In May of last year I had the privilege of visiting Frida Kahlo’s house in Coyoacan, a leafy art-filled adobe residential suburb of outer Mexico City.
Many of us are familiar with her striking self-portraits with her bold eyebrows and colourful peasant costumes. We know she had a withered leg from polio at age 6, followed by a horrific bus collision at age 18, which left her severely injured, requiring continuous surgical revisions and prostheses. We know about her famous and also torturous relationship with the artist and mural painter Diego Rivera, whom she met as a teen and who was intimately involved with her from the time she was 21 until her death in 1954 at 47.
In Frida’s accident the bus was T-boned by a trolley car, and she was both crushed and pierced by a metal handrail: her pelvis, spine, ribs, and leg were all badly broken. Already familiar with deformity and the rigour and humiliations of therapy, she was to endure some 32 separate operations and years of plaster casts and corsets.
Frida took up oil painting during the painful tedium of rehabilitation and from then on painting was at the core of what her biographer Hayden Herrera describes as her “battle for life”. In the words of her friend, photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo, ” The struggle of two Fridas was in her always, the struggle between one dead Frida and one Frida that was alive.” Along with painting- frank, impassioned, diligent, macabre,- came a renewed and almost desperate love for nature, animals, colours, fruit, anything beautiful and positive.
In 1950, ill with vertebral osteomyelitis and limb gangrene, she spent a year in hospital. This year too was full of painting, guests, jokes, treatments, and Rivera, who spent most nights in an adjoining room. A friend said, “We healthy people who went to visit her came away comforted, morally fortified, we all needed her.”
I have always been drawn to her intense and fascinating self-portraits, while the details of her struggles, physical and emotional, are almost unbearable.
While I had seen pictures of her house in Coyoacan, with its bold earthy colours, extensive folk art and archaeological sculptures, what really struck me when I visited was the way the walled courtyard and interconnected cobalt-blue adobe walls embraced a whole world of trees and the most intimate objects of her domestic and imaginative life. Frida Kahlo was born and died within those sheltering walls, it is quite extraordinary. One can see her small bed and toys, dolls, paintbrushes, folk-art skeletons, kitchen plates and embroidered shawls. I felt very nurtured by the high thick walls, the flat colours, the warm sun, the ancient humming relics, the simple and beautiful handmade objects, the contrasting textures and vivid colours of her clothing. It was as though her desperate craving for a sustaining life force allowed her to select only the most potent of objects and people to surround her.
The watermelon painting shown above was her last painting. She wrote the inscription 8 days before she died, Viva la Vida.
Reina la sandia. Viva la Vida.