Frida Kahlo Museum
The blue house is full of Frida’s life stories, her art work, her pain, her suffering but also her love, her strength and her extraordinary passion.
Frida was the master of the selfie. The real Girl Power. The rebel. The socialist. The seducer. The woman who rose above her pain. She drank heavily and was a chain smoker. Frida broke the rules of convention in all aspects of her life: in her art, her marriage, her politics, her health, her beauty, and her style. Today she is the most celebrated Latin American artist worldwide.
Located in one of the old districts of Mexico City, Coyoacán, Casa Azul (Blue House) was converted into a museum in 1958, four years after the painter's death. Today it is one of the busiest museums in the Mexican capital. Every object in the House tells us something about the painter: the crutches, corsets, and medicines attest to her physical sufferings and the many operations she had to undergo. The poet and museographer Carlos Pellicer, who redesigned the house for museum purposes, described the house very fittingly: 'Painted blue within and without, it seems to harbour a little bit of sky'. Yes, indeed, she was reaching for the skies, despite her disability and turmoil in her personal life.
The PeopLe: The Elephant and the Dove
Those were the nicknames given to Diego and Frida by her father, to express their extreme difference in size. While the house was built by Frida's father, and she had three sisters and two half-sisters, it became Frida's house. She was born here (in 1907), lived here and died here (at the age of 47). Frida’s home was turned into a museum because both she and her husband Diego Rivera cherished the idea of donating their works and possessions to the Mexican people. Her painter-husband also lived in the Blue House for long periods, although he built a studio house for them in another part of Mexico City.
Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo in San Ángel colonia is certainly also worth a visit, see my post. Diego Rivera ended up buying the Blue House as well, paying off the mortgages and debts left by Frida's father Guillermo Kahlo. Guillermo had been an important photographer during the Porfiriato, but his fortunes had declined in the wake of the Revolution. Moreover, the medical costs after Frida’s accident left the family in debt.
And no wonder! At the age of six she was stricken with polio, which caused her right leg to appear much thinner. At the age of 18 she was involved in a serious bus accident that left her with a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, a broken pelvis, broken ribs and 11 fractures in her right leg. She would undergo some 35 operations during her lifetime. As a result, she was not able to have children (although she conceived three times), a subject that she explored in many of her paintings. Prior to the accident, she had been a promising student headed for medical school, but in the aftermath had to abandon higher education. Her health problems caused her to spend a lot of time isolated from other people and this isolation played a heavy influence on her works. And it gave her extraordinary life strength.
Frida and Diego are not only famous for their vibrant and Bohemian life (they both had a number of love affairs); but for being members of a significant Mexican contemporary art movement – Mexican muralism. The murals promoted social and political messages as part of efforts to reunify the country under the post-Mexican Revolution government. Later on, Frida was a central figure in the Neomexicanismo Art Movement (a slightly surreal and postmodern version of Social Realism). She typically painted self-portraits using vibrant colours. Her self-portraits were often an expression of her life and her pain.
Although always overshadowed by Rivera, she had her solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1938, followed by another in Paris in 1939 (and finally in Mexico a year before her death). The Louvre purchased a painting from Kahlo, making her the first Mexican artist to be featured in their collection. Some have called her paintings surrealist although she herself said: 'I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality'. It is clear that nothing was taboo for her – infertility, abortion, illness, sexuality, gender equality, miscarriage, and heartbreak. And her paintings reflect that.
During her lifetime Frida was more commonly known as Diego Rivera's wife but by the 1990s she had become a recognised figure in art history, and also regarded as an icon for Chicanos, feminists, and the LGBTQ movement.
The FOCUS: Frida's dayroom
It is difficult to pick a particular room as they all tell different stories that put together a picture of the way she lived. Saying so, my absolute favourites were Frida's dayroom and the garden.
