Monday, November 13, 2017

Frida Kahlo House Museum: Behind the Green Door

Like most Mexican houses, the walls of Frida Kahlo's and Diego Rivera's Casa Azul (Blue House) rise straight up along the sidewalk. Reed and I are forever trying to catch a glimpse of what's behind the doors.

Muséo Frida Kahlo, Coyoacán 

But we were not at all prepared for what awaited us when we walked through the green door of Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul.

Secret Garden

The Garden, unexpectedly large,
opens out to the right;
at the left, is Casa Azul.

Several large trees grow
in well-tended plantings.

Winding paths 
lined with pedregal (volcanic stones) 
beckon visitors to wander. 

Pre-Columbian stone sculptures are set among the plantings; 
stone benches invite quiet reflections.

'Ring' used in Mesoamerican Ball Games

Dramatic piece of pedregal (volcanic stone) 
showing curving flows of lava.

And more than one fountain. 
The staircase is from Frida's day room. 
The studio juts out to the left.

This property first belonged to Frida Kahlo's parents. Frida's father was a well-known portrait-photographer of Jewish-Hungarian descent; her mother's family was Spanish born in Mexico. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived in this house from 1929 to 1954, during which time they imprinted it with their artistic and aesthetic sensibilities.

They also left remnants of their passionate love-hate for each other—captured in this short poem.

"El diablo es rubio
Y en sus azules ojos
Dos estrellitas encendió el amor,
Con su corbata y sus calzones rojos,
El diablo me parece encantador."
Frida Kahlo

"The devil is blonde
And in his blue eyes
Two little stars, inflamed love,
With his red tie and underwear
The devil seems like a charmer."
Frida Kahlo

Frida's Early Life

Born July 7, 1907, Frida died July 13, 1954, at the age of 47. She died where she was born, in the Casa Azul, Coyoacán, Mexico. In 1913, at the age of six, she contracted poliomyelitis, which shriveled her right leg. 

In 1922, Frida was one of the first girls admitted to the National Preparatory (High) School (Escuela Nacional Preparatoria) of Mexico City—the most prestigious educational institution in Mexico. While there, her pranks propelled her to leader of a group of young rebels dedicated to playing pranks on their teachers.

While was attending Prepa (High School), she came into contact for the first time with her future husband, the well-known Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who had been commissioned to paint a mural in the school's auditorium.

In 1925, she learned engraving techniques from Fernando Fernández Domínguez. However, in the same year, physical disaster struck again—this time it was a trolley car accident. Her spine, numerous ribs, and her neck were broken. Her pelvis was shattered. Her right foot and her shoulder were dislocated. The final insult was a railing that penetrated her abdomen from the left side. 

Frida underwent multiple surgeries, submission to numerous apparatuses designed to stretch her muscles, and wearing special corsets. Over her lifetime, Frida would endure 32 surgeries. Her life was marked by disability, accompanied by chronic physical pain. 

The need to remain supine during her lengthy convalescence brought on profound boredom that Frida relieved by beginning to paint. In 1926, still in her convalescence, she painted a self portrait that turned out to be the first in a long series in which she expressed the events of her life and her emotional reaction to them.

“Pinto auto retratos
porque estoy mucho tiempo sola”.
Frida Kahlo

"I paint self portraits
because I am alone much of the time."
Frida Kahlo

Painting Her Life of Pain

She painted the majority of her paintings stretched out in her bed or in her bathtub.  Her successful recuperation, including the ability to walk again, was made possible only because of  her tremendous energy and indomitable will to live, which might have crippled—if not killed—a lesser spirit.

Following her recuperation, a good friend introduced her to the Mexico City art scene, where Frida came into contact with numerous artists and photographers, including the muralist Diego Rivera.

In 1938, the poet and essayist André Bretón wrote the introduction for a showing of Frida's work at the Julien Levy gallery in New York City. In it, Bretón categorized Kahlo's work as 'surrealist'. In spite of the critical judgment of the famous Frenchman, Kahlo wrote much later, "He believed that my work was 'surrealist', but it wasn't. Never once did I paint my dreams or nightmares. I painted my own reality." ("Creían que yo era surrealista, pero no lo era. Nunca pinté mis sueños ni mis pesadillas. Pinté mi propia realidad.")

Viewing her paintings, who can doubt that reality as she experienced it was, in fact, 'surreal'?

