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Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera:

from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection 25 Jun – 23 Oct 2016

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Image: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art © The Estate of Martin Munkacsi, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery
Martin Munkacsi, 'Diego and Frida', 1934

When Diego Rivera married his daughter Frida Kahlo, her father declared it the unlikely ‘union of an elephant and a dove’.

Diego was twenty years older than Frida, and already one of the major figures in the emerging modern art of Mexico. He was also over six foot tall and heavy set.

Frida was a smallish, if feisty, 22 year old, just emerging from the traumatic accident that had changed her life.

‘I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life. And she would continue to be, up to the moment she died …’

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Image: Courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art, Inc © 1995 Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona Foundation
Lola Alvarez Bravo, 'Frida Kahlo', c1940s

Frida’s right leg and foot were permanently damaged by polio at the age of six, but worse was to come.

Coming home from school with her boyfriend, aged only 18, Frida’s bus was hit by a streetcar. She was dreadfully hurt: her spine was broken in several places and her back, ribs, collarbone, left shoulder and right leg were all fractured.

A metal handrail smashed her pelvis, piercing her belly and womb before exiting. She found out while still in hospital that she might never be able to bear children.

From this point on, Frida’s life would be marked by medical interventions and constant physical pain.

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Image: Courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art, Inc © Juan Guzmán
Juan Guzmán, 'Frida and Diego by mural 'The nightmare of war, dream of peace' in the Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico', 1952

Diego and Frida first met around 1922 when he was painting his first mural, Creation, in the Simón Bolívar Amphitheatre at her school, the prestigious National Preparatory School.

As a mischievous member of the school’s resident rebellious political group, Los Cachuchas, she used to tease him mercilessly. She would call out to him up his ladder, even putting soap on the rungs trying to make him slip.

Frida had quite a crush on the charismatic and womanising Diego – she even told her friends she would one day have his baby.

Even then, Diego saw in Frida an ‘unusual dignity and self-assurance, and there was a strange fire in her eyes’.

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Image: Courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art, Inc
Photographer unknown, 'Diego observing Frida paint 'Self-portrait on the borderline', Detroit', 1932

It’s often said Diego and Frida met again at a 1928 party hosted by the Italian photographer Tina Modotti, a friend of Frida’s and a former lover of Diego’s.

But in his memoirs, Diego said they met again when Frida started coming and sitting for hours watching him paint at the Ministry of Education. He didn’t realise this was the girl who had teased him years before.

One day Frida invited Diego to her home, asking him for a truthful critique of her own work. Diego told her:

‘In my opinion, no matter how difficult it is for you, you must continue to paint.’

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Image: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art © Lucienne Bloch, Courtesy Old Sage Studios
Lucienne Bloch, 'Frida at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel', 1933

Diego described how, with Frida ‘parading’ her paintings in front of him in her room at Casa Azul, her paintings, ‘her room, her sparkling presence, filled me with a wonderful joy’.

Later Diego recalled that this was the very moment ‘this girl’ would start to have an impact on him:

‘I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life. And she would continue to be, up to the moment she died …’

A few days after his first visit, he kissed her.

Before long, Diego began courting Frida, coming to Casa Azul on Sundays.

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Image: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art © 2016 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Diego Rivera Museums Trust, Mexico DF
Diego Rivera, 'Nude (Frida Kahlo)', 1930

While her mother thought Diego unsuitable, Frida’s father warned Diego about her, advising that his favourite daughter was a ‘devil’. Clearly neither were to be warned off.

In 1929, they were married in a modest civil ceremony that didn’t quite match their passionately theatrical natures.

Their friend the art historian Luís Cardoza y Aragón would later compare them to two volcanoes: ‘Diego and Frida were part of the spiritual landscape of Mexico, like Popocatépetl [the Smoking Mountain] and lztaccíhuatl [the Sleeping Woman] in the valley of Anáhuac.’

