A New Exhibition Charts Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera’s Love Life

By Ginny Fisher
Nickolas Muray, Frida with Red Rebozo.

Two great painters, one colossal love: the intense and fractious marriage of Mexican art stars Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is legendary, and a glimpse of their colourful lives can be seen in their artwork, on show at Auckland Art Gallery.

"Love is like an aroma, like a current, like rain," wrote Frida Kahlo, but her love also whiffed of tragedy, infidelity, obsession and pain.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo's marriage, divorce and consequent remarriage had all the elements of a juicy soap opera, yet their approach to love leaves you wondering, is there really any such thing as a conventional relationship?

Julia Waite, curator of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: Art and Life in Modern Mexico, says their union was anything but, with Frida calling the shots in the second installment of their marriage an arrangement that did not rely on sexual relations or house sharing, and ensured financial independence for Frida.

Looking at it now, perhaps a trailblazing take of marriage in later life.

While there were burning emotions on a personal level, they always saw eye to eye when it came to art.

"Their relationship is fascinating on a professional level, because they supported and believed in one another's work so deeply and never showed any signs of artistic competitiveness or jealousy," says Julia.

The couple's first meeting was driven entirely by the precocious Frida who, at the time, was a student of the prestigious National Preparatory School in Mexico City considered to be the birthplace of the Mexican mural movement.

Diego had been commissioned to produce a vast wall mural at the school and Frida brazenly presented a selection of her paintings to him for feedback.

"Quite courageous considering he was the most famous painter in Mexico and twice her age," says Julia.

Diego was already a famous painter and staunch political activist many of the large murals he created in Mexico, and throughout the world, speak of politics, history, and the worker's struggle his paintings often featured labourers toiling in the fields.

Frida Kahlo, Diego on My Mind (Self-Portrait as Tehuana), 1943.
Frida Kahlo, Diego on My Mind (Self-Portrait as Tehuana), 1943.

The pair had an admiration for each other's art, with Diego encouraging Frida to continue painting for the rest of her life. They also shared similar political views revolving around communist ideals and a post-revolutionary Mexico, where the working class and indigenous people were elevated.

Frida was a rebellious soul a good match for Diego's activism and, in true form, she defied her mother's wishes when she married 42-year-old Diego in 1929, at just 22.

While her father attended the ceremony, her mother refused, having doubts about his suitability as a husband, and humorously, his odd looks.

She was right about the first one of Frida's most famous admissions confirms her poor choice in love.

"There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst."

The trolley refers to the violent tram accident she endured before she met Diego. Frida was left with a shattered pelvis, life-long back and leg pain and the inability to bear children.

Frida was bed-bound for a year after the accident and abandoned her plan to become a doctor, turning to art instead. She started drawing on her body cast and eventually painting on canvas, never afraid to depict the pain and internal anguish she experienced.

Death was always close on Frida's horizon, and the reality of her fate can be seen in many of her paintings some of which depict grotesque scenes; unashamedly human and hyper-real.

Her life was peppered with countless, unsuccessful surgeries and in her 40s, a gangrenous foot resulted in the amputation of one leg.

In the latter stages of the artist's short life, she was bed-ridden until her death in 1954, but that didn't stop her from attending her first solo exhibition in Mexico City, where she was delivered in her wooden bed and demanded tequila on arrival: "Doctor, if you let me drink this tequila, I promise I won't drink at my funeral."

"Not many people realise Frida doesn't have a huge body of work. She wasn't that prolific. She was just 47 when she died. Her painting style is meticulous and detailed; she'd work on some paintings for years," says Julia.

Nickolas Muray, Frida Kahlo on Bench.
Nickolas Muray, Frida Kahlo on Bench.

The exhibition includes 23 works by Frida, and 17 artworks by Diego, alongside a collection of photographic work by Frida's close friend Lola Álvarez Bravo, and that of her lover Nickolas Muray.

