“Man at the crossroads”: A brief history of the life, politics and artistic works of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (1886-1957)

by Naomi Marie-Rose

When a history is written about Mexico in the early nineteen hundreds there are two names that will always be mentioned in the field of modern art, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Their marriage was one of the most famous alliances between two artists. Not only had they both great talent, but also each had a life story characterized by passion, love, pain and betrayal. They were followers and activists of communism. This particular political belief is reflected and expressed in their art. This article will trace both their personal and political lives.

Diego Rivera was born to a well off family in December 8, 1886, Guanajuato, Mexico. His mother and father were both teachers and they taught their son to write and read at the age of 4. When Rivera was six years old his family left Guanajuato and moved to Mexico City.  As Rivera grew up, he soon proved to be a gifted artist and began to study at the Academy of San Carlos at the age of ten. In 1906 Diego Rivera was awarded with a scholarship by the Governor of the Province of Veracruz, to study in Art in Europe. The young artist arrived in Spain in January 1907. He made Spain the start of his tour throughout Europe including France, Belgium, Holland and England.
In 1910 he made a trip home, and held a successful exhibition in Mexico City. The wife of the powerful President of Mexico, Porfirio Diaz, bought six of the forty paintings shown, and more were purchased by the Academy of Fine Arts.
The Mexican revolution had started and Mexico rebelled against Díaz who had been publicly accused of electoral fraud. Díaz was forced from office and fled to France in 1911.Rivera watched the revolution which put the liberal Francisco Madero in power, but did not wait for important events to happen but instead returned to Paris in 1911 where he worked with many more artists and had many more love affairs.

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Photograph of Diego Rivera

In 1921 Rivera made the decision to go back to Mexico. The homecoming was an emotional moment for him. He was overwhelmed by the beauty and cultural richness of this country that he had learned to view at with different eyes, due to his long absence. This had a great influence on his style of painting as he had now achieved naturalness and lightness as if he had never painted in another manner. Diego himself said: “My style was born like a child, in an instant, with the difference that this birth took place after 35 agonizing years of pregnancy”

 

In November 1921 he accompanied the Minister of Education, Jose Vasconcelos, on a visit to Yucatan. The two men got on well together, and Rivera was the first artist to be employed at the Preparatoria (National Preparatory School). At the same period Rivera joined the Communist Party, with which he was to have a long, complicated relationship. Right wing students rioted against the murals he was painting at the Preparatoria before they were completed, and Rivera was the only artist who stubbornly continued to work there. It was at this time that he attracted the attention of a student there, Frida Kahlo, who was later to become his third wife.

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo Calderon was born to two Jewish immigrants on the 6 July1907. The family home in Coyoacán a southern suburb of Mexico City was painted cobalt blue outside, and for this reason it became known as the ‘Casa Azul’ which is Spanish and means Blue House. Frida had three sisters and always had been her Father’s favourite daughter. Kahlo was very intelligent, a rebel and a tomboy. Also her unfortunate affliction with polio beginning in 1913 marked her as different.

In 1922, Frida would again prove her great intelligence when she became one of 35 women from a student body of 2,000 to be admitted to the National Preparatory School, or El Prepo, in Mexico City. She wanted to study medicine, but upon arriving to the vibrant intellectual centre of her country, she discovered political activists, artists, communists, and other people who dared to dream and question.

Frida soon started to socialise with a crowd that played tricks on teachers and staff that called themselves the “Cachets”. The leader of the “Catches” was Alejandro Gómez who was Frida’s boyfriend at the time. One of their victims of trickery would be Diego Rivera. Frida would tease Rivera and only years later her teasing and haunting of Diego Rivera would turn into a love affair.

