Kahlo had arrived in America an amateur artist. She had never attended art school, had no studio and had not yet focused on any particular subject matter. “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best,” she would say years later. Her biographers report that despite her injuries she regularly visited the scaffolding on which Rivera worked in order to bring him lunch and, they speculate, to ward off alluring models. As she watched him paint, she learned the fundamentals of her craft. His imagery recurs in her pictures along with his palette—the sunbaked colors of pre- Columbian art. And from him—though his large-scale wall murals depict historical themes, and her small-scale works relate her autobiography—she learned how to tell a story in paint.
Works from her American period reveal her growing narrative skill. In Self-Portrait on the Borderline betweenMexico and the United States, Kahlo’s homesickness finds expression in an image of herself standing between a pre-Columbian ruin and native flowers on one side and Ford Motor Company smokestacks and looming skyscrapers on the other. In HenryFordHospital, done soon after her miscarriage in Detroit, Kahlo’s signature style starts to emerge. Her desolation and pain are graphically conveyed in this powerful depiction of herself, nude and weeping, on a bloodstained bed. As she would do time and again, she exorcises a devastating experience through the act of painting.
When they returned to Mexico toward the end of 1933, both Kahlo and Rivera were depressed. His RockefellerCenter mural had created a controversy when the owners of the project objected to the heroic portrait of Lenin he had included in it. When Rivera refused to paint out the portrait, the owners had the mural destroyed. (Rivera later re-created a copy for the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City.) To a friend Kahlo wrote, Diego “thinks that everything that is happening to him is my fault, because I made him come [back] to Mexico. . . . ” Kahlo herself became physically ill, as she was prone to do in times of stress. Whenever Rivera, a notorious philanderer, became involved with other women, Kahlo succumbed to chronic pain, illness or depression. When he returned home from his wanderings, she would usually recover.
Seeking a fresh start, the Riveras moved into a new home in the upscale San Angel district of Mexico City. The house, now the Diego Rivera Studio museum, featured his-and-her, brightly colored (his was pink, hers, blue) Le Corbusier-like buildings connected by a narrow bridge. Though the plans included a studio for Kahlo, she did little painting, as she was hospitalized three times in 1934. When Rivera began an affair with her younger sister, Cristina, Kahlo moved into an apartment. A few months later, however, after a brief dalliance with the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, Kahlo reconciled with Rivera and returned to San Angel.
In late 1936, Rivera, whose leftist sympathies were more pronounced than ever, interceded with Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas to have the exiled Leon Trotsky admitted to Mexico. In January 1937, the Russian revolutionary took up a two-year residency with his wife and bodyguards at the Casa Azul, Kahlo’s childhood home, available because Kahlo’s father had moved in with one of her sisters. In a matter of months, Trotsky and Kahlo became lovers. “El viejo” (“the old man”), as she called him, would slip her notes in books. She painted a mesmerizing fulllength portrait of herself (far right), in bourgeois finery, as a gift for the Russian exile. But this liaison, like most of her others, was short lived.
The French Surrealist André Breton and his wife, Jacqueline Lamba, also spent time with the Riveras in San Angel. (Breton would later offer to hold an exhibition of Kahlo’s work in Paris.) Arriving in Mexico in the spring of 1938, they stayed for several months and joined the Riveras and the Trotskys on sight-seeing jaunts. The three couples even considered publishing a book of their conversations. This time, it was Frida and Jacqueline who bonded.
Although Kahlo would claim her art expressed her solitude, she was unusually productive during the time spent with the Trotskys and the Bretons. Her imagery became more varied and her technical skills improved. In the summer of 1938, the actor and art collector Edward G. Robinson visited the Riveras in San Angel and paid $200 each for four of Kahlo’s pictures, among the first she sold. Of Robinson’s purchase she later wrote, “For me it was such a surprise that I marveled and said: ‘This way I am going to be able to be free, I’ll be able to travel and do what I want without asking Diego for money.’”
Shortly after, Kahlo went to New York City for her first one-person show, held at the Julien Levy Gallery, one of the first venues in America to promote Surrealist art. In a brochure for the exhibition, Breton praised Kahlo’s “mixture of candour and insolence.” On the guest list for the opening were artist Georgia O’Keeffe, to whom Kahlo later wrote a fan letter, art historian Meyer Schapiro and Vanity Fair editor Clare Boothe Luce, who commissioned Kahlo to paint a portrait of a friend who had committed suicide. Upset by the graphic nature of Kahlo’s completed painting, however, Luce wanted to destroy it but in the end was persuaded not to. The show was a critical success. Time magazine noted that “the flutter of the week in Manhattan was caused by the first exhibition of paintings by famed muralist Diego Rivera’s . . . wife, Frida Kahlo. . . . Frida’s pictures, mostly painted in oil on copper, had the daintiness of miniatures, the vivid reds and yellows of Mexican tradition, the playfully bloody fancy of an unsentimental child.” A little later, Kahlo’s hand, bedecked with rings, appeared on the cover of Vogue.