In addition to Frida and Diego's paintings, the exhibition includes a selection of original Mexican garments similar to those Kahlo would have worn and a large collection of black and white photography by Manuel and Lola Álvarez Bravo, Lucienne Bloch, Patti Smith and Frida's father, Guillermo Kahlo.

The collection of Frida and Diego's works is on loan from Jacques and Natasha Gelman a glamorous European filmmaking couple who began collecting art shortly after their arrival in Mexico in the early 1940s, and established friendships with Diego and Frida, often commissioning portraits of themselves.

A seductive portrait of Natasha Gelman by Diego has her lying across a sofa surrounded by arum lilies, and gives a glimpse into the way Diego looked upon, and was so attracted by, the beauty of women, says Julia.

"The work infuriated Frida, who in retaliation, made a revenge portrait more of a stern headshot with tight blonde curls appearing quite like horns," quips Julia.

Infidelity was rife in their marriage Diego with anyone who took his fancy often the voluptuous models he painted.

Frida soon realised her partner would never be hers alone. She once famously said: "I cannot speak of Diego as my husband because that term, when applied to him, is an absurdity."

As a result, the rebellious Frida launched into a series of affairs with men and women. The most notable affair with a woman was Josephine Baker, the American dancer, singer and actress who found fame as an expatriate in Paris. The artist's letters also allude to a relationship with the American artist Georgia O'Keeffe.

As for the other men in her life, there was a string, but none lasted as long as the 10-year affair with New York-based photographer Nickolas Muray, who became famous for his soft, glamorous colour portraits of celebrities in magazines like Harper's Bazaar and, later, advertising photography.

His colour portraits of Frida featuring in the exhibition lend a more seductive and beautiful side of the artist, who only ever painted more stern self-portraits, says Julia.

Another lover, the artist Isamu Noguchi, had to flee Rivera's casa when confronted by a gun-wielding Diego. Noguchi recalled: "Everything she couldn't do, she loved to do." And that included dancing, even though she referred to herself as a cripple.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Braid, oil on canvas, 1941.
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Braid, oil on canvas, 1941.

But her most notable affair, and the one that enraged Diego the most, was with Leon Trotsky, the Russian-Ukrainian Marxist revolutionary, to whom the couple gave sanctuary in Mexico, offering him political asylum after being ousted from Russia.

"It was Frida's affairs with men that most upset Diego," says Julia, but it was Diego's stinging fling with Frida's sister, Cristina, that stabbed a hole in Frida's heart and led to their 1939 divorce. The relationship was only to last a year Cristina's sumptuous portrait by Diego appears in the show.

During the year after the divorce, Kahlo chopped her hair, drank heavily and experimented with men's clothes and hairstyles she adopted an androgynous style more common today, but less so then. Once again Frida's rebellion, self-expression and independence shone through.

"Everything she did was rebellious," says Julia.

While viewing the exhibition Julia advises it's helpful to think of what stage Frida is at in her life when you look at her paintings.

The work Diego on My Mind was painted at a time when Frida was besotted with Diego he appears in Frida’s third eye (forehead) and she is in a full headdress of lace the third eye references a deity that is the epitome of wisdom and intelligence.

"To me this says, 'He's my obsession', yet she has entrapped him in her web. I think the headdress is almost humorous with tentacles that emanate from the centre; she looks so powerful with this tiny man in her possession."

Regardless of their problems, they couldn't live without each other. In her love letters to Diego she wrote: "I'd like to paint you, but there are no colors, because there are so many, in my confusion, the tangible form of my great love."

And yet she was a realist, penning in another letter: "Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away."

Near the end of her life, she realised her connection to Diego, the earth and her beloved Mexico was who she was.

One of her later masterpieces, The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, depicts her holding a baby-like Diego in her arms, perhaps referencing the stillborn child she lost with him, alongside their dog, all embraced in the arms of mother Mexico. "Diego was everything; my child, my lover, my universe."

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: Art and Life in Modern Mexico runs from October 15 to January 22, 2023, at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

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