On 17 December 1925, one day after Mexico achieved its independence, Kahlo had an accident that would forever change her life. Frida and her Boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez got on the faithful bus that would take them home from Mexico City.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s Wedding Picture

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s Wedding Picture

On an intersection a tram crashed into the bus they were travelling in, launching bodies everywhere. Alejandro was unharmed and “wanted to help Frida up, when he was horrified to see that a rod which passengers normally hung on to had pierced Frida’s body” Kahlo had suffered eleven fractures of her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, a dislocated shoulder, two broken ribs and also her spine and pelvis were injured.

Her accident was the start of a series of unbearable physical sufferings that would persist throughout her whole life. As she was trapped in a full body cast for months she occupied her time by studying art history and producing several drawings and paintings. It was during that time that she developed her talent for art.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera got married on the 21st August 1929. Even though Frida adored Diego she kept her surname as a sign of respect to her parents but also because her parents very much disliked Diego. They thought he was too old and too overweighed for their daughter also they believed that he would be a bad influence on her as he was a follower of communism.

Not only was Rivera a follower but also the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Mexico. In 1929 Rivera accepted a commission from the United States, Dwight W. Morrow, to decorate the Cortes Palace in the nearby city Cuernavaca. It seems ironic that Rivera, a committed Communist worked for an American capitalist.

Rivera’s indiscriminate way of accepting commissions is what eventually led to his expulsion from the Communist Party. Kahlo, who had joined the party in 1928 left with Rivera who was deeply hurt from the expulsion and threw himself into his artistic work.

As the 1920s came to a close, the political situation had become so dangerous, that it was not safe to express communism in public anymore. Partly that is why Rivera wanted to leave Mexico but also because he was eager to try something new. In November 1930 they set off for San Francisco.

Life in “Gringo-Land” as Kahlo called the United States would be very different from what she had known as home.
The U.S.A was loud, busy and big. For Rivera the eight months in San Francisco were full of success and growing fame, while Kahlo continued to paint, mostly self-portraits. Frida disliked the people in the U.S and longed to go home. Once she said “I can’t stand Gringos (Americans), they’re boring and have doughy faces like unbaked rolls, especially the old women”

Diego was invited to stage a large retrospective of his work in the New York Museum of Modern Art and the couple went straight to Manhattan. Kahlo who was just 24 years old at the time was viewed as the shy, loving wife overshadowed by her famous husband who had one affair after another. She hated moving in the upper circles and she was “furious at all these rich people, having seen thousands of people in abject squalor”

In 1932 the painter-couple moved to Detroit and Frida became more and more homesick. Not wanting to leave her husband she stayed in Detroit, feeling out of place and lonely. She was in poor heath when she became pregnant and it resulted in a miscarriage. She expressed her pain and suffering of her miscarriage in her paintings “The Flying Bed” and “My Birth”. But her grief did not end there. On the 15 of September 1932 her Mother passed away in Mexico. Kahlo travelled home immediately to spent time with her family and helped her Father, yet she missed her “beloved Diego” and made her journey back to the US.

In October that year Diego was commissioned to paint a mural in the Rockefeller centre in New York. It was here where he created one of his most famous works “Man at the Crossroads”. The problem weitgh it was that the mural carried too much of a commmunist message and Rivera was sacked. In 1934 the mural was destroyed.
Rivera and Kahlo continued to fight about whether to go back to Mexico or not. On the 20 Dec 1933 Kahlo had won the battle and they sailed back to Mexico.
Back in Mexico Rivera was not happy. He refused to work, found everything he did not good enough and finally fell ill. He blamed Kahlo for “all the evil that has befallen him” It was not until November that he pulled himself together and got back to work. By now their marriage had grown increasingly stormy and soon Kahlo would find out something that would hurt her to the deepest. Her husband was carrying on a liaison with her sister Christiana. Frida then fell into a depressive phase of her life. She once said: “In my life I suffered two grave accidents: The Car Crash and Diego” To show the damage that he had done she painted “A Few Little Slashes with a Dagger” which shows a murderer standing beside a dead woman. The painting was inspired by a news article where a men, that had stabbed his wife over foutrty times, stated that he only wanted to hurt her but did not intend to kill her. She expressed how Rivera had just slightly hurt her without being aware of how much he wounded her.
Rivera for his part stated: “When I loved a woman, I wanted to hurt her the more I loved her, Frida was the most evident victim of that despicable character trait of mine”- Rivera. In 1935 Kahlo moved out of the house in San Angles and into a flat in the capital. Not long afterward she went to New York with two women friends and without her husband. From then on she started to have a series of affairs. However her husband’s jealousy still prevented her flaunting her affairs in public because she knew what he would have been capable of. In the end though nothing could conquer love for “her Diego” and she eventually returned to her husband in Mexico.

