In a shop window of the Coyoacàn neighborhood, just outside the arched gateway to the Jardin de Centenario, side-by-side posters depict two of Mexico's most famous and revered women: the Virgin of Guadalupe and, in a reproduction of one of her many self-portraits, the artist Frida Kahlo.
Even in a city where reverence and irony blend as inevitably as exhaust fumes and the smoke from a sidewalk taqueria, the juxtaposition is jarring and revealing.
Seventy years after she dazzled -- and, with her exotic, adopted Tehuana dress, sometimes baffled -- Americans from San Francisco to New York on her first trip abroad, Kahlo is poised for a comeback worthy of a pop star.
She has received top billing in a number of recent exhibitions, including "Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Twentieth Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection," which wraps up a five-city U.S. tour this fall in Seattle. Christie's recently posted a collection of her personal artifacts for auction.
In the past few years, she has been the subject of plays, novels, biographies and scholarly studies. And this month, Miramax released "Frida," a movie adaptation of the artist's life and stormy marriage to the muralist Rivera. One wonders what Kahlo, who died in 1954 at age 47, would have made of all the fuss. Frida the artist and celebrity, the master of self-invention, would doubtless enjoy the attention. Frida the devoted and dutiful wife might genuinely be abashed that her reputation and popularity have all but eclipsed that of her husband.
And the defiant, contrarian, devilishly witty Frida might even be amused by the inevitable backlash. Like her contemporary critics who blasted Kahlo and Rivera for espousing socialist ideals while accepting the hospitality -- and lucrative commissions -- of wealthy capitalists such as Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller, modern skeptics have complained that the cult of Kahlo is disproportionate to her importance to 20th century art.
Today, it is as much Kahlo's celebrity as her art that prompts thousands to make the pilgrimage to the Museo Frida Kahlo, the modest house a few miles south of the city's historic center in Coyoacàn, where her life began and ended.
Mexican art emerges
Late last spring, I made a Kahlo pilgrimage to Mexico City -- not as a devotee, but in hopes of better understanding her art by immersing myself in the sites and culture that helped shape it. Kahlo was not terribly prolific; she produced some 200 works. But she worked in an era that gave birth to a distinctly Mexican art, a break with European traditions that would be echoed a few years later in the rise of abstract expressionism in the United States. My first destination was the permanent collection of 20th century Mexican art at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Chapultepec Park. The museum doesn't have many Kahlo paintings, but it does have her largest, and one of her best: "Las Dos Fridas"-- the two Fridas -- a double self-portrait.
My friend, the painter Cecilia Rivera, was my guide. Rivera is from Mexico City, but her luminous, formalist abstractions could be from Sweden or the United States. Like many Mexican artists, she has spent her career trying to escape the nationalistic legacy of the muralists. As we made our way through the chronologically arranged galleries of 20th century Mexican art, Rivera provided a concise history of her country's artistic evolution.
"You can see they were copying," she said as we passed a group of European-influenced, salon-style paintings from the early years of the century. By the 1920s, however, Mexican artists began to look to their own country for inspiration.
Artists such as Diego Rivera turned to the vibrant colors of the Mexican landscape and to the country's pre-Hispanic roots.
"Diego took the Indians to be the strongest, most basic element of society," she said.
Kahlo also espoused the tenets of Mexican modernism, as the movement came to be known. But she was equally influenced by surrealism, and the blend gave her work a much more personal aspect.
"Las Dos Fridas," with its mix of ironic detachment and eroticism, is a perfect example of her technique, and walking upon it unexpectedly gave me a jolt.
Cecilia Rivera was immediately drawn to a small Kahlo still life instead. "Look at these fruits!" she almost shouted. "Even the fruits suffer. Look -- that coconut is crying!" Sure enough, small droplets oozed out of two strategically placed spots. "That's the thing I hate about her," she said. "Everything is suffering."
We turned to "Las Dos Fridas," and Rivera's tone began to soften. "Look at the clouds," she said. "There's no way you're going to come out of that. You're stuck in it." She pointed out the small locket one of the Fridas clutches in her left hand. "That's a picture of Diego as a child" -- a symbol, she said, of the child Kahlo, who had a number of miscarriages and terminated pregnancies, was never able to give him. We stared at the painting for a few minutes in silence before Rivera said, quietly, "I think she's a great painter."
Life of suffering
Kahlo's life was indeed marked by suffering. A streetcar accident when she was a teenager left her partially disabled and in pain for the rest of her life. She spent many torturous months in bed recuperating from a lifelong series of surgeries, her torso often encased in a plaster cast.
Life with the womanizing Rivera was torture of a different sort. But Kahlo loved him intensely, and she eventually came to terms with his philandering by engaging in numerous affairs, with both sexes, of her own.
Victim and libertine, self-indulgent and generous, a sufferer and yet a woman of indomitable spirit and strength: That Kahlo embodied so many apparently contradictory traits explains in part why such a wide range of people have embraced her work.
The Museo Frida Kahlo is such an intensely personal monument to the artist that, if you arrive early before the crowds do, walking through it feels a bit like intruding. The famous casa azul is like an extension of one of her paintings: charming, private, whimsical and unsettling. There are just a few, mostly minor Kahlo works on display in a room that also contains a handful of Rivera's pre-Cortesian artifacts.
