over 200,000 words by the end, that I did at the computer keyboard during a number of months in 1999-2000.

I wasn’t just being cute. I wanted to try and get clear to myself the year-by-year sequence of events in our life together, insofar as they affected Carol, and I found that this device made it easier for me to trigger memories without pretending to the command of the subject that would be implied in a straightforward narrative.

I have both given and taken interviews myself, so I had some sense of the kinds of questions that I would ask me if I were an enquiring researcher, and the kinds of answers that I might give if such a researcher asked those questions. I drew freely and explicitly on print documents that I happened to have—letters, exhibition catalogues, and so forth—and found that I learned a lot in the process.

I also enjoyed the chance to reflect candidly, at times, on some of the things that she had had to put up with during her career.

The bit of dialogue here is one in which I am trying to figure out what Mexico had meant for us, and particularly for her and her art. These were not things that I was clear about in my head when I broached the question. Not at all. I really had to think and talk my way through them.


Lastly, since it is impossible these days to think of art and Mexico without thinking of Frida Kahlo, I am appending a letter I wrote in 1998 to a friend who had enquired about Carol’s possible indebtedness to her.


1a. Tepoztlán [1974]

At the end of the sixties, my wife and I spent eight months of a sabbatical leave in the much anthropologized community of Tepoztlán, a large village or small town of some five thousand inhabitants in a narrow valley about fifty miles south of Mexico City.

There had of course been changes in it since the time of which Stuart Chase was speaking in the passage from Mexico (1931) that F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson quote in Culture and Environment (“There is not a bathtub in Tepoztlán, or a telephone, or a radio…or an electric light, or a spring bed,” etc.)

A sizeable number of houses now had modern conveniences, in part because of the small colony of outsiders like ourselves, and the village shops were quite well stocked.

There were also three or four schools, a modest medical clinic, a football field, half-a-dozen small restaurants, and a rather fancy hotel. (After we left, a municipal auditorium was added, chiefly for showing films in; previously they were projected onto a wall in one of the school-yards, and the audience sat on the ground.)

And the city of Cuernavaca was less than an hour away by one of the battered green-and-white buses that shuttled back and forth at frequent intervals, while more comfortable ones left every hour or two for Mexico City.

Nevertheless, the village still felt surprisingly close to the account of the “organic community” given by Leavis and Thompson and to the description of Tepozlán in Robert Redfield’s book of that name (1930) to which they refer their readers.

The village was still agricultural, the only obvious mechanical activities being the frequent tinkering with one or other of the saurian-like buses.

The plaza, with its modest municipal building, its formal gardens around a bandstand on one side, its arcade on another, its handful of shops and restaurants, was still the focal point of the village, especially during the bi-weekly market with its eighty or more vendors, some of them laying out their wares in the same spots that Redfield had noted forty years before.

The hotel and the more expensive houses, built mainly of local stone, did not obtrude themselves. The other houses were still made of raw or stuccoed adobe, with outdoor cooking areas, and trees in their yards, and fowls and pigs roaming loose. The cobbled and steeply sloping streets, while navigable by patiently manoeuvring delivery trucks, were little frequented by automobiles. The women almost all wore dark dresses and shawls, the men sombreros, sandals, and work clothes. Their staple food was still corn, beans, and chili peppers.

Furthermore, the village structures and festivals were still predominantly as Redfield and, following him in Life in a Mexican Village (1951), Oscar Lewis had described them.

There were still seven barrios or neighbourhoods, each with its chapel and elected majordomos and fiestas.

On the nights of Christmas week, there were still ritual processions of women and children three times around each chapel, singing the traditional nativity song with candles in their hands, and asking ritually at the door for admittance in remembrance of the nativity story. (The moment at one of the chapels when, at the third asking, the door slowly opened and the two bells exulted overhead is one of the most moving religious occasions that I can recall.)

At the three-day fiesta before Lent, masked and costumed figures still danced for hours in the packed plaza. On the eve of All Saints Day, families still sat outside their doors at candlelit tables with food for the dead, while bonfires burned smokily in the streets.

