Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, artists, lovers, tragic companions. The story of two artists from Mexico may be compared to the highest form of literature, to the Shakespearean tragedy, to the deeply moving stories that have captivated the readers for centuries. Their love was and still is a source of inspiration for generations of writers, artists, and musicians, for the generations of lonely hearts scattered across the planet looking for a flicker of light to represent the hope for the brighter future. Frida loved Diego. Frida was inspired by Diego. Frida’s oeuvre is the painterly representation of her troubled existence, of her tragic love for the man who often did not deserve it.
“I have suffered two serious accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar ran over me … The other accident is Diego.” – Frida Kahlo
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were the loves of each other’s lives. They first met when Diego was painting his famous mural La Creación (Creation) at Frida’s school, Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in Mexico City where she was one of only 35 female students there. She was just a little girl back then, but that encounter led to the life of passion, heartbreak, deep love, and trouble. The pair created some of the most fascinating paintings Mexico has to offer, and their relationship was the source of inspiration for the astounding pieces that they made. The affairs they both had, Diego’s with Frida’s younger sister, and Frida’s with the Marxist Leon Trotsky only added to their status as quarrelsome lovers who could not be true to each other, but could not be without each other.
Love Inspires Art
Frida Kahlo was considerably younger than Diego Rivera, so it is no wonder that he was the one who influenced her works in a number of ways. She admired his work and often asked for advice about her own career as an artist. Diego Rivera recognized Frida Kahlo’s talent and was impressed by her unique expression he saw in the early paintings she produced. He encouraged young Frida, now one of the most respected women in the world of art, and helped her develop her artistic style, and in 1929, the two got married, continuing to inspire one another in the years to come. Diego often encouraged Frida to paint in a more folkloric and indigenous style like he did in his murals. She began wearing clothes that reminded of the typical Tehuana Mexican native style, that did not only impress Diego and look exceptionally beautiful, but also hide her deformed right leg.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo often incorporated one another into their work. So, Frida found a spot in Diego’s Balada de la Revolucion (1928, Ballad of the Revolution) mural on the Ministry of Public Education. Her face can be seen on a detail he called “Frida Kahlo Distributes the Arms”, dressed in a red shirt and a black skirt, wearing a red star on her chest, shown as a member of the Mexican Communist Party. Frida often depicted her and Diego, and those paintings serve as the records of the highs and lows of their tumultuous marriage. She created Frieda and Diego Rivera in 1931 as a wedding portrait, executed after two years of marital life in their home, the Casa Azul, now a Frida Kahlo museum. The pair is depicted in a stiff pose, influenced by the works of the naïve 19th-century painter Jose Maria Estrada, who also influenced Diego Rivera’s works. The engraving on the strip carried by a pigeon says: “Here you see us, me Frieda Kahlo, with my dearest husband Diego Rivera. I painted these portraits in the beautiful city of San Francisco California for our friend Mr. Albert Bender, and it was the month of April of the year 1931.”
In 1935 Frida painted A Few Small Nips (Passionately in Love) after a heartbreak she suffered because of Diego’s affair with her younger sister Christina. Frida depicted her anger and pain, so great that she chose to portray it in the suffering of another woman. The piece was inspired by the newspaper article about a woman killed by her jealous lover, who defended himself by saying “But it was just a few small nips!” This murderous deed is a symbolic reference to Frida’s own suffering and her emotional scars. In the pencil sketch for the painting, she drew a dove carrying a ribbon with an inscription “My darling does not love me anymore”, however in the final version of the painting the ribbon is carried by two doves and it says: “A Few Small Nips”.
Frida’s destiny is that which no woman would want. Her devastating car accident injuries rid her of the chance of ever having children and permanently damaged her health. During her marriage with Diego, she had to undergo an abortion due to the fact that the fetus was incorrectly placed in her broken pelvis. This devastating knowledge, the knowledge of never being able to have a child, influenced Frida’s artistic expression so much that the whole series of paintings with the theme of birth, pregnancy, babies, abortion, and damaged reproductive organs can be assembled. One of such paintings is the Henry Ford Hospital (1932), depicting a miscarriage she suffered in 1932 while living in the USA with Diego. We can see six umbilical cords emerging from her still swollen stomach. Each one of them is connected to an image related to her miscarriage: the fetus of a boy “Dieguito”; a purple orchid reminding of a uterus that she got as a gift from Diego; a snail – the symbol of a slow and very painful miscarriage; the figure of a woman’s torso, showing all her organs; the pelvis, symbolizing her damaged bones, and the mechanical contraption of some kind. This painting is the first one in which Frida used tin panels Diego Rivera suggested in an attempt to bring her out of the depression that followed the unfortunate event.
Around the same time, she produced a drawing Frida and the Abortion or The Abortion. Created one day before the Henry Ford Hospital, this drawing depicts Frida with tears streaming down her cheeks, and the similar images are attached to her body, namely the oversized male fetus. The difference between the drawing and the painting is the scale of Frida herself. In Henry Ford Hospital, she is smaller, more fragile than in The Abortion, where the focus is on the fetus (Dieguito).
