"I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best," Frida Kahlo, Mexico's tortured surrealist artist often told people. "I am not sick. I am broken," she would add. "But I am happy as long as I can paint."
Standing on the threshold of the house in southwestern Mexico City where she lived as a child - and intermittently with her husband - I'm mesmerized by the loneliness I feel. The startling blue cobalt façade of the one-story stucco house does nothing to dispel the sadness as I peek into the world of the mythical woman whose life began within these walls on July 6, 1907, and ended there, on July 13, 1954.
If ancient history gave us passion in the form of Antony and Cleopatra, 20th century Mexico treated us to another torrid love affair, testament of which is recorded for eternity on canvasses around the world.
When Hollywood re-enacted the ill-fated romance of the ancient world, with the 1960 movie "Cleopatra," Liz Taylor and Richard Burton created some steamy chapters of their own. South of the border, the electrifying, tragic saga of surrealist artist Kahlo and her husband, Mexico's most famous - and infamous - muralist Diego Rivera, was the burning page in the former Aztec capital. Like demigods of mythology and the Italian Renaissance - the protagonists of this epic need no surnames. They are, to this day simply: Frida y Diego.
Etched in the Mexican psyche of the 1930s through 1950s, the duo who caused a stir - politically, socially and artistically - is about to take center stage this fall, with the launch of the movie, "Frida," based on Hayden Herrera's, "Frida, A Biography of Frida Kahlo" (Harper and Row, 1983). When the stellar cast - Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas, Ashley Judd and Geoffrey Rush - unleash her life on the silver screen, there is no telling where Frida frenzy will lead.
Lifetime Of Pain
They met in 1928 when Rivera Diego was commissioned to paint a mural at the National Preparatory School, where Kahlo was a student. They married on Aug. 21, 1929 (she was 22, he was 43), embarking on a tempestuous marital journey which was to span nearly 25 years, marked by their divorce in 1940 - and their remarriage a year later.
Their conjugal drama ricocheted between love and hate, punctuated by affairs on both sides and rumors of her bisexuality. A notorious womanizer, Rivera's little black book of paramours included her younger sister Cristina and Mexican movie star Maria Felix, who died earlier this year. Leading the list of Kahlo's illustrious lovers was the exiled Communist leader Leon Trotsky, a longtime houseguest in their Coyoacan.
People who knew them said that they "fed off of each other's passion." Like meteors slicing through the universe on diverging paths, when they collided it was a dazzling burst of energy, lighting the core of their very being. Yet, despite their separate talents, passions and appetites they shared a unique bond: a consummate love of one another.
She would often quip, "I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down. The other accident is Diego."
Disabled by polio at age 6, and a victim of a serious bus accident in 1925 that, among other things, shattered her pelvis, broke her spinal column in three places and dislocated her foot, Kahlo was hurled into a life of numerous surgeries, bed rest and excruciating pain. She recorded all of her tortured emotions on canvas, painting her anger and hurt over her stormy marriage, a series of tragic miscarriages and physical suffering she endured daily.
Throughout adulthood, Kahlo disguised her "agonía" under a halo of bright ribbons and braids in her hair, decking herself out with ornate rings and earrings and swirls of colorful necklaces, and hiding her handicapped leg beneath vibrant peasant skirts and flamboyant costumes. These, along with her thick connecting eyebrows, became her trademark. As her health declined, the elaborate packaging of her broken body increased.
Kahlo always felt she was a mere "reflection of light in Diego's orbit." And while she was respected and loved around the world and greatly admired in Mexico, her only exhibit in her native country took place at the Palacio de Bellas Artes when she was in the throes of shutting down her tortured life, less than a year before she died.
She basks in a light all of her own now, carving herself a niche in Mexican mythology as she lures people from around the globe.
His And Hers
"Frida fever" has caused a flurry of pedestrian traffic to beat a path to the various places she called home. Recently restored shrines along her trail are drawing thousands to La Casa Azul (the Blue House), officially known as the Frida Kahlo Museum, and to the two adjoining residences she shared with Rivera in the trendy San Angel neighborhood.