And there were other public displays of one kind or another: a torchlight procession by primary-school children commemorating the founding of their school; funeral processions, accompanied by the village band, going down to the cemetery near the football ground; funeral processions, accompanied by the village band, going down to the cemetery near the football ground; wedding processions, with an obsessional discharge of hand-held rockets; football games; a small informal rodeo; a spectacular barrio display of fireworks on elaborately constructed open-work towers thirty or forty feet high; and no doubt others that we missed.

However, I also comment (before going on to talk more about its rewards for us) that:

Tepoztlán was not a conventionally ingratiating place.

With its Aztec temple twelve hundred feet above it on the spectacular northern wall of the valley, it felt closer in some ways to the sixteenth century than to the twentieth. The people were unsmiling and undemonstrative, even at the fiestas. We heard, convincingly, of several recent killings and attempted killings, among them a paid-for murder by the village milk-seller, a handsome man now back on his horseback rounds after being bought out of prison by his sponsors.

And I have no reason to doubt that the village answered to George M. Foster’s characterization of peasant communities in general in Tzintzuntzan: Mexican Peasants in a Changing World (1967): “Life in these communities is described [by observers] as marked by suspicion and distrust, inability to co-operate in many kinds of activities, sensitivity to the fear of shame, proneness to criticize and gossip, and a general view of people and the world as potentially dangerous”—features intensified in Tepoztlán by the Mexican tradition of machismo analyzed so well by Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950, revised edition 1959).


2. Mexico [2000]

[Speakers, JF/JF]

A. I’ve been trying to think a bit about what Mexico meant to us. Or at least on that first sabbatical. I don’t seem to have any big thoughts, though maybe one or two ideas may come later.

But I think that this was the first time we were experiencing some of the Sixties energies first hand, rather than through news magazines or in movies. We were encountering dopester hippies (Ted and Tark), Los Angeles swingers (the couple I’ve mentioned), exploitative rich people (a lawyer telling a Texas couple about how to con an old village lady into selling them her property cheap), ominous plain-clothes cops (the pair who dropped in on us after Ted and Tark had left), proto-New Age types (Sara Dominguez), gracious upper-class South Americans (the Chilean academic couple the Lomnitzes), brutal peasants (the dog-owner next door), very poor peasants (like the ones living in what was obviously the one-room unheated dwelling of bamboo on a tiny patch of beaten ground that we passed on our way to Claude’s), and especially all the rich variety of things that Claude [Besnault] was—war heroine, Paris-type intellectual, Leftist radical.

We were in a country too where if we got into any legal trouble we’d be guilty until proven innocent, and where the police were not our friends, so that one always felt a slight shiver of caution when passing a cop, let alone the kinds of cop-clusters outside the cop-shop in downtown Cuernavaca. And driving was always riskier, sometimes much riskier, than back home, whether in the untidiness of Cuernavaca on its steep hillside (no grid-iron pattern there) or on the winding road into Cuernavaca after dark, or on a mountain road like the one between Dolores Hidalgo and Guanajato that I mentioned.

There was always the possibility of theft, too, so that you had to take particular care with seeing that the car was safely parked. And of course we were hearing on and off about taken-for-granted political corruption. And Claude, I think it was Claude, told us about the massacre a year or two previously, shortly before the Olympics opened in Mexico City, when demonstrators, I think mostly students, had been prevented from leaving the plaza whose name I forget and were coldly shot down, I think over three-hundred being killed. This while Echeverria was Minister of the Interior or whatever the right term would be.

Q. Why?

A. To prevent there being any trouble while the Olympics were on, apparently.

Q. Yes, I guess that would do the trick. And your general point is?

A. I’m not quite sure, except that we were now in a sort of radicalizing situation, and had perhaps an enhanced sense of difficulties and dangers, as well as of social wrongs. You couldn’t simply parade around with your sanitized North American—or Canadian—political virtue and assume that the world would just have to fall in line because proper values, the court of public opinion, demanded it. Oh, and we were also getting doses of information, via the Police Gazette type photos and often intelligible headlines of the marvellous scandal zines Alarma and Alerta, of the savagery of Latin American criminals, particular where the drug trade was concerned.

Q. So did you both come back home armed with the sayings of Chairman Mao?

A. No, though in fact I sat down and read Capital and some other things by Marx and, I’m embarrassed to admit it, was lecturing Carol at one point about surplus value, Homer Simpson Goes Left (poor Marge!), and got more on speaking terms with three or four Marxists on campus, and started thinking more in terms of faculty power and even student power, and tried, very unsuccessfully, to run my freshman class as “free” discussion groups.