Editors’ Tip: Frida Kahlo – The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait
In this book, Frida’s fascinating illustrated journal is compiled, documenting the last ten years of her troublesome lifetime. This intimate journal reveals new dimensions of the complex personality of Mexico’s most beloved artist. The book offers Frida’s poems, personal thoughts, her dreams, and recollections of her turbulent relationship with Diego Rivera. There are 70 watercolor illustrations in this journal, some sketches, and self-portraits. Texts written by Frida in her full script in bright inks make this book captivating and enchanting to both look and read. The records of her childhood, her political opinions, and her obsession with the love of her life, Diego, are revealed in her witty sentences and haunting images.
The Dissolution of Marriage
In 1937 Frida painted a Portrait of Diego Rivera, which is just one of many paintings of hers that depicted the man she adored. She loved him so deeply, so profoundly, so passionately. Such love is hard to explain even now, years after their death. However, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo divorced in 1939. After the divorce, Kahlo painted one of her most famous pieces The Two Fridas (Las dos Fridas) in 1939, a double self-portrait symbolizing her pain inflicted by the divorce. The Frida on the right is dressed in modern European attire she used to wear before her marriage with Rivera. Throughout their conjugal living, Diego influenced Frida to explore a more traditional Mexican costume which she is wearing on the right side of the painting. The traditional Frida is holding a locked with a picture of Rivera. The bleeding heart and the stormy sky in the background are remnants of Kahlo’s pain, both physical and emotional.
“If I ever loved a woman, the more I loved her, the more I wanted to hurt her. Frida was only the most obvious victim of this disgusting trait.” – Diego Rivera
In 1943, she finished a painting called Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego on My Mind) that she started in 1940. Although the pair had remarried that year, Diego continued to be a womanizer, and Frida’s desire to be the only woman in his life can be seen in this self-portrait. Diego’s miniature portrait is placed on her forehead. She is wearing a traditional Tehuana attire – Diego’s favorite – in an attempt to regain his admiration.
Paradise Found, Paradise Lost
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo completed each other perfectly. While his paintings looked outward, depicting the world around him and criticizing the society, Frida’s artwork looked inward, to her heart and soul, mostly due to the fact that she has been through great pain all her life. After the divorce and the second marriage to each other, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo continued their stormy romance as if they never spent time apart. In the painting The Love Embrace of the Universe (1949), Frida depicted their relationship as a mischievous game of playing mother and son. Diego loved to be pampered, and Frida found that playing the role of mother perfectly resonated with his flashy personality. In her journal, she wrote:“At every moment, he is my child, my child born every moment, diary, from myself”.
In the “Portrait of Diego” that she wrote for the catalog of Diego’s retrospective at Mexico City Palace of Fine Arts in 1949, she said: “Women – among them I – always would want to hold him in her arms like a newborn baby”. Thus, it is no wonder that Frida depicted herself as the earth mother, holding in her arms the baby she could never have, her “Dieguito.” She seems calm, but tears still adorn her cheeks, her chest and neck are split open by the red crevasse; the Mexican earth’s breast is cracked and a drop of milk appears to be oozing from it. The infant Rivera holds a plant, that could represent his libido or his artistic genius. The third eye opens in his forehead, as the eye of “Oriental wisdom.” He is quite a large baby with a sad look in his eyes. The love that resonates from this painting can be described as epic, monumental, Gargantuan in a way – but still, in its core, sad and pain-inflicting.
“I’d like to give you everything you never had, but not even then would you know how beautiful it is to love you” – Frida Kahlo
Frida – The Life Through Words, The Inevitable Death
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo exchanged an immense amount of letters. When not together in Casa Azul, Diego, and Frida’s house, they wrote letters full of loving and kind words that are now a source of inspiration for the poets all over the world. The tender words Frida wrote to her husband can be seen in museums and have been auctioned at major auction houses for considerable amounts of money.
Truth is, so great, that I wouldn’t like to speak, or sleep, or listen, or love. To feel myself trapped, with no fear of blood, outside time and magic, within your own fear, and your great anguish, and within the very beating of your heart. All this madness, if I asked it of you, I know, in your silence, there would be only confusion. I ask you for violence, in the nonsense, and you, you give me grace, your light and your warmth. I’d like to paint you, but there are no colors, because there are so many, in my confusion, the tangible form of my great love.”
Frida Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, after just turning 47. Then, Diego said: “July 13, 1954, was the most tragic day of my life. I had lost my beloved Frida forever. Too late now I realized that the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida.” And their hurricane of a romance was over. Frida was gone. But her legacy continued to live on. Several years later, on November 24, 1957, Diego Rivera died as well. Two of the greatest lovers of their time were no more, they were reunited in the afterlife, painting portraits of each other, living in their Casa Azul, having affairs and marital quarrels. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were, and still are, the prime example of two artists who could not exist without each other, who would never reach their true potential without one another. Frida would not be Frida without Diego. Diego would not be Diego without Frida.
“I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you” – Frida Kahlo
Editors’ Tip: Diego Rivera, Gladys March – My Art, My Life: An Autobiography
Diego Rivera’s autobiography started out as an interview he gave to the journalist Gladys March in 1944, and from that moment, until the day that he died in 1957, March has spent a few months each years with the artist, resulting in some 2000 pages filled with his recollections and interpretations of his life and his art. The book is written in the first person and it is a document rich with the information about the famous painter who was revolutionized the mural painting. Diego Rivera seems to always be in the heart of the artistic, romantic, and political turmoil. His autobiography is a record of his confrontations with presidents and dictators, of the battles over his murals in Rockefeller Center and the Hotel del Prado, of his marriages to Lupe Marin and Frida Kahlo, and much more.