A life of courage, passion and intensity captured on film
Published on LatinoLA: September 24, 2002
A debilitating September 1925 bus accident irreversibly changed Frida Kahlo?s life. Riding with longtime friend Alejandro Gomez Arias, their bus collided with a tram, killing several people and seriously injuring many others.
Frida was found half naked among the wreckage, bathed in blood and gold dust, and impaled on a metal rod. Her spinal column, ribs, pelvis and collarbone were shattered in the accident. Her right foot was crushed. Her right leg, crippled years earlier by polio, was broken in a dozen places. A metal rod entered through her left hip and exited through the vagina, causing a deep abdominal wound and leaving her unable to have children.
Months of painful, expensive recovery and therapy followed. Her physical convalescence included several immobilizing plaster casts and corsets, traction, and often barbaric experimental operations. But much of Frida?s misery came from the severe isolation and loneliness of her devastating condition. Frida passed the time pouring out her feelings through painting.
Her photographer father, Guillermo, and mother, Matilde, sold practically all they owned to finance the countless operations. Despite their dire financial situation, they supported Frida?s newfound interest in painting and presented their bedridden daughter with a specially constructed easel. Additionally, they fitted Frida?s canopy bed with a mirror so she could be her own model.
Once Frida was able to walk again, she had the audacity to visit the already renowned Diego Rivera for a professional critique. Diego was taken not only by her impressive work, but also by the young artist?s tenacity, charm and beauty. By their own admissions, this meeting became the defining moment in both of their lives. ?I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life,? Diego said about the encounter at the Ministry of Education.
For Frida, Diego?s encouragement was paramount in her artistic evolution, but later, after a particularly onorous transgression, she had a slightly different take on the impact of their relationship: ?I have suffered two big accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar ran over me. The other was Diego.?
Diego and Frida married in Coyoacan on August 21, 1929.
Frida?s mother did not approve of the union, despite Diego?s generous financial assistance. She said the coupling was ?like an elephant marrying a dove,? and objected to the 21-year age difference, his well-known philandering and his obesity. The couple?s circle of artists and intellectual friends, which included photographer Tina Modotti and muralist David Siqueiros, were also dubious about the pairing and its chances for success. But Frida and Diego believed they were born for each other, pledging loyalty, if not fidelity.
Ex-wife Lupe Marin became a major part of Diego and Frida?s life together. After their initial mutual jealousies subsided, Marin and Frida became good friends.
In 1930, the restless Diego was commissioned to paint murals in the United States. He and Frida traveled to San Francisco, Detroit and New York, where he painted a series of murals in public and private buildings. During the trip, Frida discovered she was pregnant. While she was thrilled, Diego worried about her health and ability to carry a child.
The couple became the darlings of prominent urban art circles. ?Diego loves it,? Frida said. ?He?s like a big Mexican pi?ata with enough candy for everyone.? Diego adored the adulation and indulged in numerous affairs. But Frida, who also took lovers, longed for the land and people of Mexico.
After suffering a miscarriage, Frida infused her pain and loneliness in such paintings as Henry Ford Hospital (1932), Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States (1932) and My Dress Hangs There (New York) (1933). When her mother passed away, Frida returned briefly to Mexico for the funeral only to discover that her sister Cristina had left her husband and had fallen into a state of depression.
Though she wanted to stay in Mexico, Frida was compelled to return to New York when Diego found himself in an internationally publicized battle with Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller asked Diego to remove a portrait of Lenin from a mural in Rockefeller Center. When Diego refused Rockefeller, he fired him and then destroyed the mural - leaving Diego enraged and depressed.
Diego and Frida returned to Mexico in December, 1933 and moved into a house in San Angel, designed by artist friend Juan O?Gorman. The new home, near Coyoacan in southern Mexico City, comprised twin houses of the Bauhaus style joined by a bridge. Diego fell further into depression and eventually began an affair with Frida?s sister, Cristina. Frida?s discovery of this relationship soon resulted in separation.
Diego eventually returned to Frida, asking her help in making a home for exiled Russian leader Leon Trotsky. At the request of Diego, Trotsky was granted asylum by Mexican President Cardenas. Reluctantly, Frida complied and opened up her family home.
In January 1937, Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova moved into Frida?s parents? home, which was modified into a makeshift fortress, replete with armed guards, machine gun nests and bricked up windows.
Trotsky captivated Frida and Diego with his wit, intellect, passion and courage. Joined by Surrealist Andre Breton, the Riveras and Trotskys visited the ruins at Teotihuacan and debated politics and culture. Trotsky and Frida shared an immediate attraction to one another.
Breton was an instant admirer of Frida?s work - when he saw her paintings he said ?My God! This is what we?ve been writing Surrealist theses about in Europe. You?re just doing it!? He described her work as ?a ribbon around a bomb.? Breton promised to get Frida art shows in New York and Paris
After two years with Diego and Frida - during which time Frida and Trotsky?s attracation escalated into a love affair - Trotsky moved on. Frida struck out on her own, determined to be independent. Breton?s exhibition promises came to fruition in Paris in January, 1939. The Louvre purchased one of Frida?s paintings, Self-Portrait (The Frame) 1938. It was the first painting of any Latin American artist to hang in the famous French museum.