Sin esperanza - Without hope

“El dolor no es parte de la vida, 
se puede convertir en la vida misma.”
Frida Kahlo

"Pain is not part of life,
one can convert it into life itself."
Frida Kahlo

El Árbol de la Esperanza - Tree of Hope

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were married in 1929. Diego was enormous, obese, whereas Frida was small, delicate, which led their friends to comment their marriage was the union of elephant and dove.

Frida and Diego
The Elephant and the Dove

The relationship of Frida and Diego was a passionate mix of love, liaisons with others (Frida was bi-sexual), creative synergies, and hate, which culminated in divorce in 1939. Divorce, however, did not end their stormy relationship.  On December 8, 1940, they quietly remarried in San Francisco, California.

Before we moved to Mexico, Reed and I visited San Miguel de Allende as a potential home. While there, we went to an exhibit of Frida Kahlo's writings to Diego Rivera. Nothing I am capable of writing could possibly communicate the depth and passion of this complicated, powerful, love-hate relationship.

Of passionate love...

“Te quiero...gracias por que vives, 
porque ayer me dejaste tocar tu luz más íntima 
y porque dijiste con tu voz y tus ojos 
lo que yo esperaba toda mi vida.”
Frida Kahlo

"I love you...thankful for why you live,
because yesterday you carried me to touch your most intimate light
and because you spoke with your voice and your eyes
what I have wanted all my life."
Frida Kahlo

Of equally passionate hate...
Yo sufrí dos accidentes graves en mi vida, 
uno en el que un autobús me tumbó al suelo…
el otro accidente es Diego. 
De los dos, Diego es el peor."
Frida Kahlo

"I suffered two grave accidents in my life,
one was the trolley that slammed me to the ground...
the other accident is Diego.
Of the two, Diego is the worst."
Frida Kahlo

Life at Casa Azul

Personal Rooms

The personal rooms at Casa Azul permit us a glimpse into the personal lives of this larger-than-life couple. A long, gradual stone ramp provided Frida easy access to these rooms, which are one flight above ground level. A series of living rooms now house a representative collection of Frida's work and of Diego's as well.

Visitors enter the personal rooms through the comedor (dining room).

High ceilings, a skylight and generous windows 
create a welcoming, friendly space 
where Diego and Frida entertained such guests as
 the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and David Rockefeller.

The comedor gives entrance to a stone stairwell which, in turn, leads to the doorway of the colorful kitchen.  Sun shining through generous high windows make this a bright, airy space. I love this kitchen.

Some cooking pots shown here are heirlooms;
they are no longer made.

The stove is traditional, wood-burning. 

Firewood burns in long 'shafts' 
set among the yellow tiles. 
Notice the metates for grinding corn
peeking out from under the cook stove. 

Diego Rivera's bedroom is at one side of the dining room.

Diego's bedroom is small, 
but with high ceilings and a large window

with Diego's death mask in miniature

Frida's and Diego's Studio

Climbing some stairs leads to Frida's and Diego's sunlit studio.

Paints and brushes on Frida's desk.

Frida's wheelchair 
parked in front of her easel.

In the next room is Frida's bed. There is a mirror straight above the bed. Frida's mother had it installed during Frida's lengthy convalescence following the trolley car accident. Seeing herself reflected in the mirror made it possible for Frida to paint her first self portrait. 

Frida's bed

At the foot of the bed hangs Frida's gallery of heroes: 
Stalin, Unknown, Lenin, Marx, Mao.  
Like many other artists and intellectuals of the time, 
she and Diego were members of the Mexican Communist Party.

Sculpture of nude woman on Frida's dresser. 

Frida Kahlo is widely acknowledged as the first female artist to paint without inhibition about the female experience. We have visited the Frida Kahlo Museum many times. Our visitors always want to see it. Each time we have been struck by the youthfulness of the majority of visitors. Visitors of 'a certain age' make up a distinct minority. 

A Conflicted Life Goes On...

Despite Diego's affairs with other women, including Frida's own sister, the muralist helped Frida in many ways. It was Diego who suggested that she wear traditionally-inspired, colorful Mexican dress and exotic jewelry.

 When Frida wore traditional dress,
it took on added drama.

Combined with her unusual eyebrows, this dress style created Frida's inimitable image—recognized around the world even today.

Fridaelegant in a stylized traditional dress
showcasing a pre-Columbian sculpture.

Beautiful example of Frida's style,
based on traditonal Oaxacan dress.

