By Deborah Van Hoewyk
On December 8, 1886, he was born.
On July 6, 1907, when he was 20, she was born.
In 1914, as World War I began, when he was 27, painting and studying in France, and she was 7, she contracted polio.
In 1922 in Mexico City, when he was 37 and painting his mural La Creación in the Simon Bolivar auditorium at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, and she was 15 and a student studying medicine there, she saw him.
On September 17, 1925, in Mexico City, when he was 38 and she was 18, she was badly injured in a bus accident. During her convalescence, she began to paint.
In 1928, when he was 42 and she was 21, their paths crossed at a party thrown by the Italian photographer Tina Modotti.
On August 21, 1929, when he was 42 and she was 22, they married. Her mother didn’t think much of the relationship, calling them “the elephant and the dove.”
On November 6, 1939, when he was 52 and she was 32, they divorced.
On December 8, 1940, his 54th birthday, and she was 33, they remarried.
On July 13, 1954, when he was 65 and she was 47, she died.
On November 24, 1957, when he was 70, he died in his studio of heart failure.
Thus went the short, not always happy, life of Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón and the not-so-short, but also not always happy, life of Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez.
Ah, what “dark and stormy” lives they lived . . .
Who They Were
Tied always together by art, they maintained separate homes, studios, and lives. They were legendary for their affairs, hers with both men and women. They were tempestuous, manipulative, intense and neurotic, competing with and completing each other. They loved each other with jealous passion.
Rivera in many ways represents a distinct moment, well past, in Mexican and international art – the political muralism that portrayed the clashes between ancient and indigenous culture and the advancing machine age. Kahlo is the future of introspective art – although she has been identified as a surrealist and a “folk art” painter, she is rather the portraitist of internal pain, able to allegorize subjective agony in visible, symbolic images. Together, they represent the artistic, political, and intellectual ferment that characterized the North American and European cultural world up until the mid-1950s.
Although the Communist Party expelled Diego, ostensibly for accepting government commissions, and Frida quit the Party in support, they both remained committed to the ideals and goals of Communism the rest of their lives.
The 1920s: Frida and Diego
Frida became a painter as a result of her injuries from the horrific bus accident, when she painted to distract herself from pain and immobility. She produced her first serious work,
Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress, in 1926, designed to re-attract Alejandro Gómez Arias, a law student and Frida’s boyfriend. They had been involved in the radical political scene in Mexico City as part of the cachuchas, a small group named after their peaked caps. After the portrait arrived at Alejandro’s home, his parents, who deemed Frida a danger to their hopes for Alejandro, sent him on a four-month tour of Europe, which lasted nine months. Eventually, their relationship faded away.
In early 1928, Frida was introduced to a group of young people centered around Julio Antonio Mella, a Communist from Cuba; Italian photographer Tina Modotti was in this group, and she was a friend of Diego Rivera. At one of the group’s parties, Kahlo said she wasn’t much interested Diego until he pulled out a pistol and shot the phonograph. Then she found him “interesting” but “dangerous.” Shortly thereafter, she asked him to look at her paintings, he said she had talent and, just like that, they were dating. And just like that, they got married on August 21, 1929, in a civil ceremony.
Frida had to borrow a blouse and skirt of indigenous style from her maid to suit Diego’s idea of what her wardrobe should be. He himself wore a plain grey suit, a Stetson hat, and sported a Colt revolver. Apparently, Diego’s first wife showed up, pulled up Frida’s borrowed skirt, and shouted, “Diego swapped me for these legs,” revealing Frida’s polio-ravaged right leg. Her father, who saw in Diego an unconventional guy with the means to support the medical care need by his “devil” of a daughter, attended. Frida’s mother did not.
The 1930s: Frida, Diego, Helen, Christina, Nickolas, Isamu, Leon, and possibly Josephine, Georgia, Paulette, Dolores, Tina, Jacqueline, and Chavela
By the 30s, mired in The Great Depression but willing to support public art as a “work relief program” for artists, the U.S. became interested in what was happening in Mexico’s various cultural movements, particularly among the muralists (Rivera may have become the most famous by now, but David Alfaro Siquieros and José Clemente Orozco were right up there with him).
On November 10, 1930, Mr. and Mrs. Rivera arrived in San Francisco, where Diego had received mural commissions from the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute).
Thus began the period, which characterized much of the rest of Frida’s life, in which Diego was lionized and Frida was considered his young, not to mention tiny, Mexican wife.
It has been argued that one of the paintings she produced in San Francisco, Frieda and Diego Rivera, predicts the course of their marriage (she would soon change the spelling of her first name to ‘Frida’ as a protest against the rise of Fascism). The banner carried by a dove reads “Here you see us, me, Frieda Kahlo, with my dearest husband Diego Rivera,” but they do not have eyes for each other, by any means. Frida is looking at no one, and Diego is turning away from Frida, but sneaking a peek back at her. She is unclasping her right hand from his.
As Diego worked on his commission for the Stock Exchange, he asked tennis star Helen Moody to model, and while she was at it, go to bed with him. In turn, Frida took up with the wife of one of Diego’s assistants, beginning her affairs with women, which seemed to amuse Diego, particularly when they were with his current or former mistresses. While Kahlo has been linked romantically with any number of women, from Georgia O’Keefe to Jacqueline Baker, there is no concrete evidence of these liaisons beyond ambiguous references in Frida’s letters. The notion that Diego approved of her relationships with women can be better supported, and provides the basis for most speculation.
Her affairs with men were another story – Rivera would grow very jealous – these situations were much more threatening, and more long-lived; with the exception of Trotsky (see below) Kahlo maintained lasting friendships with former lovers.
During this time, Frida experienced a recurrence of the problems associated with her childhood polio, which led her to a surgeon, Dr. Leo Eloesser, who became her life-long medical advisor.
