While in Mexico City, I made a special pilgrimage to the homes of Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo. They were of course known to each other: it was at the urging of Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera that Trotsky, on the run from Stalin’s agents, sought refuge in Mexico, building a compound only four blocks from Kahlo’s house. Frida and Trotsky were also lovers: both she and Diego, though married (and divorced and then remarried) had multiple partners.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and will have more on Trotsky’s house and Rivera later. Today’s post is on the famous Frida Kahlo, painter, political activist, and lover of life. If you haven’t heard of her, which I doubt, just read the Wikipedia entry at the link above. She was a superb painter, outstripping, in my opinion, her husband Rivera, a renowned muralist. And while Rivera was the more famous when they both lived, with the passage of time it is Kahlo who is seen as the better artist. She has become an icon because of her talent, colorful life, deeply ingrained leftist politics, and achievements won in the face of terrible adversity.
Born in 1907, Kahlo (given name: Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón) lived only 47 years. She did 143 paintings, more than a third of them self-portraits. Her brief life is connected with her solipsistic oeuvre, for she was an invalid, in great pain most of her life, and portrayed her suffering in her work. Possibly born with spina bifida (see “Neurological deficits in the life and work of Frida Kahlo” by Valmantas Budrys in the European Journal of Neurology), she also contracted polio as a child. That withered one of her legs, explaining why she always wore long skirts.
As if that wasn’t enough, at eighteen she was in a horrible accident, with her bus colliding with a streetcar, breaking her spine and shattering her pelvis. From then until her death she was in nearly constant agony, spending months at a time in bed, encased in plaster casts, suffering over 30 operations, and forced to paint while on her back or in a wheelchair. She had three forced abortions (the accident thrust a metal pole into her abdomen, rendering her unable to give birth), and in the last year of her life her leg was amputated because of gangrene.
Despite that, Kahlo had an enduring joie de vivre and a stocism worked out through her art, which depicted her fantasies of childbirth and her visions of herself as a broken person, but also her deep love of life and nature (see below). And, of course, there were her famous eyebrows. . .
I spent several hours in Frida’s house (called, for obvious reasons, “La Casa Azul”): the place where she was born, lived for 25 years with Rivera, and died. It’s now the Frida Kahlo Museum, located in the lovely Coyoacán section of Mexico City.
Here are some photos of my visit (click all pictures to enlarge).
La Casa Azul from the street:
The couryard. The paint on the wall reads “Frieda and Diego lived in this house: 1929-1954″:
Older Frida with Diego; I’d appreciate it if some Spanish-speaking reader would translate!
Though they both had multiple affairs, they loved each other very much (see the letters below). Here’s what Kahlo once wrote:
“No one will ever know how much I love Diego… if I had health I would give it to him; if I had youth, he could have it all. I am not only his mother, I am the embryo, the seed, the first cell from whose potential he was engendered. I am he, beginning from the most primitive… ancient cells, which over time have become ‘feeling’”.
And, near the end of his life, and remarried, Rivera wrote:
“Too late now I realized that the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida.”
Here’s a love letter in English to Frida from one of her lovers, the architect Isamu Noguchi:
And a letter from Rivera to Kahlo, in Spanish. Again I ask a reader to translate:
Some of Frida’s paintings. There are not many in La Casa Azul; most are in museums. First, her family:
I found a photo of her painting that picture, flat on her back:
The painting below is one of my favorites, not least for the inscription at the bottom, “Viva la Vida.” It’s not clear if it’s the last painting she ever did, but it is certain that the inscription was added only a few days before she died—and she knew she was dying. It’s incredibly poignant.
There’s a genre Mexican folk paintings, “retablos“, that depict saints or the intercession of saints or angels to save someone in a horrible situation. Kahlo did several of these in her inimitable style. Again, translations appreciated.
A morbid fantasy of childbirth, perhaps reflecting one of her abortions:
And in her study was this teaching diagram, connected in some way I don’t know with the painting above and her medical condition.
A photo Frida in bed, being prayed for. This is probably staged (though she may well have been bedridden), and again I don’t have a translation.
Frida’s studio with its glorious light:
A view of the studio from outside in the garden:
Her easel, wheelchair, and painting supplies:
Her crutches, leather corset, and plaster corsets for her torso, which she often decorated after they were removed:
Frida’s “day” bed (there were “day” and “night” bedrooms), with a collection of butterflies to view when she was flat on her back:
Decorations in the “night” bedroom:
I couldn’t resist a self-portrait in her bedroom:
The kitchen and dining space in the Casa Azul. What a lovely place to cook and eat!
Diego’s bedroom (they slept separately):
Here’s an inscription, apparently in Diego’s handwriting, preserved on the wall outside his bedroom. A Spanish-speaking friend translated the first part of this as “”War starts Next summer. 1953″, but I couldn’t make out the rest. Perhaps a reader can help with that.
A fountain in the garden, inlaid with frogs:
She died painfully; one chronology says this:
In early June  Frida contracts bronchial pneumonia. She is confined to bed. In late June her health seems to improve.
On July 2nd, while still convalescing, and against the advice of her doctors, she and Diego take part in a demonstration against North-American intervention in Guatemala. This would be her last public appearance. As a result of her actions, her pneumonia worsens.
On July 13th, seriously ill with pneumonia, Frida dies in the Blue House. Cause of death is officially reported as “pulmonary embolism“. Suicide is suspected but never confirmed. Her last written diary entry reads: “I hope the exit is joyful – and I hope never to return – Frida“.
That afternoon her coffin is placed in the entrance hall of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, attended by an honor guard.
On the 14th of July, more than 600 people came to pay their last respects. Her body was cremated later that day. Her ashes were placed in a pre-Columbian urn which is on display in the “Blue House” that she shared with Rivera.
I missed the urn, but here’s Frida’s death mask, lying on the bed where she died.
Below is an hour-long biopic of Frida, and you can see two home movies of her and Diego (don’t miss!) here. (Note that she wasn’t born in 1910, but three years earlier; she always claimed 1910 so her birth would coincide with the Mexican Revolution.
The best biography of Kahlo I’ve found (and read) is Hayden Herrera’s Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. There is also of course the 2002 movie “Frida”, with Salma Hayek in the starring role. The movie is pretty good but not a masterpiece; Hayek, however, bears a remarkable resemblance to Kahlo.
Viva la vida!