Q. How long did the fever rage?

A. Oh, probably just for a year or two, and it was never simply ra-ra or simply Marxist. As I may have said earlier, I was on the non-Marxist Left in highschool, a kind of anarcho-syndicalist British party called Common Wealth, and a couple of us had ongoing arguments with a couple of hardcore Marxist-Leninists. And I’d been in Israel and shared the obligatory respect for the kibbutzim. So I guess what I was working at in the Seventies, both in Violence in the Arts and once I’d embarked on what became America and the Patterns of Chivalry, was sort of a complicated political vision.

Q. Which we’ll be getting to later, perhaps?

A. Yes, though I’m sliding into egotism here, particularly since what I set out to do was try and say more about the possible effects on Carol of the Mexican experience. I don’t think I can usefully say more about that here, though, except to say that for her—for both of us—there’d been an encounter with real-world energies and densities that were simply not present in Halifax. We’d experienced them concretely (sorry about that cliché), and had felt, how could you not? a certain kind of social indignation, but without any sense, particularly given the presumed satisfactions in part of so-called peasant life, that there were neat simple modernizing solutions. So perhaps we’d been given a fresh inoculation against the moral bullyings of abstract theories.

Q. Satisfactions?

A. Well, as I said earlier, a fair number of things were going on in the village, celebrations, events, games, even if the people weren’t cheerful by temperament.

Q. Which they were elsewhere in Mexico?

A. Oh yes. The housekeeper in our first house, Señora Lopez, was from Oaxaca, I think, and much more open and bright and talkative. Like Geneveva, our landlady during our second sabbatical. And people in the coastal places we passed through, or ate in, or bought gas in, felt different from upland Tepoztlán. But I’m not talking Carmen Miranda stuff, you understand.

Well, to get out of this quagmire, I’ll just say that I think that Carol returned to Halifax armed with experiences of an out-there world, environment, culture, call it what you will, that (as with the energies of art, particularly medieval art) could both strengthen her against the grey ordinariness of so-called realism, Canadian realism, South End Halifax, the paintings of Colville and Pratt, and at the same time strengthen her against the kind of NSCAD art bullying in which the claims of arid theorizing and related practices, conceptualism, the discontinuance of drawing as no longer relevant, were supported, as it were, by the pretention that what we had here was enlightened progressivism, empowerment against repressive elites, and the like.

So, faced with a false dichotomy, pseudo-progress against pseudo-traditionalism, she didn’t have to opt for either. She had been out in the Third World, and not just as an Acapulco tourist or an enclosed-garden Norteamericano retiree. And we mustn’t forget that she’d been talking much more with Mexicans than I had, both during the everyday transactions in stores and in the bi-weekly market, and with Señora Lopez in our first house and the intelligent young woman who came in, I forget how many days a week, to work in our second house.

Q. Wow! That was some sentence you had going there at one point!

A. Yeah, and I used to inflict much longer ones on my poor captive grad students towards the end of a seminar.


3. Frida and Carol [1998]

This letter to a friend is dated April 9, 1998. I have split up several paragraphs in the interests of readability, but apart from that the text is verbatim. Others with whom she talked about art may know more about this matter than I do. I was hypothesizing, not speaking ex cathedra.

Dear Tiree,

That’s an interesting question about Frida Kahlo. The answer may not be simple, especially since Carol almost never committed to writing her thoughts about her own painting while she was doing it.

On the sunroom wall, beside her desk, there’s a 1991 calendar of Kahlo self-portraits. Presumably there was some feeling of empathy there. It would be interesting to think of some of the reasons—a sense of the suffering body among them? And of course it must have been hard/impossible to be in Mexico, as we were, and not be aware of Kahlo.

I imagine that she herself heard Kahlo’s name invoked from time to time in relation to her own art, which may have irritated her a bit insofar as it was Kahlo’s kinkiness that people tended to notice.

She was certainly irritated when in 1989/90 I had walked on ahead in a museum in Guadalajara and reported back to her that there was a room up ahead that she might find interesting. The works on display in it were some fairly kinky ones (corsets? leather?) by a female adaptor of Kahlo.

