REBEL YELL: Portrait of a Dangerous Mind, Revolutionary Mexican Artist Frida Kahlo

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Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico City on July 6, 1907, just three years prior to the start of the Mexican Revolution, one of the most complex and violent conflicts in Mexico’s history. This event shaped her political views and deeply impacted her life and work, to the point that around 1922 she began to tell people her birth year was 1910 to align with the start of the revolution:


Frida Kahlo painted her life story in 55 small but powerful self-portraits, like Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938, on view in Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Gallery. She exposed her life honestly through her paintings, but her portraits went beyond documentation of her own biography. A passionate nationalist who advocated for the revolution of Mexico and supported the peasants and workers who were oppressed by the ruling elite, she deftly wove a political thread through her work. Her commitment to reclaiming pre-Columbian traditions and purging the effects of colonization in Mexico was expressed in her dedication to indigenismo (a political, intellectual, and artistic movement that celebrated indigenous peoples in Mexico). These principles can most notably be seen in her fashion and in the themes and compositions of her paintings that evoke ancient Mexican cultures and comment on contemporary politics.


Frida Kahlo’s Background

Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico City on July 6, 1907, just three years prior to the start of the Mexican Revolution, one of the most complex and violent conflicts in Mexico’s history. This event shaped her political views and deeply impacted her life and work, to the point that around 1922 she began to tell people her birth year was 1910 to align with the start of the revolution.

Her life and marriage to Diego Rivera has been romanticized in text and film, but even without a little Hollywood magic, her life story reads like a movie script. She best described this in a 1951 interview in the Mexico City newspaper Novedades, saying “I suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar knocked me down … the other accident is Diego.”

Kahlo’s Bond with Nature

In Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938 Frida Kahlo does not reference the trolley accident or Diego; instead, she paints her portrait with subtle references to her indigenismo politics. Stylistic links in the painting highlight her indigenous religious beliefs in the cyclical connection between human beings and the natural world. These philosophies are seen in the verdant leaves and tall yucca with wispy white hairs behind her that allude to the flora of her homeland and her belief that all life contributes to a single flow.

Flora and fauna were vitally important to her pre-Columbian ancestors and during her life this precious resource was cultivated by the oppressed indigenous population she championed. She connects herself to the natural world by echoing the hairs on the vegetation and monkey in her own tresses, styled in her signature indigenous fashion. This bond with nature is reinforced by the curves of her monkey’s arm that embrace her neck, the root-like ribbon slung around the monkey (which she used as a symbol for life-lines), the bone-like necklace Frida wears, and the green ribbon woven so skillfully into her hair that she becomes a part of the leaves.

Frida explained her pride in Mexico and her desire to change the political situation through her art in a letter to Antonio Rodriguez in 1952. She wrote, “I wish to be worthy, with my paintings, of the people to whom I belong and to the ideas which strengthen me.”

Update: Some of the images referred to in this blog post have been removed following the close of Modern Masters at the Denver Art Museum. Please visit the Albright-Knox Art Gallery Collection search page to find the related artworks. This appeared on this post while the exhibition was open:

Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907-1954). Self Portrait with Monkey, 1938. Oil on Masonite. 16 x 12 inches (40.6 x 30.5 cm). Collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Bequest of A. Conger Goodyear, 1966. © 2013 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jesse Laird Ortega is a research assistant in the modern and contemporary department at the Denver Art Museum. Jesse has a masters in art history from the University of Denver and wrote her thesis on the portrayal of La Malinche in the post-conquest manuscript, El Lienzo de Tlaxcala. Jesse has been at the DAM since 2011 and her favorite artworks on view are the Moche portrait head vessels in the pre-Columbian study galleries and Brad Kahlhamer’s Eagle Claws.


Frida Kahlo’s secret revenge affair with Leon Trotsky

To get back at her much older husband for his most recent infidelity, Frida Kahlo’s odd choice of a lover was their new housemate, the even older and also married Leon Trotsky. It is a plot out of a French farce, soap opera, proper high-brow opera, or an episode of The Jerry Springer Show if he had Marxist Revolutionary Week.

The exiled 58-year-old Leon Trotsky and his second wife Natalia Sedova arrived in Tampico, Mexico on a heavily guarded Norwegian oil tanker on January 9, 1937. The muralist and dedicated Trotskyite Diego Rivera had lobbied the Mexican government to offer Trotsky political asylum. Diego, ill and hospitalized, could not be at the port to meet the Trotskys. Instead his young wife, surrealist artist Frida Kahlo, was at the dock with journalists, Communist Party members, and government officials. She accompanied the couple back to Coyoacán and the home she shared with Diego, La Casa Azul (The Blue House), where the Trotskys lived heavily protected and catered to for two years.

Still angry and hurt from discovering Diego’s affair with her beautiful younger sister Cristina, Frida lost no time in openly flirting with Trotsky, who must have been flattered as hell at the attention. That spring their emotional affair grew into a physical one. Some of Frida and Trotsky’s clandestine meetings took place at Cristina’s house, which Diego had probably bought for her, along with a suite of red leather furniture. Frida and and Trotsky spoke English in front of their spouses, whose grasp of the language was paltry to non-existent, in Natalia’s case. He sneaked love letters to Frida between the pages of books he loaned to her.

Rivera was, by all accounts, an unrepentant philanderer with the hypocritical tendency to randomly fly into jealous rage when Frida behaved similarly with other men during their stormy marriage. (Her affairs with women, like Josephine Baker, didn’t bother him.) Stephanie Mencimer wrote in Washington Monthly, “Legend has it that for American women traveling to Mexico, having sex with Rivera was considered as essential as visiting Tenochtitlan.”

Diego and Natalia eventually discovered the dalliance, which seems to have been over by July 1937. Surprisingly he allowed Trotsky to continue to live at La Casa Azul instead of coming after him with a gun. There was enough of a political falling-out between the two men, not over infidelity but over Trotskyism, to prompt the revolutionary and his wife to move out of La Casa Azul and into a nearby house on Avenida Viena in early 1939. He left behind the self-portrait she had dedicated to him, “Between the Curtains.” In the painting she is holding a document that says, “To Trotsky with great affection, I dedicate this painting November 7, 1937. Frida Kahlo, in San Angel, Mexico.” November 7th was Trotsky’s birthday as well as the Gregorian calendar anniversary of the October Revolution.

Frida and Trostky remained friends until his assassination by Ramón Mercader on Stalin’s orders the following year. She was a suspect in the murder and held by police for questioning for two days.

No passionate missives between the unlikely lovers survive. According to biographer Bertrande M. Patenaude, author of Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary, at the end of their brief relationship Trotsky asked Frida to return all his love letters so he could burn them.

Frida & Diego & Natalia & Leon: Rare home movie footage from 1938 of the two couples in Coyocoán, Mexico:

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