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Image: Courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art, Inc © Guillermo Zamora
Guillermo Zamora, 'Frida and Diego, Coyoacán', 1937

After their wedding, the couple moved into an apartment before, in 1931, engaging the pioneering modernist Juan O’Gorman to design them a house and studio in San Ángel.

The double house was a ‘his and hers’ of two minimal blocks: the large dark pink block was Diego’s studio, the smaller bright blue house, linked by a bridge, was Frida’s.

Later, though Diego kept San Ángel as his studio, the couple moved into Casa Azul. One of the first things Frida did in fact was to paint it the same bright cobalt blue that O’Gorman had used, and that gave her parents’ house its new name and new identity.

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Image: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art © 2016 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico DF
Diego Rivera, 'Sunflowers', 1943

Frida and Diego’s marriage was by no means the first serious relationship for either of them.

In Europe Diego had a long-term relationship with Russian émigré artist Angelina Beloff. They had a son, Diego Jr., who died only 18 months old.

While still with Beloff, Diego had a liaison with the cubist Marevna Vorobyev-Stebelska. They had a daughter, Marika.

Just after he got back from Europe, Diego married Guadalupe (Lupe) Marín. They had two children, Guadalupe and Ruth.

Though Frida and Lupe had a volatile relationship, she welcomed Diego’s ex-wife and children into their home, and stories of their feasts and celebrations often included the children.

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Image: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman of Mexican Art © 2016 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico DF
Frida Kahlo, 'Self-portrait with bed (Me and my doll)', 1937

Frida had long known that, because of her smashed pelvis, it was unlikely she would ever carry a baby to term.

She had always wanted a child with Diego and was overjoyed in 1930 to discover she was pregnant. But with Frida’s health at risk, the pregnancy was terminated.

In the US a year later, with Diego busy working, Frida miscarried for a second time. She was admitted, devastated, to the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

Her statement, ‘Diego is everything: my child, my lover, my universe’, carries with it the sadness of knowing, as she did by the mid-30s, that they will never have a child together.

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Image: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art © 2016 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico DF
Frida Kahlo, 'Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana)', 1943

‘I love you more than my own skin … Love me a little. I adore you’

Frida worshipped Diego, and she knew up front what she was getting into marrying a well-known womaniser.

Diego’s friend Dr. Eloesser – the art collector surgeon who would become Frida’s most trusted confidante – once pronounced Diego ‘unfit for fidelity’.

As Frida said: ‘Being the wife of Diego is the most marvellous thing in the world … I let him play matrimony with other women. Diego is not anybody’s husband and never will be, but he is a great comrade.’

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Image: The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of Mexican Art © 2016 Banco de Mexico Diego Rivera Diego Rivera Museums Trust, Mexico DF
Diego Rivera, 'Portrait of Cristina Kahlo', 1934

‘I have suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down … the other accident is Diego.’

Though Frida always knew she could not control Diego, his philandering went too far in 1935 when he had an affair with her sister Cristina. This was the final straw; Frida left Diego and set herself up her own apartment.

But she was having, and would have, plenty of affairs of her own. Frida had a decade-long affair with the photographer Nikolas Muray – who would take some of the most beautiful images of her – and of course with Leon Trotsky, when he sought refuge with his wife at Casa Azul.

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Image: Courtesy of Throckmorton Fine Art © Guillermo Davila
Guillermo Davila, 'Frida', 1929

Diego’s lovers included the film stars Paulette Goddard, Delores Del Rio and Maria Félix.

Frida’s lovers were of both sexes. She had affairs with singer Chavela Vargas, painter Georgia O’Keefe, and jazz singer and performer Josephine Baker.

While Diego turned a blind eye to Frida’s female lovers, he would fly into a jealous rage over any relationship with a man. (Rumour has it that one of her lovers, the sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, climbed an orange tree – still growing in Casa Azul today – to escape Diego’s gun-wielding wrath.)

And when Diego broke with Trotsky, he certainly didn’t do so over ideological grounds alone …

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