As Murray Whyte
wrote in his Globe review of “Frida Kahlo and Arte Popular” at the Museum of Fine Arts (through June 16), Frida Kahlo the myth has nearly eclipsed Frida Kahlo the artist. The excellent MFA show reveals her roots in Mexican folk art, but Casa Azul reveals the woman herself in the process of becoming a pop culture icon.
Even the entry to the house is fraught with symbolism. Visitors pass through a narrow corridor where grotesque papier mâché figures dangle overhead, then emerge into a glorious garden courtyard. Pain may have been Kahlo’s constant companion after a 1925 bus accident crushed her pelvis and spine, but she also wrote of how the tranquility of her garden gave her joy and happiness. She and Rivera were at the center of a lively social and political scene that often used Casa Azul as its backdrop.
Visitors are introduced to Kahlo in small gallery rooms hung with a few of her paintings and with portraits of her created by other artists. A 1933 photograph by Lucienne Bloch shows a young Kahlo striking a flirtatious pose, a string of beads dangling from her lips. It’s a hint at the vivacious life she lived here.
Ex-voto paintings line several walls in the ground-level public part of the house. Kahlo was fascinated with these naive entreaties beseeching a saint for aid or deliverance. Both Kahlo and Rivera were avid collectors of traditional Mexican folk art. The kitchen is a marvel of colorful tiles, hand-carved wooden utensils, and boldly painted Mexican pottery. Dining room shelves display more of the couple’s acquisitions.
On the upper level, Kahlo was able to shed her public persona. Much of the space is dedicated to her studio, where her art supplies are laid out on wooden tables. Her wheelchair sits before an easel holding an unfinished still life.
While the studio is Kahlo in action, two bedrooms show her at rest. The day bedroom, closer to the studio, holds a narrow canopy bed where Kahlo’s death mask is shrouded in a shawl. Fantastical figures — a flying fox, a winged toad, and an articulated skeleton — dangle from the canopy. The surreal was never far away in Kahlo’s life. Or in her death. The night bedroom feels especially intimate. Here a collection of butterflies given to her by sculptor Isamu Noguchi hangs above the bed. On her dressing table, her ashes rest in a prehispanic urn shaped like a toad — her nickname for Rivera.
During their life together, Diego Rivera towered over Frida Kahlo, both literally and figuratively. He stood nearly a foot taller and outweighed her by nearly 200 pounds. When they met, he was already Mexico’s most prominent painter and she had only dabbled with brushes. Yet Kahlo’s posthumous celebrity has dwarfed Rivera’s fame.
If you have any doubts, simply consider the long lines at the Kahlo museum versus the small groups at the Diego Rivera studio less than three miles away in the San Ángel neighborhood. Designed by the couple’s artist friend Juan O’Gorman, the compound includes O’Gorman’s own 1929 house, the main studio that Rivera occupied from 1934 until his death in 1957, and a third innovative building that was nominally Kahlo’s studio. Her occupancy here was . . . intermittent. Spats over Rivera’s philandering and a temporary split in the marriage meant that she usually preferred the familiar and familial confines of Casa Azul.
In its own way, this daring example of Modernist architecture is as much a show stopper as Casa Azul. The neighbors in their conventional bourgeois homes were no doubt horrified by the glass, steel, and concrete structures with spiraling external staircases. The focal point of the Rivera building is the soaring studio where a wall of windows provides shadowless north light. The dramatic space is filled with giant papier mâché Judases that are usually burned in Holy Saturday festivals. Rivera’s collection of prehispanic art fills many shelves. A headless mannequin of Rivera stands before an easel, brush poised in midair. Elsewhere in the studio, a casting of Rivera’s painting hand and his death mask create the sense that the artist has been dismembered. Talk about surreal.
Kahlo and Rivera took inspiration from Mexican folk art, or “arte popular,” as the MFA properly puts it in the current exhibition. The charm of these pieces is hard to resist, and most of the folk art traditions from their era are still alive and well. Visitors to the San Ángel studio on a Saturday are within walking distance of Bazaar Sábado, one of Mexico City’s biggest handcrafts and folk art markets. Mariachi street musicians provide the soundtrack while vendors sell weavings, pottery, jewelry, elaborate tree of life sculptures, wood carvings, musical instruments, and clothing with colorful embroidery.
Every day, more than 350 vendors from across Mexico sell similar wares in the Mercado de Artesanías La Ciudadela, near Metro Balderas south of the Alameda. Amid the statues of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the grinning skulls of Day of the Dead “Catrinas,” and the ubiquitous jaguars, another stylized image stands out. Emblazoned on brass compact mirrors, painted ceramics, and tote bags of all sizes are a dozen variations of a severe woman with her hair up and wearing a traditional rebozo. It is the folk art transfiguration of none other than Frida Kahlo.
IF YOU GO . . .
Prices calculated at an exchange rate of 19 pesos to 1 US dollar
Museo Frida Kahlo
Calle Londres 247, Coyoacán; (011-52) 55-5554-5999;