House-Studio of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo
The iconic abode of the Mexican painter and his eccentric wife, famously connected by a bridge, is a very special house.
Feelings are certainly evoked during the visit, both by the modernist functionalist architecture and an insight into the personal life and working environment of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The museum sits in the quarter of a former 17th century hacienda, and it is this contrast that took me aback at first sight. I love modernist architecture but for some reason it took me a while to appreciate these two factory-like blocks, joined by a bridge.
The PeopLe: The Elephant and the Dove
Obviously, two people lived here but in this section the focus is on Frida. She consolidated her painting career in her studio to create works such as 'What Gave Me Water', 'The Watchful Eye', and 'The Two Fridas'.
Her 'twin' house is smaller although I found it stark, not cosy. Also, I could not work out how she managed all those stairs in her condition (she had overcome polio in childhood and had problems with her leg all her life; also a bus accident left her with a fractured spine and pelvis and later her right leg had to be amputated). There is a staircase to her living quarters upstairs, then more stairs from there up to the roof and then across the bridge to Diego's house, and then she would have had to go downstairs again. She was a strong woman but in a weak body! So how did she cope? That pragmatic functionalist style (Bauhaus) somehow also made the house look very fragile, as if it was made of paper. I thought that Frida must have felt very vulnerable here. What a contrast with the Blue House in Coyoacán where she grew up, with sturdy ornamental doors and traditional large rooms; and mostly downstairs!
You will find only a few of her possessions, as she took them to La Casa Azul when she moved out. Her admirers will be interested in seeing her bathroom and bathtub. In her tiny kitchen I was trying to imagine Frida and her helpers preparing the dishes that they enjoyed with their guests. This tiny space was frequently visited by their friends. André Bretón, María Félix, Pablo Neruda, Dolores Del Río, and Nelson Rockefeller were among their guests here. I also liked the roof space (where she apparently sunbathed) and took a picture of myself with Frida in her favourite spot. She was petite, indeed.
The couple moved in when they came back from the United States (where Diego worked on murals) in 1934. It was here where Frida discovered Diego's affair with her sister Cristina and she moved out, heartbroken, to an apartment in Avenida Insurgentes in central Mexico City. During her separation from Diego, Frida drank, smoked, socialised and did not paint. She began a short-lived affair with the Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Diego overlooked her relationships with other women (Josephine Baker) but was infuriated by her affairs with other men (Nickolas Muray, Josep Bartolí). She was an outgoing person who used to drink tequila and sing songs to guests at the many parties she hosted. She loved telling dirty jokes just to shock her guests. Men wanted her and women wanted to be her. Beautiful, intelligent, and immensely talented, Kahlo was considered one of the most desirable women of her day. In contrast to her personal traits, I found the modern house rather sad. For me her Blue House in Coyoacán fits her personality better, although it is a controversy, really, because she was a modern woman. You may have completely different feelings when visiting this house and that is what makes a personal visit a must.
By the end of 1935 Frida returned to the house in San Ángel, when she was reconciled with Diego. However, Frida kept to herself on one side of the duplex structure and Diego on the other. Although the two separate quarters remained connected by a footbridge, the door leading to Frida's side was locked from the inside. In 1941, Frida's father died of a heart attack. Diego and Frida were by then married for the second time and returned together to the Blue House in Coyoacán. After Frida's death in 1954 Diego used the house in San Ángel only as his studio (a year after her death he was married again, this time to his art dealer Emma Hurtado).
The FOCUS: Diego’s Studio
We walked about the garden space first. We sat on the terrace under Diego's house, to get the feel of the place. Each 'block' has its own studio and bedrooms. Frida's block is blue (how otherwise) and Diego's vibrant Mexican pink (these days it is rather more red than pink). The bridge between the houses that joins the rooftops is the fun part, as it was a bond of passion between them and it also allowed them privacy when they lived separately.
Diego painted about three thousand works in the studio, including most of his easel work. What also makes the studio interesting is their collection of skulls and Judases, wooden toys, papier-mâché figures, pre-Columbian and Mexican crafts and I also admired his brushes, pigments, and personal belongings.
