Inspired by a visit one morning to the Frida Kahlo Museum in the colossal metropolis of Mexico City.
Palpable magic permeates the air moment you enter La Casa Azul, the house built in 1904 by Frida Kahlo’s German born father, Karl Wilhelm Kahlo. Now home to El Museo Frida Kahlo, the museum is dedicated to the life and legacy of the legendary Mexican artist.
Painted a luminous shade of cobalt blue, the Casa Azul stands proudly on a corner block between Calle de Londres and Allende in the suburb of Coyoacan, Mexico City. Built to overlook an internal courtyard and garden, this is the house where Frida Kahlo lived much of her life. The immaculately preserved rooms feel like giant still life installations. The day I visited dappled sunlight bounced around inside and out adding to the magical feeling.
In the kitchen, dining room and large artist’s studio, Kahlo’s objects, furniture and personal items have been left untouched allowing an intimate glimpse into the private world of the remarkable much loved daughter of Mexico. Of the two bedrooms on display, one is upstairs directly off the large studio where she painted. Incredibly the other bedroom was the room used at different times by Leon Trotsky during his two year exile in Mexico, and later by the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, Frida’s tempestuous husband. Throughout the house countless original Frida Kahlo paintings, and a few by Diego Rivera hang on the walls.
As I wandered around Casa Azul taking in the decorative aesthetic symmetry of the rooms, from the lovely kitchen with its traditional yellow and blue tiled Mexican hearth, to the large fastidiously organised art studio where Kahlo’s 1940’s wheelchair rests in front of her easel, I wondered about the woman behind the carefully constructed image she presented to the world.
Recognised as one of the truly original figures of the twentieth century, the life of Frida Kahlo was as inspiring as it was tragic. An astonishingly creative and wounded soul, who, by all accounts, hid much of the agony of her physical disabilities from all but those who knew her intimately. She drew inspiration from the depth of human suffering; from personal experience and existential questioning.
She loved to stand out wherever she went, and adorned herself down to the minutest details with beautiful carefully selected clothing and jewellery. She adopted the traditional costume worn by the women of Tehuantepec, a queenly matriarchal society from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. These long skirts she embraced and loved hid the imperfections of her wretched body. For much of her adult life she braided and tied her long dark hair to resemble the ritual headdress of Tzlatzolteotl, goddess of the earth.
Her identity and style formed a symbiosis with her art. As I stood and stared at the many self-portraits she painted, I pondered the flip side – one of frailty and insecurity – to the confident image conscious persona she cultivated. As a baby Frida was left mostly in the care of her two older sisters and an indigenous Mexican wet-nurse. Her mother Matilde suffered from the effects of a difficult birth and lingering depression. Frida manifested strongly a fear of abandonment throughout her life, probably the lingering effect of her lack of maternal bonding as a baby.
As a little girl of six, she became gravely ill with polio and was bedridden for months. This would be the first of many periods in Frida Kahlo’s life where she retreated into her interior world while confined to bed; the world of her own imagination; of life and of death.
Karl Kahlo who changed his name to Guillermo, took great care nursing his young daughter back to health. He encouraged her to regain strength in her permanently withered right leg by doing things traditionally reserved for boys like bike riding and rollers skating. It gave Frida a sense of her own strength of character and they developed a strong father-daughter bond. As Frida recovered and grew older Guillermo taught her the intricacies of photography, his chosen profession. It would be her first introduction to fine details of visual art.
At fourteen Frida Kahlo was one of the first girls in Mexico to be accepted to the prestigious Escuela Nacional Perparatoria School in the heart of Mexico City. By now fiercely intelligent, rebellious, somewhat provocative and aware of creating her unique self-identity, she met like-minded artistic politically inclined students at the school regarded as a ‘breeding ground’ for Mexico’s elite. She had decided to go on to study medicine upon completion.
But all that was to change on the 17th of September 1927. On that fateful day, the bus on which she was travelling to school collided with a tram car and Frida was flung forward and impaled by a handrail. She sustained horrific injuries which haunted her physically and emotionally the rest of her days. The treating physicians didn’t think she would survive.
During her nine month recuperation, at the age of eighteen, she confronted the painful raw truth of her disability. She asked of herself existential questions surrounding the deepest meaning of life, death and self-identity. It was during this time she began to paint encouraged by both her parents.
She was advised never to attempt to conceive due to the lingering effects of the injuries she sustained – shockingly the handrail perforated her vagina. Over the course of her fertile life she tried to defy the doctors and conceived three times, though each conception ended in tragedy. Twice she was forced to have the foetus aborted and once she spontaneously miscarried. She famously went on to paint heart wrenching reconstructions of the common yet often unspoken universal experience of miscarriage.
There is much to be admired about the way Frida Kahlo lived her life; with profound honestly – she was openly bisexual – with courage and abounding creativity. As she entered her thirtieth year in 1937, there followed her most prolific painting years. She was also at the height of her powers of seduction, at various times embarking on romantic affairs outside her enduring marriage to Diego Rivera. At Rivera’s instigation the couple divorced in 1939 so he could be free to have sexual encounters at will. A year later he begged Frida to remarry him, which Kahlo determined she would do on the understanding they would have no sexual relationship.
Frida Kahlo died at the Casa Azul on the 13th of July 1954 at the relatively young age of forty-seven. A year later Diego Rivera bequeathed the ‘Blue House’ to the Mexican government to be opened as a museum in her honour.