Dispatch: Frida Day in Mexico City
All photos by David Cogswell
Friday was Frida Day on Tia Stephanie’s Art, Culture and Cuisine of Mexico City tour. The day began with a visit to the Frida Kahlo Museum.
Actually, every day is Frida Day in Mexico City these days. The growth of the international fame of the Mexican painter over the last 30 years is astonishing. She has become an international icon, a figure loved passionately by millions of people.
Her fame has eclipsed that of her larger-than-life husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, who was always by far the more celebrated figure during her lifetime. And she has become a beacon drawing visitors to Mexico City from around the world.
Frida died in 1954 and at the time she was known more than anything else as Diego Rivera’s wife. She would no doubt be surprised at how much her legend has grown.
There has been a huge upsurge in interest in Frida since the 1980s. The movie “Frida,” produced by and starring the Mexican actress Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor, helped to spread Frida’s story to a mass audience.
Madonna bought one of Frida’s paintings for $5.6 million, which set a record for Latin American painters in the cost of their work. But these things are reflections of Frida’s rising fame as much as they are causes of it.
Frida’s life and art have touched many people deeply. Part of what moves people so deeply is no doubt the fact that she suffered greatly for practically her entire life, but still managed to live her life with great flair, accomplishing great things.
Her sufferings began early in life. She contracted polio when she was 6 years old. She was bedridden for nine months, and as a result one of her legs was shorter than the other, causing her to limp. When she tried out for a school play, the instructor said, “She’ll never act. She walks like she has a peg leg.” Kids picked up on it and the nickname “Peg Leg” stuck and tormented her.
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When she was 18 years old she was riding on a bus when it collided with a streetcar. Frida was thrown from the bus and impaled on a steel handrail, which went through her body exiting at her pelvis. Her spine was broken in three places, her leg broken in 11, her pelvis broken in three places and her foot crushed. Her chances of survival were not good and total recovery was out of the question. She was bedridden for two years. It was during that time that she started painting.
Working with a special easel that she could use in bed and a mirror she began to paint self-portraits, of which she painted many throughout her life, depicting her inner spiritual life as it went through changes. The French surrealist Andre Breton called her paintings “a ribbon around a bomb.”
There are many other aspects of her legend that have made her an icon, but underlying it all was her physical suffering, which was a huge part of her life and who she was.
In Mexico City, Frida’s image is ubiquitous. Her portraits and her paintings are used to sell every imaginable kind of item, from clothing to coasters to mugs to posters, anything with a surface.
Stephanie Scheiderman, owner of Tia Stephanie Tours, took our group of two to the museum early in the morning just as it was opening. There was already a crowd gathering and the museum officials were just letting in a few people by special arrangement. Luckily we were among those who were let in.
By the time we left a couple of hours later the place was mobbed. There was a crowd in front of the door and a long line running around the corner and out of sight. Getting into the museum reminded me of trying to get into the Vatican museum.
What is now the Frida Kahlo museum is the house where Frida grew up, where she died, and where her ashes are kept. It’s hard to imagine a place that radiates a more concentrated presence of a deceased person.
The house was called Casa Azul, or the Blue House, because when Frida and her husband Diego moved into her childhood home they changed it from its traditional white to a bright blue. Some of the doors are bright green and some of the floors, walls and shelves are as bright as yellow gets.
The first five rooms of the house are galleries of Frida’s paintings, photographs and memorabilia, with a few Diego paintings thrown in. The rest of the house is maintained the way it was when Frida and Diego lived there.
There is a gift shop and a coffee shop on the grounds and the inner courtyard is set up with tables and chairs. Anyone who knows Frida and her work will get the most concentrated imaginable dose of her essence by visiting the house. It’s an experience that will not be forgotten.
Frida’s story, from its suffering to its triumph, the passionate but tumultuous romantic relationship with Diego and their participation in some of the most momentous events of the times, all come to life when you walk through the house.
On the terrace there is a video screen that plays continuously a documentary film about Frida’s life, which is in itself informative and moving and helps to amplify the experience of the house itself.
The next day, Saturday, was also a Frida day for us, as we visited the Diego-Frida studio in the San Angel district of Mexico City. The studio was designed to the couple’s specifications by the architect Juan O’Gorman, and it consists of two separate buildings joined by a bridge connecting the roofs.
The two buildings were work studios, but they did have sleeping rooms. The design is analogous to the relationship of Diego and Frida, which was passionate and close, but each also had strong individual existences.
The experience of visiting the house and the studio were among the most enriching, inspiring and moving travel experiences I can remember ever having. It was probably the highlight of my entire experience in Mexico City. It opened up a new world to me and many new avenues of inquiry that I will be eagerly exploring in the coming days and years.
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I’m deeply grateful to have been able to have the experience, and the close encounter with Frida makes me more appreciative than ever of the great privilege of life and health.
In her last days, as her health was declining inexorably toward the end, she produced her last painting, which is on display at the house. In spite of a lifetime of physical suffering that was then building to a crescendo, she still produced an image from which the joy of life poured forth.
It pictures watermelons sliced open showing their bright pink insides and on one of them is written what could be Frida’s lifelong motto: “Viva la Vida.” Live life.
Though she was in pain nearly every day of her life, she lived life as fully as anyone ever could, from beginning to end.
“I want to live,” she said, near the end. “In spite of all this, life is worth living.”
Today her example is a source of great inspiration to millions. It was a deeply moving experience to get close to her spirit in that house.
More by David Cogswell
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