Monday, November 13, 2017

Diego Rivera's and Frida Kahlo's 'Twin Houses' and Studios

Revolutionary Architecture

Nothing Diego Rivera or Frida Kahlo did was remotely conventional. So when Diego set out to build a house to be shared with his wife, Frida, in Colonia San Ángel, it is not surprising that he asked his friend and fellow muralist, the young architect Juan O'Gorman, to design it.

A recent graduate of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, O’Gorman began his architectural career designing spare, rectilinear houses and buildings in the style of the Functionalist architect Le Corbusier. The result: completion in 1932 of the Casas Gemelas, Twin Houses. Diego's is the red and white house; Frida's is the blue. A bridge famously connects the two houses. The building is distinguished for being one of the first constructed in the Functionalist style in Latin America.

'Twin Houses' of Diego Rivera (red and white) and Frida Kahlo (blue) 
famously connected by a  footbridge!
The cactus fence is traditional in Mexican rural pueblos.

Functionalism sought to meet the basic needs of its users, but it was also a movement in rebellion against the excessive ornamentation of the 19th century. During the Porfiriato, the reign of dictator Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911), who was an avid Francophile, the preferred styles in Mexico City were ornate French Second Empire and Beaux Arts. Wealthy Mexicans even continued to build homes in these styles after the Revolution (1910-17) in La Roma and other neighborhoods west of Centro that had been created at the beginning of the 20th century. O'Gorman and other leftist architects sought to break with these traditions and create a post-revolutionary, modern style. 

The embodiment of this radical change in the "Twin Houses" is strikingly evident in their contrast with their neighbors in Colonia of San Ángel, due west of Coyoacán. As in Coyoacán, the dominant architectural style in San Ángel is Spanish Colonial. Remarkably, the houses are not particularly jarring aesthetically vis-a-vis the surrounding ones, perhaps because of the traditional Mexican cactus fence that separates the house and property from the street.

Ornate Spanish Colonial door—
the very ornamentation 
the Functionalists rebelled against.

Historical Context

When the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) led to the development of a new government during the 1920s, it was time not only to rebuild the country but to generate a new image of unity and change. An earlier post discussed Diego's time in Europe and his return (1921) to Mexico at the request of President Obregón and Secretary of Public Education Vasconcelos in order to develop a public art to foster national identity. Diego threw himself passionately into the work, which resulted in what is recognized today as the Mexican Mural Movement.

It makes sense that all the arts would be called upon to contribute to this national project. As a new architectural concept, Functionalism seemed to serve not only these interests, but the needs of a new generation as well. Not only did the Functionalists seek to use new construction materials (cement, glass and metal), but they tended toward an aesthetic that was industrial and modern—an aesthetic that could open the door to new construction methods and new styles of life for a new age.

Diego Rivera's Studio at Casas Gemelas

One enters the property facing Diego's House. When I saw the ascending spiral, I immediately thought of Frida's severe mobility issues and thought, "Oh, this is great—no stairs!"

Spiral Entryway to Rivera's House-Studio
But I was wrong!
Spiral Staircase.

On both first and second floors, doors open from landings to give entry to the house. All I could think was, "How on earth did Frida Kahlo—with her serious mobility issues—ever manage these stairs?" The short answer is: She didn't—or at least, she didn't for very long. (See: Frida Kahlo House Museum for the full story)

Walking into Diego's studio, I had an unexpected—and very positive—visceral reaction to the space. The studio is two stories tall, and the light is extraordinary. The east wall is glass, but light also enters the room from windows mounted in soffit-like structures next to the roof. The effect is nearly indescribable—diffuse yet remarkably full.

Diego Rivera's Studio
floor to ceiling windows, 
and full of Diego's collected art objects.

The hardwood floors are brilliantly waxed. I had the feeling the artist was expected to return at any moment.

Diego's Studio is upstairs; 
in the window are Judas figures.

Diego had a large collection of papier mache Judas figures (ritually burned the night before Easter Sunday) and calaveras (skeletons).

Judas figure

Calaveras, skeleton figures

Lovers of everything 'Mexican', Diego and Frida collected prehispanic pieces (about 59,000!); folk art from all parts of Mexico; Judas and calaveras figures; and many juguetes (toys, miniatures). 

Many prehispanic pieces are now in the garden of Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul, Blue House, in Coyoacán, but the majority of the pieces are housed in the Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Museum, also in Coyoacán. One exception is this object, below, exhibited in Diego's studio. It must have been in the studio when Rivera was alive because it appears in the painting he made of his own studio (below).

Cha'ac mool (Mayan name)
prehispanic altar for hyman sacrific

Diego's painting of the jumble in his studio, including the cha'ac mool (bottom right), calaveras, Judas figures, and a beautiful, reclining woman—possibly Dolores Olmedo?

Rivera's painting of his studio

Rivera's Painting 

In this studio, Diego Rivera painted over 3,000 portraits and portrayals of everyday Mexican life. Of Rivera's style, it has been said:
Rivera defines his solid, somewhat stylized human figures by precise outlines rather than by internal modeling. The flattened, simplified figures are set in crowded, shallow spaces and are enlivened with bright, bold colours. The Indians, peasants, conquistadores, and factory workers depicted combine monumentality of form with a mood that is lyrical and at times elegiac.
Indigenous Woman
a painting in the studio

Niña, little girl

Diego lived and worked in this house until his death in 1957.

Frida Kahlo at Casas Gemelas

When in 1934 Diego and Friday returned from a three-year stay in the United States, they moved into Diego's houses. Frida lived and painted there for six years. I actually asked a guard how on earth Frida managed all the stairs. The guard smiled as she answered—clearly, it was not the first time she had answered the question! She said that Diego had full-time help whose job it was to make it easier for Frida to move around the house.

Frida Kahlo at Casas Gemelas

But Frida did important work at the Casas Gemelas, including her paintings Lo que el agua me dio (What the water gave me), El ojo avizor (The Lookout), and El difunto Dimas (Dead Dimas). Only one of Frida's paintings remains in her house at Casas Gemelas:

Frida painted this surreal set of images 
while sitting in the bathtub. 
Her feet are reflected in the water. 

The Empire State Building 
rises from an erupting volcano; 
Below, left, is one of her corseted dresses.
She lies nude beside it. 
Her German father and Mexican mother 
are portrayed standing (lower right). 
In front of them is a couch 
where Frida reclines with a woman 
(Frida was bisexual). 

Days after her father's death in 1941, Frida moved back to the Casa Azul in Coyoacán, where she had grown up and where she died in 1954.

Originally published in Jenny'a Journal of Mexican Culture.

Still Curious?

Related Jenny's Journal posts:
Interesting discussion of Diego Rivera's impact on public art in the United States.

The Rivera-Kahlo House Museum
(red/yellow star)
is in Colonia San Ángel Inn,
just east of Colonia San Ángel (red)
in Delegación Álvaro Obregón,
in western Mexico City.

No comments:

Post a Comment