...held together always 
by the ever-present corset.

Diego loved Frida's paintings. He was her most devoted fan. For her part, Frida was the primary critic of Diego's work. In response to Diego's growing reputation in the United States, he and Frida lived in the U.S. from 1931 to 1934, principally in New York City and Detroit.

While in New York, Frida spontaneously aborted their child, which devastated her. Owing to her many injuries, Frida was unable to bear a child—a tragic reality that Frida was able to accept only after many years of deep emotional pain. As always, she dealt with the pain by painting it. These paintings are excruciating for their stark, brutal honesty, painful to view.

The political dissident León Trotsky, exiled by Stalin from Russia, was granted asylum in Mexico,  with the support of Rivera. Trotsky and his wife lived with Frida and Diego from 1937 to 1939. Actually, the Kahlo property is large, and the Trotskys lived in a small house at the opposite end of the garden from Frida's and Diego's house.

León Trotsky and his wife were guests in this small house

During this time, Frida had an affair with Trotsky. Subsequently, he moved to a near-by house. One might reasonably speculate that the affair with Trotsky was a contributing factor leading to Diego's and Frida's 1939 divorce.

Trotsky was assassinated in August 1940, by a supposed member of Stalin's secret police. Frida was accused of instigating the attack. Fortunately, at the last moment, the authorities relented, and neither she nor Diego were arrested. (Actually, the artist, David Alfaro Siqueiros, an anti-Trotsky communist, was the first to attempt to assassinate Trotsky, in May 1940. See: David Siqueiros: Twentieth Century Odysseus for the full, dramatic story.)

Frida's Final Years and Death

In the spring of 1953, the Galería de Arte Contemporáneo of Mexico City organized an important exhibit of Kahlo's work. It was the only exhibit mounted in Mexico during Frida's lifetime.

Unfortunately, Frida's health was very bad, and her doctors prohibited her from getting out of bed to attend the exhibit. In typical fashion, Frida devised a unique solution to the challenge. Minutes after guests were admitted to the gallery, sirens were heard in the distance. Arriving at the gallery in an ambulance with a police escort, sirens blaring, Frida was lifted from the stretcher onto a bed brought on a flatbed truck.

Then four strong men carried Frida on her bed into the gallery, where she held forth during the entire afternoon exhibition as the artist-diva she truly was. Her many fans gathered round to greet her. Frida made jokes, sang and drank tequila, just as she had always done. It goes without saying that the exhibit was a resounding success!

Later that year, it became necessary to amputate her right foot below the knee due to gangrene. At first, she showed resilience:

Below her amputated foot, Frida wrote, "Pies, para que los quiero si tengo alas para volar” ("Feet,  what do I want them for, if I have wings to fly"). 
On the right is a hatchling; breaking free of the egg, wings  outstretched, ready to fly.

Similarly, she wrote,
“Intenté ahogar mis dolores, 
pero ellos aprendieron a nadar”.
Frida Kahlo

"I tried to drown my pains, 
but they learned how to swim."
Frida Kahlo

The amputation was the final physical assault. Robbed of all mobility, a major depression descended upon Frida. Unable to do much of anything during this time, she wrote poems in her diary. Most of them dealt with  her pain and regrets. Here's her last entry:
“Espero alegre la salida 
y espero no volver jamás”.
Frida Kahlo

"I cheerfully await the exit
and I hope never to return."
Frida Kahlo 

When asked how she wanted her body buried after her death, she replied emphatically, "Not burial!  I've laid down long enough!" 

Frida Kahlo's Death Mask...resting on her Day Bed.

Upon her death, Frida's body was cremated, and her ashes were placed in a pre-Columbian urn that now rests at the Casa Azul, where she was born.

Still Curious?

Poking around the Internet, I came upon this excellent summary of Frida Kahlo's life.  At the end of the article is a UTube film (3:36 second) with rare live footage of Frida and Diego.

Set to Mexican music, the silent images are arresting.  Frida had a real dramatic flair, which is beautifully captured on the film.  Be patient, scroll down the text until you see the familiar UTube:

I also found this useful list of 'phrases' written by Frida Kahlo, also in Spanish:

For English-speakers, this tribute provides the introduction to a Frida Kahlo web site:

Originally published in Jenny'a Journal of Mexican Culture.

The Frida Kahlo "Blue House" Museum is in Colonia Del Carmen, Coyoacán.

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