Back in Mexico, Rivera had publicly come out for the Trotskyists and when Leon Trotsky had been expelled from the USSR in 1929, Rivera personally interceded with the Mexican President, Làzaro Cardenas. Rivera’s petition was granted and Leon and Natalya Trotsky were permitted to settle in Mexico. Kahlo and Rivera allowed them to stay without paying rent. Frida knew of the great admiration from her husband to Trotsky which could have been a reason why an affair with him would have been particular piquant. At the time Leon Trotsky was 57 years old and Kahlo was 29. They were attracted to each other and soon developed an affair. According to Trotsky’s Secretary the affair soon proved to be too hot for both parties. “They both stepped back from it. Frida felt herself under an obligation to Diego and Trotsky felt the same about [his wife] Natalya.”

Kahlo continued to paint and started to be successful, not only in Mexico but also in New York, where she had her first one-woman show and Paris, where they offered to stage a retrospective of her work. When she returned to Mexico she did not find her life unchanged. Rivera who was seeking independence filled for divorce. The divorce was another crisis in Kahlo’s Life. During the next two years, Kahlo created some of her best paintings expressing her sorrow and pain. She had been famous for her ability to consume a big amount of alcohol. She once wrote to her friend: “I used to drink to drown my sorrow but now it’s learned how to swim. “. She did not now that her sorrow would not persist for long. After only two years, in 1940, Rivera and Kahlo remarried.

They both worked as teachers for a while but Kahlo’s rather unstable health soon made it impossible for her to teach. Rivera continued to teach and to care for his sick wife. Kahlo spent the last years of her life in excruciating pain. She painted one of her most famous paintings “The broken Column” (picture on the bottom right) which pictures her broken and in physical pain. Many paintings expressing the faults of her body followed as her condition worsened.

drfk_clip_image006In July 1954 Kahlo died at the age 47. The official cause of death was pulmonary embolism but some suspected that she died from an overdose that may or may not have been an accident. Her last words in her diary were: “I hope the exit is joyful – and I hope never to return – Frida.”

Rivera deeply mourned her and aged overnight. “The most tragic day of my life was 13 July 1954. I had lost my beloved Frida forever (…); my only comfort was that I had been taken back into the communist party”
Only three years after Kahlo’s death, Diego died of a heart attack on 24 November 1957 in his studio. He wanted to be cremated and asked that his ashes be mixed with Kahlo’s. However his last wish was not granted as Rivera had married again and his wife did not permit this. Never really one in life, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera remained apart in death.

 


 

Kettenmann, Andrea: Diego Rivera. Ein revolutionärer Geist in der Kunst der Moderne. Colonge, 1997
Alcántara, Isabel and Egnolff,  Sandra: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
Herrera, Hayden: Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. p. 106
Ibid., p. 113
Alcántara, Isabel and Egnolff, Sandra: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
Rivera, Diego: My Art, My Life: An Autobiography
Zamora, Martha: Frida Kahlo. The Brush of Anguish, p. 59
Ibid., p.165
Frida Kahlo: An Illustrated Diary.
Rivera Diego: My Art my Life: An Autobiography, p. 285f.
Alcántara, Isabel and Egnolff, Sandra: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, p. 115