The combined facility, dubbed the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Studio-House Museum, were designed by longtime Rivera friend, architect Juan O'Gorman, who broke the Spanish colonial mold in the cobblestone neighborhood by constructing the German-inspired buildings. Connected by a second-floor bridge, the San Angel "his" and "hers" complex underscores the independence the couple maintained throughout their turbulent and unconventional union. Rivera commissioned a house where the couple could be "juntos, pero no revueltos" (together, but not mixed).
Rivera's house is preserved much as it was when the celebrated maestro was alive. His studio, cluttered with paint-stained tables, plaster molds and a vast collection of dried-out paintbrushes and partially used paints, looks like he just stepped away. The denim jacket he wore hangs next to his abandoned easel. Next to it, giant paint splattered boots stand ready for their owner's return.
Across the room, his death mask rests almost unnoticed next to scores of pre-Colombian figures he purchased as a peace offering each time the couple fought. There are many. Upstairs, a small room, which doubled as a changing room for his models, holds a single bed, surely too tiny for someone of his stature. A petite armoire surrenders his clothing.
While Rivera's presence is felt throughout, Kahlo's side of the complex is devoid of personal touch. When the narrow stairs of the twin complex became too tedious for her broken body to maneuver, she went home to the Casa Azul.
It was there that I went to explore her legacy. Feeling a bit like a voyeur entering her world, I'm confronted by gangly 20-foot papier mâché skeletons, hanging at the entrance, grinning at everyone who visits. Poking fun at death, an integral part of the Mexican psyche, is a philosophy Kahlo embraced in her artwork.
The volcanic stone courtyard she once romped in as a child and the lush gardens where she housed her menagerie of spider monkeys, Mexican hairless dogs, parrots, deer, cats and armadillos - which often surfaced in her paintings in one guise or another - echo with lonely footfalls from the past. Rivera's pre-Colombian idols are all that haunt the empty courtyard garden, sitting in silence listening to some far-off conversation only they can hear. At one time she held court here, teaching art to 10 students, dubbed Los Fridos.
Off the courtyard, the formal living room showcases her paintings, family photographs and mementos. Lining the wall, are stirring love letters she wrote to Rivera over a period of several years.
Other rooms showcase her whimsical Tehuana costumes and gaudy pre-Colombian jewelry, masks and more idols. Her diary, with some of her most tortured sketches she ever drew, offers a bittersweet, often brutal peek into her private thoughts.
Drifting upstairs, I'm captured by the soul of the house. Her studio, overlooking the garden, looks as if she just departed - the empty wheelchair drawn up in front of an easel with an unfinished portrait of Stalin staring into space; tin cans bursting with ready-to-use brushes; partially squeezed tubes of paint. On the shelves, a collection of dolls replacing the children she could never have sit patiently waiting for someone who will never return.
The plaster corset she was forced to wear to support her deteriorating spine, decorated with whimsical figures and plants, sits on her four-poster single bed. Under its canopy the mirror, which enabled her to paint so many self-portraits, reflects the emptiness of the spot where she drew her last breath. An embroidered pillow nestles at the headboard, its plaintiff plea reading: "No me olvides, mi amor." (Do not forget me, my love.) At the other end of the bed, crutches lean against the footboard.
In another room, her ashes sit shuttered for eternity in a pre-Colombian jar in the shape of a rotund, headless female. Above it, her bronzed death mask gazes at the once fiery artist's mortal remains.
Arturo Garcia Bustos, one of the three surviving Fridos, was 17 when he began studying with her. Today, he lives in a home once owned by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortez and his mistress Malinche, just blocks from where his maestra taught him.
"Despite her suffering, Frida loved life," he reflected. "We used to sit with her in the courtyard at the Casa Azul, and she would teach us to love our roots and our culture and show us how to convey that love to our audience.
"There were lots of animals around us and there was always music, food and laughter," he added. "Frida was very happy and lived life to the fullest."
Something about the melancholic catch in his voice prompted me to ask if he had been in love with her.
His wife, artist Rina Lazo, who had studied with Rivera, responded quickly, with no trace of rancor, "Everyone was in love with Frida."
Michelle da Silva Richmond is a free-lance writer who lives in Cromwell.Copyright © 2015, CT Now