In May of 1931, Frida left “Gringolandia,” perhaps bored, perhaps annoyed by her secondary role, and returned to Mexico, where she met a celebrity fashion photographer, Hungarian-born Nikolas Muray, from New York. Their passionate but intermittent affair would last ten years, through Muray’s second marriage and the divorce/remarriage of Frida and Diego; Muray’s pictures, the first color photos of her, are some of the most stunning images we have of Kahlo.
By November 1931, the Riveras were off to New York for the opening of a very successful retrospective of Diego’s work at the Museum of Modern Art (now MOMA). Frida once again had to take up the role of Diego’s little Mexican wife. In April 1932, they moved on to Detroit for Diego’s commission for murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, then one of the largest museums in the U.S. Bored while Diego spent all his time frescoing the walls of the DIA, Frida started painting again. A newspaper article of the time portrayed her as the “adoring wife” of the great painter, bearing the headline “Wife of Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art.” Not so noticeable in the same article is the quote from Frida on Diego, “Of course he does pretty well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist.”
In 1933, Frida and Diego went back to New York, where the infamous political/artistic debacle of the Rockefeller Center mural took place. While the mural was clearly positive about the power of industry, Diego also snuck in a portrait of Lenin. John D. Rockefeller asked Diego to paint over Lenin, Diego refused but offered to include a bust of Lincoln, the commission was rescinded, the unfinished mural was destroyed, and General Motors canceled its commission for the Chicago World’s Fair.
Diego had one more commission, at the New Workers’ School, and wanted to remain in the U.S., New York specifically, while Frida wanted to return to Mexico. When the money for the commission ran out, the Riveras were broke, and the point was moot. Friends raised the funds for their passage home. They embarked for Havana and then Veracruz on December 20, 1933.
By 1934, they were living in a double studio/house by the famous architect by Juan O’Gorman, Frida was disastrously pregnant for the third time, had an appendectomy, an abortion, and an amputation of three toes. This didn’t stop her from having an affair with the Japanese sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, nor Diego from having an affair with Frida’s sister Cristina.
The latter was devastating to Frida, so she moved into an apartment in the center of Mexico City. She spent a year partying and hanging out in pulque joints. Although they would reconcile in a few months, Frida and Diego continued to live separate personal lives, uniting to work on political causes. When, in January 1937, Leon Trotsky and his wife arrived in Mexico for political asylum, it was because of Diego’s influence; the Trotskys took up residence in Frida’s childhood home, the Casa Azul. It took no time at all before León and Frida were having an affair.
Around this time, Frida started painting again. A small show of her work at the National Autonomous University of Mexico – which she thought would do nothing for her – caught the eye of Julien Levy, whose Julien Levy Gallery at 15 East 57th Street was a major player in the New York art scene. Kahlo’s two-week show of thirty paintings (November 1 – 15, 1938) was a sensation and established her identity as an independent artist.
In a tangled series of events, Frida ended up in a show in Paris in 1939, Mexique, which included work collected by André Breton, photos by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, and 17 of Kahlo’s paintings. One of them, The Frame, was purchased by the Louvre, the first work by a 20th-century Mexican artist to grace the famed museum’s walls. Frida disliked Paris and returned to New York, where Nickolas Muray had been divorced and was engaged – he wanted to marry Frida, but she did not want to marry him, so they parted ways (although they remained lifelong friends).
The 1940s; Diego, Frida, María
Back in Mexico, her health and her relationship with Diego continued to decline, terminating in their divorce in November 1939. Frida was extremely hurt, and went back to painting – and having affairs. In 1940, her reputation soaring, Frida visited Dr. Eloesser, who thought the answer to her health problems was in medicine and detox, not surgery. He also thought Frida needed Diego, with whom he was also friends, and convinced Rivera to remarry Kahlo. Dr. Eloesser was also a close friend of Diego who happened to be in San Francisco at the time. While Frida was recuperating, Dr. Eloesser convinced Rivera to reconcile and remarry Frida, which he did in December 1940. The deal was “no sex, no money” – they would be platonic, and Kahlo would support her half of their joint arrangement. That, of course, was hardly the end of drama in their relationship.
In 1948, Rivera started having an affair with the actress María Felix, and asked Frida for a divorce. She thought he was joking. He was not. Frida called the newspapers and dragged María Felix through the mud in newspapers read by shocked Mexican Catholics. The affair was over. There was no divorce.
The 1950s: Denouement
From the turn of the decade on, Kahlo was in poor health with spine problems and infections (including gangrene). Until her death in 1954, she was usually bed-ridden; what little work she could do was usually under the influence of heavy doses of pain killers.
Lola Álvarez Bravo, the photographer’s wife, organized Kahlo’s first solo exhibition in Mexico, which gave Frida a temporary “new lease” on life. She helped plan the exhibition, designed the invitations, selected paintings – but her doctor ordered that she not leave her bed. So, Frida sent her bed along, arrived on a stretcher, and was placed IN her bed, making a grand entrance. Her last public appearance was a political act. On July 2, 1954, she spent four hours in a wheelchair at a street demonstration to protest U.S. intervention in Guatemala.
On July 12, she gave Diego an anniversary ring for their upcoming 25th anniversary; when he asked why she would give it to him early, she said, “Because I feel I am going to leave you very soon.” She died before dawn on Tuesday, July 13, 1954. Some believe she used her supply of painkillers to commit suicide.
Diego would die three years later. He wanted his ashes to be commingled with those of Frida, but his family saw to it that they were sent to the Rotonda de las personas ilustres (Rotunda of Famous Men) at the Civil Cemetery of Dolores in Mexico City. Frida’s ashes are kept in an urn in the Museo Frida Kahlo in the Casa Azul where she grew up and where she died.