Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Portrait of Love – Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera photograph by Carlo Van Vechten

The girls here on the blog often give me a hard time about my soppy, romantic tendencies and truth be told, I can’t deny it. I’m a sucker for a good love story – the more tragic, the better. That’s probably why I like to make the poor characters in my books suffer heartbreak at every turn. This works great in fiction, but not so wonderful when it’s real life. Sometimes, though, out of tragedy and suffering, great things can grow.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera go down in my books as a couple who left an indelible imprint on history. Born in 1907, Frida suffered from polio, and even though she lived, the disease left her with a withered leg that she always kept covered. In an effort to help his young daughter heal, Frida’s father gave her some paints, thus began a journey that would take many twists and turns.

At the age of eighteen, Frida boarded a bus with her then-boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias. They’d planned to travel to her home on Coyocán, Mexico, but the bus had an accident with an electric trolley car, throwing bodies in every direction. Alejandro found Frida with a pole sticking out of her torso, and she was hospitalised with a myriad of injuries. Her dream of becoming a doctor disappeared and instead, she was left with more physical challenges. The only solace she found from the physical and emotional pain was through her painting.

One of Frida's fascinating paintings
Frida first met Diego Rivera when she was a student at an exclusive prep school in Mexico City. Twenty years her senior, Rivera had been employed to paint the school auditorium. Frida fell in with a crowd who loved to play pranks, so she became involved with soaping stairs for Rivera to fall on and popping water balloons over his head. Rivera and Frida had yet to discover their true destiny.

Alejandro went off the scene after the accident, and years later, Frida met Rivera again. Frustrated with her work, she asked his truthful opinion about her painting. Rivera replied, “Keep it up, little girl.” She invited him to her house to show more work, and this is when they realised they had more in common that just painting. When Frida was 22 and Rivera 42, they married. Frida’s mother disapproved of the tall, well-padded Rivera, and therefore didn’t attend the wedding.

The couple moved into a house shared by communists and not long after Frida became pregnant, but couldn’t go through with it as her life was at risk because of all her earlier physical complications. Later, Frida expressed her disappointment with her inability to have children through her paintings, with themes of childbirth, blood, and fertility.

She and Diego moved to the United States in 1930, and Frida fell under Rivera’s shadow. She played the “good housewife” while he lapped up the attention, and she suffered through his many extramarital affairs, including one with her own sister, Cristina. In 1933, the couple returned to Mexico, and during this time, they both had extramarital affairs. Kahlo had many lovers, both male and female, including Leon Trotsky. Her romance with him inspired her to pursue her painting on a larger scale, and by 1938, Frida’s work who traveled to New York, where she finally gained the recognition she’d craved.

In 1940, Frida and Rivera finally divorced and it was during this time, she produced some of her most renowned work. Turning to themes of death and religious symbolism, Frida cemented her position among the Surrealists.

Photo by Patrice Raunet Hollywood Mural by Siner
The last ten years of her life were more tranquil, all the romantic heartache and rejection behind her. She taught at La Esmeralda, an art institute in Mexico. As her failing health took its toll, Frida set up her easel while she was in hospital, and continued painting. In 1950, she and Rivera remarried (yes, they did!), and in 1953, she exhibited her work for the first time in Mexico.  

In 1957, Frida Kahlo passed away, leaving a legacy of artwork that has been respected and admired for decades. The ups and down of her romance with Diego Rivera no doubt influenced her work, and it would be interesting to know what she would have produced (if anything) had her life been a Mills and Boon or Harlequin romance. I doubt we’d have such evocative and memorable paintings as we do now.

So there you have it. Sometimes out of great tragedy, comes something very special – the works of Frida Kahlo.


  1. I love the painting you used here. Do you know where it is? Frida Kahlo did many self portraits. The National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, D.C.) has one called "Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky." It's a full-length portrait in which she is wearing traditional Mexican clothing with a long gown and shawl. Her hands are clasped, one holding a small bouquet of flowers, the other a letter from Frida to Trotsky. Like the one pictured above, her eyebrows meet in the middle, her eyes glance ever so slightly to her right, and her mouth is unsmiling. Many of her self-portraits have imagery of the natural world as shown above with the vegetation in lieu of clothes.

  2. What a stormy relationship - I have to wonder why they put themselves through it all not just once but twice! I know, they loved each other - but still. Do you know how Kahlo's work was received when she finally did her first exhibit in Mexico? She's famous now, but did she get to enjoy any of the accolades in her lifetime?

  3. Their real-life drama, no matter how tragic, is so cinematic, it's not hard to see why we're still so fascinated by these larger-than-life characters. Talk about passionate, driven, and, yes, reckless. Sort of proves you have to be a risk taker to get such opportunities (from small-town Mexico to the international stage). Fascinating. And what became of poor Diego after Frida's passing?

  4. I love the painting you used here.Talk about passionate, driven, and, yes, reckless. Thanks...