But the pretensions of Parisian intellects and critics bored Frida. She longed once again for Diego and for Mexico. Emboldened by her successes in Europe, she eagerly set out to return to home and to resume her life with Diego. Upon arriving home in 1939, Frida discovered that Diego wanted a divorce. He planned to move to California.
Frida?s health deteriorated quickly. But this dark time became one of Frida?s most prolific artistic periods, prompting her to paint what many consider some of her finest works, including The Two Fridas (1939), Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), The Dream or The Bed (1940) and Two Nudes In the Forest (1940).
When Trotsky was assassinated, Frida was questioned by the police, who were also looking for Diego. In the aftermath of the assassination and Diego?s desertion, Frida?s poor health worsened. Her toes gangrened and were amputated. She underwent more operations on her back, developing kidney infections and other complications. She was hung upside down and corseted in steel. At each turn, she focused on one thing to pull her through, telling doctors: ?Just patch me up, so I can paint.?
Frida was surprised by Diego?s return - and by his proposal of re-marriage. Frida consented to the union, comforted that the love of her life had returned to her. They married in December, 1940. Frida?s and Diego settled into a complex, passionate marriage and working partnership.
She returned to her parent?s Pink House and painted it cobalt blue. Frida filled the Blue House (as it is now known) with art, color and native furnishings, flora and a myriad of animals including monkeys, parrots, Xolotzcuincle (hairless) dogs, birds and deer.
More operations and hospitalizations had Frida reaching into her pain to produce some of her most acclaimed works, including The Broken Column (1944), Without Hope (1945) and Moses (1946).
Diego was at Frida?s side through her nine-month hospitalization in 1950, and during the amputation of her right leg in 1953. Frida?s dependence on painkillers and endless series of infections and complications finally made life unbearable.
On the night of July 12, 1954, ill with pneumonia, Frida called Diego to her bedside and presented him with his 25-year anniversary gift - an antique ring - although the anniversary was still two weeks away. She passed away in her sleep that night.
Frida died on July 13, 1954, a week after her 47th birthday.
Virtually unknown outside of Mexico until the mid-1980s, Frida is now the world?s most coveted female painter, consistently smashing international auction records. More than 100 books in English and Spanish have been written about Frida and Diego; and the US Postal Service recently issued a Frida Kahlo stamp as part of the US Commemorative Stamp Program - Frida is the first Hispanic woman to be honored with a US postage stamp.
Many theories exist as to why Frida?s popularity has soared. Most agree she merged the personal, artistic and political in such an organic, brutally honest way, her life and art became inseparable. Frida not only turned her exterior self into a political and cultural statement as well as a work of art with traditional Indian clothes, jewelry and hair, but she turned her fears, pain, suffering, obsessions and loves into some of the world?s most revelatory, shocking and memorable images. With a knowledge of biology and a body filled with pain, Frida embraced her most raw self, creating sometimes horrific, wrenching and disturbing depictions of dynamics and emotions that one writer saw as nothing less then than the embodiment of ?Mexico?s long history of conquest and suffering, pride and oppression.?
Frida?s obsession with Diego is evident in numerous paintings that include him as Frida?s ?third eye,? child, or other half. Despite obstacles and infidelities, their lifelong partnership of work and revolution lasted from the time they met in 1928 until Frida?s death.
?It?s an amazing, epic love story,? says Alfred Molina, who plays Diego in the film. ?They married twice and went through an extraordinary life together [in which] they shared politics, a love of art and a sense of importance about what they were doing. They also shared lovers and led a very unconventional lifestyle, which was both provoking and shocking to the people of the time.?
Some are still provoked and shocked today. Diego and Frida?s open marriage and her bisexuality - not to mention their mutual jealousies - made their lasting union and devotion to one another remarkable.
?It was a strange love affair. Very, very unique,? says Salma Hayek, who plays Frida in the film. ?Diego needed to be free at all times and he needed to be nurtured at all times. Frida loved Diego unconditionally and her capacity for this type of love changed Diego, until, at the end of the day, he was capable of unconditional love for her, too.?
?Their love lasted because it was real,? says director Julie Taymor. ?It began with a mutual respect of each other as artists and comrades in spirit and grew into a profound intellectual, artistic and erotic attraction. Frida?s strong sense of freedom and independence suited and freed Diego while he was a source of encouragement and inspiration for her. With all their crises and separations, there was still a deep, deep honesty and love. When Diego comes back to Frida at her lowest moment, he tells her, ?I miss us.? He needed her. They needed each other. The sum of the two was much greater than each alone.?
For Hayek, the key to the endurance of Diego and Frida?s love and art was the couple?s ?willingness to find out who the other person was - and who they were themselves. Frida was so full of courage to be who she was and to take life as it came and enjoy every second of it intensely, even the suffering, it?s inspirational. Her passion made me passionate.?
Frida opens in Los Angeles on October 25.