Heady with success, Kahlo sailed to France, only to discover that Breton had done nothing about the promised show. A disappointed Kahlo wrote to her latest lover, portrait photographer Nickolas Muray: “It was worthwhile to come here only to see why Europe is rottening, why all this people—good for nothing—are the cause of all the Hitlers and Mussolinis.” Marcel Duchamp— “The only one,” as Kahlo put it, “who has his feet on the earth, among all this bunch of coocoo lunatic sons of bitches of the Surrealists”—saved the day. He got Kahlo her show. The Louvre purchased a self-portrait, its first work by a 20th-century Mexican artist. At the exhibition, according to Rivera, artist Wassily Kandinsky kissed Kahlo’s cheeks “while tears of sheer emotion ran down his face.” Also an admirer, Pablo Picasso gave Kahlo a pair of earrings shaped like hands, which she donned for a later self-portrait. “Neither Derain, nor I, nor you,” Picasso wrote to Rivera, “are capable of painting a head like those of Frida Kahlo.”
Returning to Mexico after six months abroad, Kahlo found Rivera entangled with yet another woman and moved out of their San Angel house and into the Casa Azul. By the end of 1939 the couple had agreed to divorce.
Intent on achieving financial independence, Kahlo painted more intensely than ever before. “To paint is the most terrific thing that there is, but to do it well is very difficult,” she would tell the group of students—known as Los Fridos—to whom she gave instruction in the mid-1940s. “It is necessary . . . to learn the skill very well, to have very strict self-discipline and above all to have love, to feel a great love for painting.” It was during this period that Kahlo created some of her most enduring and distinctive work. In self-portraits, she pictured herself in native Mexican dress with her hair atop her head in traditional braids. Surrounded by pet monkeys, cats and parrots amid exotic vegetation reminiscent of the paintings of Henri Rousseau, she often wore the large pre-Columbian necklaces given to her by Rivera.
In one of only two large canvases ever painted by Kahlo, The Two Fridas, a double self-portrait done at the time of her divorce, one Frida wears a European outfit torn open to reveal a “broken” heart; the other is clad in native Mexican costume. Set against a stormy sky, the “twin sisters,” joined together by a single artery running from one heart to the other, hold hands. Kahlo later wrote that the painting was inspired by her memory of an imaginary childhood friend, but the fact that Rivera himself had been born a twin may also have been a factor in its composition. In another work from this period, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), Kahlo, in a man’s suit, holds a pair of scissors she has used to sever the locks that surround the chair on which she sits. More than once when she discovered Rivera with other women, she had cut off the long hair that he adored.
Despite the divorce, Kahlo and Rivera remained connected. When Kahlo’s health deteriorated, Rivera sought medical advice from a mutual friend, San Francisco doctor Leo Eloesser, who felt her problem was “a crisis of nerves.” Eloesser suggested she resolve her relationship with Rivera. “Diego loves you very much,” he wrote, “and you love him. It is also the case, and you know it better than I, that besides you, he has two great loves—1) Painting 2) Women in general. He has never been, nor ever will be, monogamous.” Kahlo apparently recognized the truth of this observation and resigned herself to the situation. In December 1940, the couple remarried in San Francisco.
The reconciliation, however, saw no diminution in tumult. Kahlo continued to fight with her philandering husband and sought out affairs of her own with various men and women, including several of his lovers. Still, Kahlo never tired of setting a beautiful table, cooking elaborate meals (her stepdaughter Guadalupe Rivera filled a cookbook with Kahlo’s recipes) and arranging flowers in her home from her beloved garden. And there were always festive occasions to celebrate. At these meals, recalled Guadalupe, “Frida’s laughter was loud enough to rise above the din of yelling and revolutionary songs.”
During the last decade of her life, Kahlo endured painful operations on her back, her foot and her leg. (In 1953, her right leg had to be amputated below the knee.) She drank heavily—sometimes downing two bottles of cognac a day—and she became addicted to painkillers. As drugs took control of her hands, the surface of her paintings became rough, her brushwork agitated.
In the spring of 1953, Kahlo finally had a one-person show in Mexico City. Her work had previously been seen there only in group shows. Organized by her friend, photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo, the exhibition was held at Alvarez Bravo’s Gallery of Contemporary Art. Though still bedridden following the surgery on her leg, Kahlo did not want to miss the opening night. Arriving by ambulance, she was carried to a canopied bed, which had been transported from her home. The headboard was decorated with pictures of family and friends; papier-mâché skeletons hung from the canopy. Surrounded by admirers, the elaborately costumed Kahlo held court and joined in singing her favorite Mexican ballads.