We visited with my husband in December 2014 and we were able to see the ground floor rooms and a studio upstairs. Not all the rooms were then open to the public and I believe this is still the case. We loved the kitchen, with clay pots hanging on the wall and casserole dishes set out on the range. Frida and Diego enjoyed having guests in the house and entertaining. They both collected traditional folk art and the house is full of these objects. Diego in particular had a love for pre-Hispanic art (a lot of it is in the garden). Wander through their dining room, peek into Diego’s bedroom (assigned to him when he was visiting), and then climb the stairs from the garden to Frida’s light-filled studio. Here, it’s almost as if time has stood still. Her paintbrushes are just waiting to be used and her wheelchair sits in front of an easel.
Some of her paintings are on display in the house, across a few rooms, for example Viva la Vida (1954), Frida and Caesarean (1931), Portrait of my father Wilhelm Kahlo (1952). I preferred to concentrate on the daily life objects. I have not taken any photos inside as there were too many people around in each room, so I am using the google photos in this post.
I think of the Blue House as the Protagonist in Frida's life. The house is certainly a witness to the dramas in her life. In the late 1930s, when Russian politician Leon Trotsky arrived in Mexico seeking political sanctuary from Joseph Stalin's regime in the Soviet Union, Frida and Diego took the refugee to their home (they were both communists). You can see Leon's room in the house. Diego had the blue house turned into a fortress before his arrival. The windows that faced the street were filled in with adobe bricks. Police stood guard during the day, Trotskyites by night. They even expanded the garden, to make a perfect asylum for him. In the middle of the space, Rivera ordered the construction of a Mexican pyramid with a staircase to three levels. The front stones were embedded with the effigy of Tlaloc, Aztec god of rain, and, on two corners, serpent heads. A tall palapa, using pre-Hispanic cultures, covered that part of the pyramid. In the garden area a small room was also built. Was it in this room where Leon fell in love with Frida? Frida was openly flirtatious with Trotsky, hoping to make Diego insanely jealous in retaliation for his affair with her sister Cristina. In the end Trotsky moved out (over time, Diego and Trotsky had several philosophical disagreements about communism). Trotsky was assassinated by one of Stalin's spies three years later. And believe it or not, a few years later she invited the assassin to her house to dine, for which she was interrogated by the Mexican government.
In the room Frida used during the day is the bed with the mirror on the ceiling, set up by her mother after the bus accident. During her long convalescence, she began to paint portraits. I could still feel her presence in that room. The ambience of the room and the house was exactly like it was portrayed in the American biopic film Frida. I could literally hear Frida's laughter echoing in the courtyard. I could easily imagine how she smuggled her boyfriend (schoolmate from the National Preparatory School, Alejandro Gómez Arias) into her room without her parents' knowledge. I could feel her pain when she was bedridden and abandoned by him (he left for Europe, to avoid further contact with her). I could feel her pain when she realised she had to give up her studies. I could feel her strength when she started painting her portraits. I could easily understand how she developed into a powerful independent woman in that home. A very special house indeed!
Frida added the words Viva La Vida into her painting of watermelons on her deathbed (the painting had been finished earlier). Even at the moment of dying, she found strength for optimism. She turned the watermelons into a celebration of life's simple pleasures, like enjoying a refreshing slice of watermelon as a momentary respite from the relentless summer heat.
Frida died in her home in 1934. The official cause of death was given as pulmonary embolism, although some suspected that she died from an overdose that may or may not have been accidental. An autopsy was never performed. A note was found in her diary: 'I hope the exit is joyful - and I hope never to return'. An urn holding her ashes is on display in her former home. Later, in his autobiography, Diego Rivera wrote that the day Kahlo died was the most tragic day of his life, adding that, too late, he had realised that the most wonderful part of his life had been his love for her.
Don't miss: 'Appearances Can Be Deceiving'
It is the name of the exhibition of Frida's distinctive look and fashion: her clothing, jewellery, corsets, crutches and a prosthetic leg that she was forced to use after having her leg amputated. All these personal belongings were locked in Frida's bathroom for years (Diego requested that they should not be touched for 15 years but they were in reality untouched for 50 years).
Frida’s style became more flamboyant, the more her health suffered. As a result of her leg operations, she wore long, traditional Tehuana dresses that concealed her lower body. Basically, she rejected fashion and instead every item she wore was personalised, often pretty bold, using it as either camouflage or as a statement. For example, she wore the prosthetic leg with a bright red boot and a bell on it.
