I've first discovered Frida Khalo some 16 years ago with the release of the movie "Frida" that was produced by and stars Salma Hayek. The film mesmerized 18 year-old me and it didn't take long until I was poring through Frida Khalo biographies, exploring her work, however little of it I could get my hands on. I am somewhat struggling writing about Frida Khalo because of the enormous respect I hold for her as an artist and the personal connection I formed with her work. It touches the most sensitive parts of my internal makeup, and while I try to avoid it, I will probably always sound like a typical first year art student when talking about her.
In the years following my first encounter, her work has helped me deal with grief, taught me to appreciate the cultural fabric I'm cut from and eventually inspired me to pursue art. At the time, her life helped me embrace my coming of age, understand my evolving political views and made me want to be unapologetically myself.
I had the joy of visiting the "Frida Khalo: Making Herself Up" exhibition at the V&A in the Summer of 2018. After spending some 3 hours going from one painting to another, suppressing tears at every third, I’ve spent almost £70 at the gift shop on Khalo-themed trinkets. Finally, for my birthday this past April, visiting her family home has me concentrated on the circumstances that shaped her and the life that she build out of, and in spite of them.
The Casa Azul wraps around a corner in the newly hip and affluent Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City. Its recognizable royal blue facade gives way to the front doors facing Londres street. A small line of tourists wait patiently in the heat outside and talk. Who is Frida? Haven’t you seen the movie? Leon Trotsky!
Entering the museum, I pay a little extra for the privilege of taking photos. the blue walls are already overwhelming me and I do not want to forget this. The house opens to a lush atrium full of trees, birds and a pre-Hispanic pyramid her and Diego got built in the middle of it. The house interior starts off as any museum: white walls and artworks hanging off them. I recognize but a handful of them: Portrait of Frida’s father Guillermo Kahlo, their family tree and the ever bright Viva la Vida still life.
The other works hanging are commissioned portraits, unfinished paintings and some diary drawings. The paintings in progress reveal her deepest pains: sorrowful maternity ward beds with dead embryos, unsettling dream sequences, physical pain and Diego’s recognizable head. Diego is inseparable from Frida, and one of the display rooms is dedicated to a full year of his lesser known cubist work. His bedroom is on the opposite side of the house from hers, on the lower level, and still bears the bullet holes from the first attempted assassination of Lav Trotsky who was their guest at the time.
The L-shaped house continues sprinkled with their shared collections of Aztec figurines and other pre-hispanic artifacts. Vases, bowls and ritual masks with vivid characters stare at the river of visitors intruding on their privacy. Walls are adorned with ex-voto religious folk art that Khalo drew inspiration from for her own work. The bathroom adjoining Diego’s room was sealed until 2004 as per his wishes. Once opened, it unearthed a treasury of Frida’s wardrobe and personal items.
Frida’s clothes, makeup and painted casts from that room were among the V&A exhibition in London. So were her special platform shoes, her artificial legs, and her wonderful collection of jewellery that people started to recognize from her self-portraits. Among those is the famous hand earring that she was gifted with by Picasso. Nowadays, every gift shop offers one if you wish to look like Frida.
You would not be alone in this attempt. We’ve collectively iconized her. Her statues are taken in procession as those of Virgin Guadalupe in Mexico, her look is a costume at parties, her aesthetic an unmissable cosplay. Her styling had a purpose of hiding her physical disabilities, her makeup hid her pain and together it all performed when she couldn’t. I remember myself sewing a bright pink maxi peasant skirt for the Summer to hide my, at the time perceived "freshmen ten".
Entering her studio at the top floor, I can hardly suppress the swelling of emotion: her desk is tiny, her Windsor Newton easel, a gift from Nelson Rockefeller over-towers her wheelchair. The mirror for self-portraits stands ready next to it. The windows are perfect studio-size and overlook her garden. We will have coffee there later, just like we did in my mother’s garden during the long Summer afternoons. The studio book collection reveals her agonizing obsession with never fulfilled wish of having a child. Childbearing literature, the medical journals, posters and models are in seemingly every corner.
Connected to the studio is her daytime bedroom. It holds up a mirror right above on the canopy, so she could paint herself while lying down. The sight of the tiny bed makes everyone stop in their tracks and get quiet. This is how we finally enter her night bedroom, a collection of butterflies above her bed this time, her rebozo on the coat hanger, her delightfully macabre doll collection neatly displayed in a cupboard, and her vanity table displaying some Aztec figurines and a large vase shaped like a frog, a final nod to Diego, holding her ashes. Her dying quote fills the silence of the room:
“I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope never to return.”
Frida Khalo's life resonated with me on every level, and I do not see it waning anytime soon despite our lives taking vastly different paths. Where she dived into her art, I’ve put it on ice to make way for a design career. Where she stayed put at her family home, collecting bits and pieces from her culture, I’ve sold my possessions, packed my life in a suitcase and went around the world to find my place. Where she yearned to make a family and dived in whirlwind romances, I am happiest in a simple family of two. Where she was outspoken, I am cautious, and where her outward presence was vivacious, mine tends to be tranquil.
However, she continues to illuminate the quality of both tradition and forward thinking ideas in me. She taught me to respect and draw positives from a deeply Catholic upbringing. She advanced a naive folk style of Maxican painters and made me appreciate the same of the Croatian ones I tended to avoid. Her unapologetic “I am my own muse” self-respect, acceptance and ultimately adoration is still radical today, not to mention her being bisexual and free loving.The resilience with which she took everything life has thrown at her and made art out it inspires even the biggest cynics among us. Yet what I most admire about her is being true to herself, through the pain, through the political and personal turmoil, through different partners, she never lost sight of who she is. I can only hope to be this self-determined in the best of times.