MEXICO CITY - In the final entry of her diary before her death in 1954 at age 47, Frida Kahlo, the tortured, flamboyant Mexican artist, wrote: "I hope for a happy exit and I hope never to come back."|
Poor Frida! Like it or not, she's back with a vengeance.
Ten thousand gawking strangers each month traipse through her house, where her ashes rest unceremoniously in a pre-Columbian jar set on a sprinkling of faded petals. Several books bearing her name are out this year, including a re-issue of Hayden Herrera's voluminous 1983 biography, which launched her to prominence outside Mexico. Madonna collects her paintings. "Vogue "and "Harper's Bazaar "have run Frida-inspired fashion spreads in the past year. They're eating her up (or at least the traditional Mexican recipes she is said to have favored) in a restaurant here. A swank hotel is running a Frida Kahlo (KAH-lo) special. And next week , she burst forth at local Cineplexes in Tucson in the much-hyped "Frida," starring Salma Hayek.
And in her hometown, her old haunts are anticipating a fresh wave of Frida furor.
A visit here provides insight into the enigma of Kahlo. Married (twice) to muralist Diego Rivera, she was a radical free spirit, a feminist who turned heads in her traditional Mexican costumes. With Rivera, she traveled from San Francisco to Paris in social circles that included such disparate figures as Henry Ford and Nelson Rockefeller. .She was a communist whose paramours included Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
As an accomplished artist, she was her own favorite subject. Her face peers out from dozens of paintings, the signature unibrow arched like a dark gull poised to take flight from her forehead. Her peers embraced her as a surrealist. But Kahlo herself said she only painted what she saw.
At 18, Kahlo, who had polio as a child, was horribly injured in a trolley accident, precipitating a lifetime of ill health. Her relationship with Rivera was tumultuous. She had multiple miscarriages, and never had a child. And she put that anguish to work, splashing it across canvases dominated by bloody, visceral themes. Disembodied hearts, fetuses and skeletons are favorite images.
"Frida is popular now. But she was always important," says Ignacio Custodio, administrator at the Frida Kahlo Museum in the home where she lived and worked for much of her life. Still, he acknowledges, "When you first see the pain in her paintings, it's distancing. It's not nice. It's violent."
If she was never able to completely transcend her pain, she has made the transition from artist to pop icon, particularly in the USA, where the adoration of Frida takes on a religious fervor that many Mexicans are hard-pressed to grasp.
"There is no Frida mania in Mexico," says Joan Bagur, a chef at El Bajio restaurant, even as he serves a delectable "chile en nogada" and other native dishes from the Frida Kahlo menu he and the restaurant's owner presented earlier this year at the James Beard Foundation in New York.
Says Karina Sanchez of the Dolores Olmedo Patiqo Museum: "Here in Mexico we admire Frida Kahlo for her paintings. But we admire her more for her suffering. The polio. The accident. The miscarriages."
Rivera and Kahlo together
The museum in Xochimilco (so-chi-MEEL-co), about 15 miles south of the capital's historic center, contains 145 Rivera paintings and 25 works by Kahlo. Olmedo, a self-made wealthy patron of the arts who died in July, purchased the paintings over the years at Rivera's urging. Upon his death in 1957, she became head of a trust that controls both artists' images and archives. Olmedo, in turn, donated her art collection and estate to the Mexican people. The museum opened in 1994.
But Olmedo is rumored to have had an affair with Rivera, though her lawyer of 40 years, Gil Rodriguez Reyes, characterizes that relationship only as "respectful." As for her dealings with Kahlo: "She admired Frida from an artistic point of view," Sanchez says. But Olmedo once told the "Los Angeles Times" that Kahlo wouldn't have been famous had she not married Rivera. She predicted, "In the future, Kahlo will fade away." The paintings are superior at the Olmedo museum, but the epicenter of all Frida-ness is the Frida Kahlo Museum, or Casa Azul (Blue House), where Kahlo was born and died. It is in Coyoacan, a pleasant neighborhood 6 miles south of Mexico City's central plaza. Once a gathering spot for artists and intellectuals (including the exiled Trotsky, whose house-turned-museum is a few blocks away), it is today an idyllic and affluent area. .A short walk leads to the Jardin Frida Kahlo, where a bronze statue of her has been erected.
Still, Coyoacan has done little to capitalize on Kahlo's image. None of the outdoor cafes has named a special after her. No boutique bears her image.
Curious about her life
On Londres Street, in a house such an electric shade of blue, a steady stream of visitors wander through the folk-art filled rooms that pay homage to Kahlo. In the studio, her wheelchair sits before an easel that holds an unfinished portrait of Josef Stalin. A mirror is set into the wooden canopy of her twin bed, and an embroidered pillow displays the kitschy sentiment "Don't forget me my love." A cast of her torso rests nearby. Custodio sits in the museum's small gift shop, where visitors browse You can put Frida back together in a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, or take her to the office on a mouse pad. After the movie-related hype crests, he says, "Maybe people won't buy as many (Frida) T-shirts. But the importance of Frida in the history of art will always be there."