Marc Petitjean separates fact from family legend in his biography, The Heart: Frida Kahlo in Paris. He explores the veracity of the family stories about his father’s affair with Kahlo in 1939. She gave the elder Petitjean, Michel, a painting she titled The Heart as a parting gift. As a result, the author spent many hours during his childhood gazing at the small but complex work. This book is an effort to put everything into the context of the era and the lovers’ lives.

Petitjean (how I will refer to the author) covers plenty of ground here. He combines biography, art history, political environments, and personal documents. There’s little solid proof about the affair beyond some letters from Michel (how I will refer to the author’s father) to Frida. If she wrote him, the letters are gone now. Nevertheless, Petitjean builds a story.

More of the book is about Frida than about Michel. But Petitjean addresses the lovers’ early lives, as well as their hopes and dreams. As he discusses the events of Frida’s visit to Paris, Petitjean explains her life in Mexico. He connects the tragic streetcar accident she suffered from with the details of the titular painting. And as he describes her fashion sense in Paris, Petitjean underscores her connections to native Mexican culture and dress.

The world around them

There’s plenty about the political aspects of that time as well. Both protagonists are affected by the world war they just survived, and the looming specter of the impending second war. They care deeply about the Spanish Civil War and have that in common. Petitjean puts their relationship in the context of all of this.

Another aspect of the book is the burgeoning surrealist art movement. While Kahlo doesn’t see herself as a part of the movement, her French benefactors shoehorn her into it. Petitjean is involved with both the movement and the gallery where her art is exhibited. Again, they share another commonality.

Despite all the turmoil around them, Michel and Frida find time for themselves. A wealthy friend offers them a place to stay together, though they both have other residences. The lovers make the most of their short time together.

My conclusions

Petitjean weaves together a cohesive narrative, despite the tenuous nature of his source material. He creates a complicated background of world affairs. And then he places vibrant characters in the foreground. Kahlo is particularly colorful, given her painting and personal styles. She is certainly the heart of the story. Michel is the planet orbiting around her sun, although Petitjean colors him with both shadows and light.

This is a slow-burn book, hard to settle into but ultimately compelling. I liked the personal nature of the story, given the author’s connection to the subject. I’m a longtime fan of Kahlo’s but this is the first book I’ve read about her. It won’t be the last.

I recommend The Heart: Frida Kahlo in Paris if you are also a fan of her work or of the surrealist art movement. Petitjean pulls together disparate subject matter into a thought-provoking biographical history.

Pair with Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d’Art by Christopher Moore for a light-hearted, fictional portrayal of Paris-based artists in a complicated time.