One of my favorite rooms is the central stairway, whose walls are covered with the small retablos Kahlo collected. Primitive paintings on tin, wood or paper, the mostly anonymous works feature "visions" of the Holy Virgin or Christ appearing to mortals.
Kahlo freely borrowed from the unschooled retablo tradition in her early, primitivist paintings. To the artist, they represented an inherently Mexican artistic style and, as Kahlo biographer Hayden Herrera notes, the technique provided an ironic distance that makes some of her more disturbing images bearable.
Other rooms are presented much as Kahlo left them. In her studio, the artist's wheelchair sits before an easel and an unfinished painting. Books, photographs and bric-a-brac line the walls. Most touching perhaps is Kahlo's bed, upon which rests one of the plaster casts she was forced to wear (and which she defiantly decorated) along with a pillow embroidered with the words "No Me Olvides Amor Mio" -- Do not forget me, my love.
I paid my respects at a glass case that contains her ashes and death mask and retreated to the lush courtyard. Cats wandered in and out of the museum's small gift shop and cafe or sunned themselves on the replica of a Mesoamerican pyramid Kahlo had installed in her yard. Before I left, I took another look at her last complete painting, an exuberant arrangement of watermelons. At the height of her suffering, Kahlo created one of her most joyously sensuous works. And in what seems like a final act of defiance, the reddest, ripest slice is inscribed with the words "Viva la Vida" -- "Here's to Life."
25 Kahlos in one place
The best place in Mexico City to see Kahlo's work is the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño, in the southern suburb of Xochimilco. A friend and patron, Olmedo acquired 144 paintings by Rivera and, in the largest single private collection of her work, 25 Kahlos, including the stunning "Self-Portrait With Small Monkey" from 1945. The museum is housed in the beautifully restored, 16th-century Hacienda La Noria, which Olmedo opened to the public in 1994.
Rivera's paintings are displayed throughout the hacienda, alongside Olmedo's huge collection of colonial objects and pre-Hispanic artifacts. Kahlo gets a chapellike room of her own, and it houses a diverse assortment of paintings and sketches. There are straightforward portraits that show her skill as a painter, fanciful works depicting flowers and animals, and some of her most harrowing, retablo-style self-portraits. The works on view at the Museo Dolores Olmedo provide an overview of Kahlo's varied, erratic and ultimately triumphant career.
On most weekends the museum is host to outdoor concerts. The day I visited, a small orchestra and an opera singer were performing traditional Mexican pop songs. A crowd of mostly students listened respectfully. Several less respectful peacocks screeched and honked when the singer explored the upper ends of her range.
I think Kahlo would have loved the the indigenous Mexican crafts on display, the peacocks, the old songs and the young couples holding hands. She was an inconsistent painter. Even after my pilgrimage, I still find some works transcendent, some mawkish and a few too disturbing to look at.
But that may be what enabled her to distill the essence of this messy, magnificent city better than any of her contemporaries. Her peculiar vision, like modern Mexico, may have had its origins in suffering. But in her art and life, Kahlo faced it defiantly, and it was her celebration of life -- viva la vida -- that resonates the most.
That is a legacy even pop stardom can't diminish.
Russell McCulley is a free-lance writer based in New Orleans.
IF YOU GO
Mexico City's Metro system is cheap, efficient and generally safe, but best avoided during weekday morning and evening rush hours. Pickpockets are a problem, so keep bags close and money secure. Tourists are advised to avoid hailing cabs, especially at night. Use taxis parked at one of the "sitio" stands around the city or have your hotel or restaurant call one. Some visitors prefer to hire a driver. The agency Cultur (5564-0652, firstname.lastname@example.org) can arrange for an English-speaking driver and guide.
WHERE TO STAY
(To place phone calls from the United States, dial 011-52 plus the number. Within Mexico City, dial the eight-digit number.) Mexico City has hotels to fit any budget. The Centro Historico has the greatest concentration, but it can be a lonely place at night. Hotel Habita (5282-3100, www.hotelhabita.com) in the tony Polanco district is a stylish new addition to the hotel scene; $225 double. The boutique hotel La Casona (1-877-278-8018, www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com /lacasona) offers a double for about $125 on the cusp of two of the city's hippest neighborhoods, Colonia Roma and La Condesa. The full-service Hotel Maria Cristina (5703-1212, www.hotelmariacristina.com.mx) is a nice budget choice for its location, near the Zona Rosa and the Paseo de la Reforma, and for the pretty garden and bar, which is popular with local professionals. About $60 double.
The Mexico City tourism office maintains a Web site (in Spanish or English) at www.mexicocity.gob.mx. For up-to-the-minute entertainment, restaurant and cultural listings, pick up a free copy of the weekly Tiempo Libre, or go online at www.tiempolibre.com.mx.
Museo de Arte Moderno. 10 a.m.-5:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; admission $3, free Sundays. Paseo de la Reforma at Gandhi, Bosque de Chapultepec. 5211-8331.
Museo Frida Kahlo. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; admission $3. Londres 247 at Allende, Coyoacàn. 5554-5999.
Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; admission $2.50. Avenida México 5843, La Noria, Xochimilco. 5555-0891.