Frida Kahlo and her house

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″:

Young Frida:

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:

Frida Kahlo working in bed, 1952. Photo by Juan Guzman.

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.

Here is an explanation of the two ceramic clocks below:

A fountain in the garden, inlaid with frogs:

She died painfully; one chronology says this:

In early June [1954] 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.

A nice gallery of Kahlo’s paintings is here, and a ton of information about her life is here.

Viva la vida!

31 Comments

  1. Posted November 14, 2012 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    wow, beautiful pictures and I like the art pieces

  2. Michael Fisher
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    “Your Isamu” is probably a reference to Isamu Noguchi the abstract sculpture artist

    In the thirties Noguchi moved to Mexico City to work on a large three-dimensional mural with Rivera

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 14, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

      Yes, I just realized that and fixed it. It’s obviously a letter to Frida from Isamu.

  3. Posted November 14, 2012 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    “I often find myself agreeing more with carpenters and shoemakers, etc, than with all this herd of stupid, so-called civilized, chatterers who are called educated people.”

    • tsboncompte
      Posted November 14, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      nah, its not about agreeing. In a more liberal translation, more into conveying the meaning of each phrase than anything, this is what I got.

      often I would find more agreeable the carpenters, shoemakers, etcetera, than the whole pack of stupid would-be-civilizers, bags of hot air, called ‘cultured people’
      -frida kahlo

      • Posted November 14, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        That is close but not quite right either; it is not “civilizers” but “civilized” (past participle):
        “…than that whole pack of stupid so-called civilized bigmouths called “cultured people””

    • tsboncompte
      Posted November 14, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      often I would find more agreeable the carpenters, shoemakers, etcetera, than the whole pack of stupid would-be-civilizers, bags of hot air, called ‘cultured people’
      frida kahlo

      a liberal translation closer to the meaning

      • eddie
        Posted November 15, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

        In context of the Trotsky link, maybe try translating as ‘workers’ and ‘bourgeoisie’.

  4. Posted November 14, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    I transcribed the letter from Diego Rivera to Frida. Here is the text in Spanish:

    “Niñita querida

    Cuando vine estabas dormidita ya y no quise despertarte. te deje aqui los peranitos (?) para los muchachos y una cantidad tan grande de cariño y de besos (?) que no caben en ninguna parte, recibelos cuando despiertes

    Tu Sapo & Rana (?)
    Diego”

    I put question marks after the words the image was not clear enough and I couldn´t scan them properly. Sorry.

    Here is my best translation (I´m native Spanish speaker but not official translator):

    “Darling Little Girl

    When I came you were already slept and I didn´t want to wake you up. I left here the peranitos (?) for the boys and a huge amount of affection and kisses that no place is big enough, got them when yo wake up

    Your Toad and Frog (?)

    Diego”

    I tried Google translator and here is it´s:
    “Dear little girl

    When it comes already were asleep and did not want to wake. I leave here the peranitos for boys and such a large amount of affection and kisses that do not fit anywhere, and Receive them when you wake up”

  5. Dani
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Really nice pictures. I didn’t know she had such a troubled life.

    My attempts on the translation. (I’m from Spain but I couldn’t make out some of the words, perhaps if someone could write them in the comments)

    Many times I sympathize more with carpenters, shoemakers etc than with that herd of idiots, allegedly civilized, talkative (possibly with the meaning of charlatans)..so called educated people.

    The love letter:
    Lovely little girl
    when I came you were already asleep and I didn’t want to wake you up. I left you here the little pieces (pedacitos?) for the ? and an amount of affection and ? so big that it can’t be contained in any place.
    Receive them when you wake up.

    Your toadfrog (I guess it was some kind of affectionate nickname), Diego

  6. michieux
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Great post, Prof. Coyne! I’ve been fascinated by Frida Kahlo ever since I saw the movie — http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120679/ a few years ago. I agree that the film wasn’t a masterpiece, but I loved the very evocative music in it.

    Thanks very much for this post. I really appreciate it.

  7. Posted November 14, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Here’s a question for the art historians.

    Her painting style is instantly, unmistrakably Mexican.

    Did she invent that style, or was she working within an already-established stylistic form?

    b&

  8. Occam
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Much more in tune with Jerry’s fascinating report:
    Mexican director Paul Leduc’s probing, sensitive biopic, Frida, naturaleza viva (Mexico 1983; international release, 1986).
    Incomparably more modest as a production than the star-studded Salma Hayek vehicle, but otherwise superior in almost every respect.
    A finely crafted must-see for every Frida-maniac.
    Probably hard to find. Most enjoyable arthouse stuff.
    If you’re lucky enough to watch it, it will likely efface the Miramax Frida.

    Even the WP entry is in Castilian only:

    http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frida,_naturaleza_viva

  9. Posted November 14, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    I love this post. Thank you.

  10. Marta
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Jeepers, this was fabulous.

    For some reason, I was holding my breath while I was reading it. Isn’t that odd?

