Tiled kitchen, table and work surfaces covered with earthenware pots
Art,  History,  Mexico

Meeting Frida and Diego at home

Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo
Poem written on a wall
Poem by Patti Smith on a wall in the courtyard of the Case Azul

But what about the ‘accident’ that was Diego? Her marriage with fellow artist Diego Rivera was for much of their time together a somewhat tumultuous one. They lived separately for many years, both had affairs and in 1939 divorced, only to remarry the following year. Despite the many affairs and other differences, there seems to have been a connection between them that neither could resist.

Frida suffered several miscarriages and went through many operations to try to address her chronic health problems. In the latter years of her life she had to use a wheelchair and also spent long periods house- or even bed-bound. She had started to paint after her accident, when her parents had a special easel made for her so she could do so while lying in bed. Towards the end of her life her right leg was amputated because of gangrene.

During her lifetime she was less acclaimed as an artist than Rivera, who was commissioned to paint his large frescoes not only in Mexico but in many cities in the US. It was only posthumously that she gained more recognition, gradually evolving into the icon she is today. That iconic status, however, is based as much upon perceptions of her life as on her art – maybe more so. She has become a symbol of non-conformity, of feminism and survival against the odds. Perhaps ironically, her image has become more famous than any of her paintings. We saw it everywhere in Mexico, on all kinds of goods for the tourist market: clothing, paintings, ornaments, bags and more.

And her home in Coyoacan has become a place of pilgrimage for her admirers (I almost said worshippers) and a must-visit for anyone interested in art more generally. I promised you a virtual visit in my previous post about Coyoacan; here it is!

The Casa Azul

This house in Coyoacan was Frida’s birthplace, the family home. She lived there as a child and also in later life, having inherited it when her father died. Today it is a museum showcasing her life and some of her works. As someone who was only vaguely aware of her and her life story I found it both fascinating and moving. I am always intrigued to see the homes where great art was created, whether of writers, painters or others. They seem often to still hold an intangible magic in the air. This was no exception, despite the crowds that thronged its courtyard and small rooms.

Unsurprisingly given the name, the house is painted in a beautiful deep blue which alone would have been enough to attract the photographer in me.

In one area of the courtyard we found a display of sculptures by Mardonio Magaña, whose work the couple admired and supported.

Once inside the crowds made it hard to take in everything at times. But with patience we saw most of the displays and learned a lot about her life. The first rooms are set out as a museum, telling the story of her childhood, battles with disability and how this influenced her art. She was someone who painted not only what she saw but primarily what she felt.

I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.

Frida Kahlo

Some of her works were displayed alongside the ancient artefacts that inspired them; she and Rivera were keen collectors of pre-Hispanic art. Many of her paintings were self-portraits or included her portrait within them.

The painting on the left above especially intrigued me. It is called ‘The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and Señor Xólotl’. The website of the Frida Kahlo organisation says of it:

This painting has many elements of Mexican mythology. In her arm, she is holding her husband Diego Rivera like a baby. Diego has a face and body of an adult man and also has a third eye in his forehead, which is a symbol for wisdom but he is depicted as a baby need to be nursed by the woman, which is Frida herself. Both of them are held by the Aztec Earth Mother, Cihuacoatl, which is a character in Mexican mythology and made from clay and rock. The outermost image is the Universal Mother who is holding everything and half-dark, half-bright.

Later rooms in the house are as they were when she lived here with Rivera. They include her studio, a traditional Mexican kitchen and several bedrooms.

On the far side of the garden a separate building displays some of her many distinctive dresses. Another shows how her style influenced some of the major fashion designers, including Gaultier. I found these interesting but hard to photograph as they were behind glass.

Museo Anahuacalli

Our guide Alfonso told us that of the Casa Azul and the Museo Anahuacalli he preferred the latter. But although I found the building and idea behind it interesting, and was glad to have visited, it was far less engaging than Frida’s home.

I had expected to see more of Rivera’s work here, having been intrigued by his mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central) when we saw it a few days previously. But no, this a museum not about Rivera, but by him. He conceived of this as a place to encourage interest in the arts and to house his considerable collection of pre-Hispanic figures.

Large solid stone building with modern sculpture in front
The Diego Rivera Anahuacalli museum

The building is influenced by Mayan architecture and by the layout of Teotihuacan. It also incorporates more modern influences, such as Art Deco and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom Rivera corresponded. Both were interested in the integration of architecture with the surrounding landscape. In the case of Anahuacalli that landscape was a lava field left by an ancient volcanic eruption, with an ecosystem of desert plants. I found the cacti planted here particularly photogenic.

The plaza in front of the building was designed to host dance and music performances, and the smaller buildings around it to house exhibitions. Inside his vast collection of artefacts from the country’s past is displayed, beautifully lit but unlabelled. The museum’s website explains:

The distribution of the pieces in the 23 rooms of the Anahuacalli Museum does not respond to an archaeological order, but rather an aesthetic vision. Rivera sought to link the representations of ancient cultures with contemporary art, so that a continuous timeline was constructed. For this reason, the pieces do not have an explanatory certificate, so that they can be appreciated in themselves as a current work of art.

The initial impact is impressive, and I liked quite a few of the objects. But I quite quickly found the displays, in room after room, rather monotonous. I confess we didn’t explore thoroughly but retreated after a while to the pleasant café for a cold drink!

In the pre-Hispanic world everything in the life of the people was artistic, from the palaces and temples which are monumental works of sculpture, with their magnificent frescoes that amaze everyone peering at them in the jungle, down to the most humble pot used daily, and the children’s toys, and the stone to grind grain. Everything was a work of art, ninety-nine percent of the time, a masterpiece.

Diego Rivera

I visited Coyoacan in February 2024


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