The house caused a heated controversy in the 1930s, and I can understand why. Designed by Juan O'Gorman and commissioned by Diego in 1931, it is one of the earliest modernist buildings in Mexico. O'Gorman's own house, built in the same style, is just a block away from the house he built for Diego. Diego's house-studio combines organic architecture with functionalism. The building was designed upon the five points of Le Corbusier's principles: structure supported by columns, open floor plan, free façade, roof garden and long strips of windows. But Juan O’Gorman added strong Mexican colours, textured floors and a cactus fence (pretty symmetrical, to fit the style of the house). In Functionalism, no effort is made to mask the practical aspects of the construction: plumbing and electrical features are visible. The home differs greatly from the surrounding buildings, and at the time was considered an affront to the upper class sensibilities of the San Ángel neighbourhood.
Today the house is a museum: Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo. During our visit there were not too many people there (it is certainly less crowded than Frida's Blue House) so we managed to get a proper look at every detail. I found the light in Diego's studio remarkable, perhaps because the east wall is all glass. Rivera is famous mainly for his murals, in which he dealt with Mexican society and reflected the country's 1910 Revolution (he himself was a member of the Mexican Communist Party in his early years). When you paint large-scale paintings like murals, you need to think in large spaces, I would think. That is why the open plan in his house must have been fitting for his needs. It only occurred to me there, when standing in that open space.
The toys and papier-mâché figures that are all over his studio certainly played a role in his art. I am sure they were very close to his beliefs. They seem to be reflected in his murals.
For example, Judas was then depicted as a devil and identified with a corrupt official, or any character that would harm the people. Effigies of Judas were burnt at Easter. They were also a symbol of ridding oneself of evil on New Year's Eve in Latin America. I can easily recognise the 'devil' or Judas figure in his murals as the Spanish priests who were converting the indigenous people to Christianity (Diego was an atheist) and the steel skeletons as the representation of death (he used them in his paintings for the celebration of the Day of the Dead). This papier-mâché craft was brought to Mexico during the colonial period by the Spanish (originally for the decoration of churches) but under the patronage of Diego Riviera, they were recognised as works of art (I would love to own one for my living room, that’s for sure). He was supporting Mexican values and objected to the European fashion. He even wanted his wife Frida to wear traditional Mexican clothes, rather than European. And indeed, she wore traditional Tehuantepec classic skirts and corsets, which also represented her anti-colonialist ideals.
While looking at Diego's objects in his studio, my mind went straight to his mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park (1946-47). For me this mural is strongly visually connected with his studio. The La Catrina skeleton figure appears in the mural wearing a feathered serpent (Aztec symbol of worship) and links arms with her creator, the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada (in a black suit and cane) on one side, while on the other side she holds Diego's hand (he appears here as a child, as he was a child at the time of the revolution). Frida is standing right behind her husband.
The mural depicts famous people and events in the history of Mexico passing through Alameda Park in Mexico City. La Catrina is a critique of the Mexican elite, their bourgeois complacency and values shortly before the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Elegantly dressed upper-class figures (in European clothes) promenade under the figure of the long-ruling dictator Porfirio Díaz on the right. An indigenous family is forced back by police batons and to the right flames and violence loom (they can't be seen in this central extract of the mural). La Malinche (in yellow) stands in front of the policeman. All very symbolic; all in support of the Mexican revolution for independence.
Don't miss: 'What the Water Gave Me'
A print of Frida’s painting 'What the Water Gave Me' is displayed on her bathtub wall as it is most likely that she got the inspiration for the painting here. It is a 'surrealistic' memoir of her life and death and comfort and loss. The painting also has a lot of cultural references to her Aztec origins and the visit with Diego to America, which she did not like (note the skyscraper exploding in the Aztec volcano and her floating naked in the water, feeling 'lost', when Diego refused to go back to Mexico at the time, which she was so longing for). I could feel all that in her small house. Actually, the whole house seemed to me a bit surreal (although she denied that her art was surrealistic; she only painted her 'real life').
Bottom left: Frida Kahlo, What the Water Gave Me, 1938: fridakahlo.org.
How to get there:
The museum is located in the San Ángel Inn area of Mexico City on the corner of Altavista and Diego Rivera (formerly Palmera) streets, across from San Ángel Inn restaurant. To get there you can take the metro to Miguel Ángel de Quevedo station and from there you can take a microbus to Altavista, or just take a taxi.
MIX and Match
The House and Studio of Diego and Frida was built in the quarter of the former 17th century Goicoechea hacienda, later turned into a Carmelite monastery, and a pulque factory (alcohol beverage from cactus). Today it is called San Angel Inn. I strongly recommend going for a meal here after visiting the museum. It is not cheap but it is very stylish and has good international cuisine. Think of it as an extension of the museum as in essence the neighbourhood is 'part of the house'.