Frida and Diego
By Virginia Butterfield
In her words, it was “the union of the elephant and the dove”—Diego Rivera, an enormous man with an extroverted personality, and Frida Kahlo, slight, sensitive, frequently ailing. These famous artists are featured in an exhibition at La Jolla’s Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, May 14 to September 4, titled “Twentieth-Century Mexican Art: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection.”
Frida painted as a catharsis for pain, frequently working from a prone position in her bed. She had an accident in her teens that left her with multiple injuries. “I suffered two accidents in my life,” she wrote, “one in which a streetcar knocked me down ... the other accident is Diego.”
Kahlo met Diego Rivera as he was standing on a scaffolding, painting a mural. “Diego, come down,” she demanded. “Look, I have not come to flirt or anything, even if you are a woman chaser. I have come to show you my painting. If you are interested in it, tell me; if not, likewise, so that I will go to work at something else.”
Rivera’s memory of the incident is almost identical ... without the “woman chaser” part.
So the great man docilely lumbered down from the scaffolding to look at the three paintings this young woman, less than half his age, was holding. He agreed to visit her home the following Sunday to see other samples. When he arrived, he said later, “I heard someone over my head, whistling ‘The Internationale.’ In the top of a high tree, I saw Frida in overalls.”
This was the beginning of a stormy relationship about which Frida’s father warned Diego: “She is a sick person, and all her life she will be sick; she is intelligent, but not pretty. Think it over.”
Diego didn’t have to think it over; he and Frida were married in ’29, divorced in ’39, remarried in ’40. It was a stormy relationship. Kahlo gave fabulous parties in their famous “Blue House” (now a museum), noted for unrestricted tequila and off-color songs. She painted tortured pictures that expressed her sadness in life and marriage. She attempted suicide several times, especially after the amputation of her right leg. “I drank to drown my pain,” said Kahlo, “but the damned pain learned to swim.” Rivera called Kahlo’s work “agonized poetry on canvas.”
A precocious painter from childhood, Rivera entered the Academy of San Carlos, the major fine arts school in Mexico, at the age of 11 (normal entry age was 16). He won a scholarship to Europe in 1907 and remained in Spain and France until the 1920s, when he was given a government-related position to create murals in Mexico. Rivera described himself at this time as “6 feet tall and weighing 300 pounds. But I was a dynamo of energy.”
An eyewitness reported: “All day he works. He has worn out a squad or two of masons, several assistants, hundreds of observers, scores of friends ... Often I have seen him, after a day’s work was done, lose his temper at the result and tell his assistants, ‘Clean it all off and put on fresh plaster! I’ll be back tomorrow morning at 6!’” (Bertram Wolfe, The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera).
Rivera took his noon meals on the scaffolding, even slept there. (Once while napping, he fell off.) His forte was entertaining onlookers with outrageous stories of his life. At one time (in New York), it was possible to purchase tickets to watch Rivera paint.
In many ways, Rivera’s murals were a criticism of the government that paid for them. The conservative press in Mexico referred to his murals as examples of fiesmo (uglism), but revolutionaries liked their proletarian focus. Rivera was a member of the Mexican communist party during the 1920s, yet he was always a maverick who refused to blindly follow the party line. He was publicly thrown out of the party in 1929.
In the 1930s, Rivera was invited to paint murals in San Francisco, Detroit and at the RCA building in New York City. In New York, he refused a request to replace the face of Lenin, so he was fired, the mural was covered over and eventually chipped off. Even in Mexico, some of his work was scorned: A mural entitled God Does Not Exist was similarly rejected.
The Detroit News reported on the famous couple this way: “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art.” Frida, who must have been stung by the article, responded: “He does pretty well for a little boy, but it is I who am the big artist.”
She might have been right.
Kahlo painted her own portrait over and over again. “I paint myself because I am so often alone. Because I am the subject I know best,” she said. Her thick, connecting eyebrows and somewhat unfeminine mustache became trademarks of her bizarre paintings. At the suggestion of Rivera, Kahlo painted herself in every imaginable Mexican costume—a series of icons to her culture.
Neither Kahlo nor Rivera viewed their domesticity in a traditional way. She is rumored to have had an affair with Leon Trotsky (among others), and Rivera was a notorious womanizer. “I let him play matrimony with other women,” she said.
In Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera, the author relates a story about Kahlo that has become legendary. Kahlo came to her only Mexican art exhibition in an ambulance. She lay on a four-poster bed in the middle of the gallery, drinking and singing. The last entry in her diary concerned her imminent death. “I hope the leaving is joyful, and I hope never to return.”