  11. Posted November 14, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Very interesting, thank you. I have always liked her paintings. (and eyebrows!)

  12. Posted November 14, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on michelledevilliersartandstories and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  13. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I first learned about Frida Kahlo (and most of the people and historical events depicted here in Jerry’s post, including Diego Rivera’s murals and the assassination of Leon Trotsky) in Barbara Kingsolver’s award-winning novel The Lacuna.

    Highly recommended.

  14. Alektorophile
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    The small devotional paintings you show are also called “ex voto”, and they are more than a purely Mexican genre, they have a long tradition in many parts of Catholic Europe. The churches in my corner of the Europe are full of them, ranging from 16th century examples to contemporary ones. They are generally in a very similar, very typical naïf style, often because painted by local artists without formal training or by the people who dedicated them themselves. Mostly they are dedicated by individuals who feel they have been saved from a life-endangering event by a particular saint or some specific version of the virgin Mary. The text on the example you give above is very typical: “I give thanks to the holy virgin of Talpa for the miracle she bestowed on me by saving my life on October 3, 1934.” They are an incredibly interesting genre of folk art, and often offer an indirect view on the lives of members of the lower strata of society in the past (not often a subject found in “high art”).

  15. Posted November 14, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    This is a wonderful, evocative post, one of my favorites so far. Thanks.

  16. Alektorophile
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    As for her ashes, I did a brief search on Google in Spanish, and it is unclear. They were at one time on the dressing table shown in your self-portrait, perhaps in the large pre-columbian urn to the right, but now possibly rest in a toad-shaped ceramic or crystal bowl somewhere by her bed. Not clear at all.

    • Alektorophile
      Posted November 14, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      The urn to the left, that is.

  17. marksolock
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  18. Posted November 14, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Frida in bed, woman praying next to her:
    I dedicate this memento in honour and glory of A.M del Rozario of Talpa*. For a favour received on September 1934. I can’t figure out what the last word means before it ends with “Estacia Vazquez”

    * likely just a person she knew from that area of the city called Talpa or Virgin linked to that area.

    Also a native Spanish speaker but not trained translator. Hope this helps.

    • Alektorophile
      Posted November 15, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      “I dedicate this memento in honour and glory to the most holy Mary of the Rosary (“Maria Santisima del Rozario”) of Talpa for a favour received on September 1934, Etzatlán, Estacia Vazquez”.

      Etzatlán is a town in the western state of Jalisco, same state where Talpa lies with its local Virgin Mary pilgrimage sanctuary.

  19. Gordon Hill
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the spectacular post. While the photos are beautiful, the originals are epiphanic.

  20. Bill
    Posted November 14, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    There is an awesome display of Kahlo’s work currently running in Toronto at the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario). Those of you who live there must go….

  21. Posted November 15, 2012 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    For a fascinating science connection: one of Kahlo’s lovers was the logician Jean van Heijenoort (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_van_Heijenoort), sometime Trotsky secretary, then logic teacher in the US, and editor of an essential collection of seminal mathematical logic papers (“From Frege to Gödel”) and co-editor of Gödel’s collected works. Anita Feferman wrote a n excellent biography of van Heijenoort, “From Trotsky to Gödel: The Life of Jean Van Heijenoort.”

    • peter
      Posted November 15, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

      I came late to this, and am happy to see you pointed this out.

      van Heijenoort is exceptionally interesting. He was described as a ‘lady’s man’, and also his job in the 1930’s partly as bodyguard to Trotsky, quite a contrast to the layman’s picture of a logician (though it seems also Wittgenstein was hardly in the line of a meek and impractical professor either!) But he left for New York some months before Trotsky’s infamous murder with the ice pick in Mexico City, was certainly unconnected to that, but ironically was then many years later murdered himself during a visit to Mexico City to try to help his deranged former wife (one of four, the rest sane), who killed him and then herself. Surely this is Hollywood all over, if only one could convincingly explain to the movie-going public about the importance of Frege and Skolem and Godel to mathematical logic!

  22. Posted November 15, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    A fascinating story of an incrediblty courageous woman. She struggled quietly every day in order to bring more to others. Painting in a wheelchair or on crutches? Painting on her back? Who does that? She loved fully and lived strongly for the short time she had here. Thank you for showing us and teaching us a little more about her.

  23. brujofeo
    Posted November 17, 2012 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    Mi novia is a highly regarded interpreter and translator (especially of technical and scientific texts); she is the VP of the California Court Interpreters Association, and was Pope JP II’s interpreter when he did the televised conference some years ago with the presidents of several Latin American countries. She is also chilanga, meaning born and raised in la Ciudad de México, and she grew up steeped in the history and lore of Rivera and Kahlo. I’m in la Ciudad myself at the moment; when I get back to California tomorrow, I’ll ask her to have a go at the translations.

    Beautiful post, by the way.


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