A kind of corset-style bodice and long flowing skirt, both in vibrant colours and covered with rich embroidery, were her signature silhouette. The traditional dresses were adopted by Frida as a symbol of strong women. They were originally worn by women from the Tehuantepec area of Mexico, where there is a matriarchal society. She also wore intricately embroidered Huipil blouses, part of the Mayan tradition, where each pattern on a blouse tells the story of the wearer. She chose her clothing to make a statement, as she did with her art. Frida wore traditional indigenous peasant clothing to emphasise her mestiza ancestry (her father was German and her mother was mestiza). In essence, her clothing represented her feminist and anti-colonialist ideals and emphasised her Mexican cultural heritage. That is also how Diego preferred her to dress, as he was also anti-colonialist. Frida’s bold and expressive choice of clothing has inspired fashion designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen. For me her clothes represent passion. And admittedly, pain.
Her signature was also her braided locks, decorated with brightly coloured flowers and ribbons. She even wove fabric into her hair. Her jewels (made of jade like the Aztecs used to wear) were also pretty bold. They speak of a strong woman dressed to please herself, refusing to blend into the background, whatever life threw her way.
Her choice of clothes tells the story of her life and pain. Take for example her painting The Two Fridas. Frida is shown wearing both the Tehuana and European fashions. Some art historians have suggested that The Two Fridas represent her dual heritage.
Another interpretation is that the Tehuana Frida is the one who was adored by her husband Diego, while the European Frida is the one that was rejected by him. Because this piece was completed shortly after her divorce, the European Frida is missing a piece of herself, her Diego. And indeed, after the divorce she wore European clothes (they married a second time a year later and she went back to her clothes inspired by traditional Mexican fashion). The work also alludes to Frida's life of constant pain and surgery and the Aztec tradition of human sacrifice. Blood spills onto the European Frida's white dress from a broken blood vessel that has been cut by the forceps.
And then there was her unibrow and a moustache. Her facial hair was absolutely a statement, not a gimmick. It was not laziness; in fact she darkened parts of her eyebrows with makeup to emphasise the shape. For her, embracing her facial hair was a part of the larger act of rejecting European ideals of beauty. There were bolder things about her for which she was unapologetic; she was a devout communist, she had female lovers (the famous entertainer Josephine Baker among them), she spoke and painted about taboo subjects like miscarriage. She was a radical, an artist who challenged our ideas of feminine beauty by refusing to change the way she looked. Her unibrow was striking, daring, challenging, and perhaps the reason so many men fell in love with her. Just try to imagine that you enhance the least attractive part of your face, wear it proudly and make an attractive statement with it. Quite a thing to do! Even today, yet alone in Frida's time.
Her rebellion is also reflected in the fact that she occasionally dressed in drag (as a man in a three-piece suit). Everything about her is a sign of her self-expression, and her refusal to adhere to fixed masculine or feminine characteristics.
I found this visit very powerful, it made me realise how vulnerable and lonely she was inside, despite the public image of her being a strong and avant-garde woman. Yet despite her pain, what I felt in the house over and over was passion, passion and passion! It is this passion that made her an icon for so many of us. I love her for that! It made me really think about the essence of our lives.
I also adore the description of love in her letter to Josep Bartolí (with whom she had a secret 3-year love affair). I think it depicts her essence and that of the Blue House: 'Since I fell in love with you, everything is transformed and is full of beauty… love is like an aroma, like a current, like rain.'
How to get there:
The nearest metro or subway station is Coyoacán Line 3 (colour code: light green). It’s about an 18 minute-walk from the subway station to the museum, unless you take a taxi. The entry fee is 150 pesos. I recommend going in the morning as by afternoon there is a very long line and you may not be able to get in. We arrived at 2pm, waited for two hours and there were a lot of people behind us who did not get in.
MIX and Match
You may need a day for this museum if you are going to buy tickets on the day (due to a long queue). If you buy online beforehand, you can combine with the Leon Trotsky Museum, located in Coyoacán, the same borough. After all, Leon’s life was tied to Frida’s so visiting both museums on the same day seems fitting.