My guess would be that she did indeed in the early Seventies, when her painting became quite hard-edged, as in “Ambivalence” (1970-71) and “The Guardians” (1976), adapt minor elements from Kahlo, such as broken branches and sharply outlined falling blood drops, but that in the late Sixties she had worked her way to that crucial painting “Grandparents I” (1968-69), in the living room, by a different route—like Kahlo’s, Surrealist-related.

She loved Henri Rousseau by then, with his vegetation, and Max Ernst, with his. In fact, memory has just kicked in for me and come up with a sigificantly broken/hanging branch in Rousseau’s “War. It Passes,” and when I checked I could see it echoed in “The Guardians.”

There was also a minor but for awhile fashionable Surrealist called Pavel Tchelichew who interconnected interiors and exteriors (human/vegetable) and whose work I liked as a youth and no doubt praised to her early on in our relationship. There may well have been a painting or two by him in the Tate, which we visited several times, and I see that one of his works is reproduced in colour in Arnason’s History of Modern Art (undated). Arnason was the head of the Art Department at Minnesota during her time there.

My eye also lights on an interconnective painting on page 356 of that work by André Masson, another Surrealist.

She was also interested in medical illustrations, and at one time had hoped to become a medical illustrator herself, but couldn’t afford the training.

In 1962, I dragged her half way across Paris to see a triple feature of poetic documentaries, one of which was “Le Corps Profond,” whose praises she sang to people. It was made by sending a miniaturized camera inside the body (or bodies) and showing us the beating heart, the expanding and contracting lungs, the vast chest cavity.

I am certain that those extraordinary images stayed with her and contributed to “Inland” (1970) (above the sunroom sofa) and the large painting (1968-77) of an enormous hollowed-out heart in the forest.

She also took elements from a book of medieval drawings and transposed them into the lovely, golden “Figs and Olives” (1965-67), with intertwined horizontal figures in a stylized Provençal landscape. And in 1968-69 she was working, maybe, on some odd spatial interior/exterior dislocations in the sea and night sky painting “Kissing the Moon.”

But of course there still had to be the decisive breakthrough of the interconnecting of the two stylized figures in “Grandparents I,” recalling Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” in its structuring, and the second in a series of maybe seven works or sets of works showing couples—the marriage series, I suppose one might call it.

There was an influence here, especially in the two Grandparents paintings and the two Couple ones, by Lawrence, whose The Rainbow I had naively urged on her early on as a sacred text. She spoke in a later interview of that connection, and one can feel the progression from Tom-and-Lydia as a benign paradigm to Will-and-Anna as a grindingly complicated one. In another interview, or maybe even the same one, she spoke of the stimulus of her doctor’s comments that we are basically systems of tubes.

And there I stop, for insight ceases. One still can’t write off the possibility of Kahlo as a buried influence—images seen in the course of a young artist’s looking, maybe even in graduate school, but ignored at the time because not fitting into her own concerns at the time. (She didn’t much care for the hard-core Surrealists in the Fifties, being so much more committed to Expressionism. Her especial fondness for Ernst and Magritte came in the Sixties.)

Even a glimpse of one of Kahlo’s interconnectings in a reproduction might have been enough—though, again, I should note that falling tear shapes were there in “Grandparents I” before we ever went to Mexico.

When I proposed in 1968 that we buy a car and drive there for our sabbatical, she said, “Are you crazy?” or words to that effect. Presumably it was the driving that she had immediately in mind, but Mexico was simply nowhere for her at that time compared to her beloved Provence.

It might be more profitable to see both artists as women, a good deal different from each other in various ways, who were each strongly influenced by Surrealism but remained allegorists rather than dream-related symbolists. (I’ve just been looking at a new paperback about Kahlo, in which that point is made. ) Both were a lot different from the then doyenne of women artists, Georgia O’Keefe, whom Carol did not, so far as I can recall, find interesting.

O’Keefe/Kahlo/Fraser—for me, not an absurd conjunction. I am sure that, with time, Carol’s day too will come.

I’m so glad you recalled her anniversary, a tribute she would have appreciated. Anniversaries and their rituals mattered to her. It had slipped my own mind, but, as it happens, I was a good deal involved with her life and work during the past few days.

One lives on in the memories of others.



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