Frida Kahlo

The Mexican artist’s myriad faces, stranger-than-fiction biography and powerful paintings come to vivid life in a new film

Frida Kahlo (Wikimedia Commons)
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As she grew stronger, Kahlo began to participate in the politics of the day, which focused on achieving autonomy for the government-run university and a more democratic national government. She joined the Communist party in part because of her friendship with the young Italian photographer Tina Modotti, who had come to Mexico in 1923 with her then companion, photographer Edward Weston. It was most likely at a soiree given by Modotti in late 1928 that Kahlo re-met Rivera.

They were an unlikely pair. The most celebrated artist in Mexico and a dedicated Communist, the charismatic Rivera was more than six feet tall and tipped the scales at 300 pounds. Kahlo, 21 years his junior, weighed 98 pounds and was 5 feet 3 inches tall. He was ungainly and a bit misshapen; she was heart-stoppingly alluring. According to Herrera, Kahlo “started with dramatic material: nearly beautiful, she had slight flaws that increased her magnetism.” Rivera described her “fine nervous body, topped by a delicate face,” and compared her thick eyebrows, which met above her nose, to “the wings of a blackbird, their black arches framing two extraordinary brown eyes.”

Rivera courted Kahlo under the watchful eyes of her parents. Sundays he visited the Casa Azul, ostensibly to critique her paintings. “It was obvious to me,” he later wrote, “that this girl was an authentic artist.” Their friends had reservations about the relationship. One Kahlo pal called Rivera “a pot-bellied, filthy old man.” But Lupe Marín, Rivera’s second wife, marveled at how Kahlo, “this so-called youngster,” drank tequila “like a real mariachi.”

The couple married on August 21, 1929. Kahlo later said her parents described the union as a “marriage between an elephant and a dove.” Kahlo’s 1931 Colonial-style portrait, based on a wedding photograph, captures the contrast. The newlyweds spent almost a year in Cuernavaca while Rivera executed murals commissioned by the American ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow. Kahlo was a devoted wife, bringing Rivera lunch every day, bathing him, cooking for him. Years later Kahlo would paint a naked Rivera resting on her lap as if he were a baby.

With the help of Albert Bender, an American art collector, Rivera obtained a visa to the United States, which previously had been denied him. Since Kahlo had resigned from the Communist party when Rivera, under siege from the Stalinists, was expelled, she was able to accompany him. Like other left-wing Mexican intellectuals, she was now dressing in flamboyant native Mexican costume—embroidered tops and colorful, floor-length skirts, a style associated with the matriarchal society of the region of Tehuantepec. Rivera’s new wife was “a little doll alongside Diego,” Edward Weston wrote in his journal in 1930. “People stop in their tracks to look in wonder.”

The Riveras arrived in the United States in November 1930, settling in San Francisco while Rivera worked on murals for the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Arts, and Kahlo painted portraits of friends. After a brief stay in New York City for a show of Rivera’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, the couple moved on to Detroit, where Rivera filled the Institute of Arts’ garden court with compelling industrial scenes, and then back to New York City, where he worked on a mural for Rockefeller Center. They stayed in the United States for three years. Diego felt he was living in the future; Frida grew homesick. “I find that Americans completely lack sensibility and good taste,” she observed. “They are boring and they all have faces like unbaked rolls.”

In Manhattan, however, Kahlo was exhilarated by the opportunity to see the works of the old masters firsthand. She also enjoyed going to the movies, especially those starring the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy. And at openings and dinners, she and Rivera met the rich and the renowned.

But for Kahlo, despair and pain were never far away. Before leaving Mexico, she had suffered the first in a series of miscarriages and therapeutic abortions. Due to her trolley-car injuries, she seemed unable to bring a child to term, and every time she lost a baby, she was thrown into a deep depression. Moreover, her polio-afflicted and badly injured right leg and foot often troubled her. While in Michigan, a miscarriage cut another pregnancy short. Then her mother died. Up to that time she had persevered. “I am more or less happy,” she had written to her doctor, “because I have Diego and my mother and my father whom I love so much. I think that is enough. . . . ” Now her world was starting to fall apart.


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