Discover Frida through portraits by the renowned Colombian photographer Leo Matiz.
Colombian artist Leo Matiz (1917–98) arrived in Mexico City at the age of 24, having traveled on foot from Panama. That journey prepared him for life in the big city, where everything seemed to be happening. Just a few months after arriving in old Tenochtitlan, the Colombian Embassy invited him to take part in a collective exhibition at the Palace of Fine Arts—the great temple of Mexican art—which had opened 7 years prior.
That same year, Leo found his way into the artistic circles of the period, led by the three great mural painters: José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949), Diego Rivera (1886–1957), and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974). He forged friendships with them, based on his esthetic passions and his own work as a photographer. He would remember "the turbulent life of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (1907–54)" throughout his life.
Leo Matiz was an artist who never waited around for beauty to come and find him. He went looking for it with his camera, wherever it was—whether in the face of a child lost on a city street, the mystical gesture of a desert woman, or sharing a sunset with Frida Kahlo. He lived through a period of incomparable intensity and excitement. "I lived Mexico giddily, surrendered to the sensuality of the moment. I received recognition, but I was never fully aware that what I was doing was important. I was always errant and unstable, even in friendship."
"My memories of Mexico are in black and white. I do not dream in color. Color are gone from my life. Now everything is white and ivory. Maybe this gloom is a foreshadower of death."
Leo Matiz left Mexico in 1947, after facing Siqueiros for having denied his credit as a photographer in an exhibition at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Seven years later, Frida passed away. In 1996, Leo went back to the house of Coyoacán, where they lived unforgettable moments, with Diego and without him. Two years later Leo died. Let this be the tribute to that endearing friendship that endures in time, thanks to Art.
The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset described portraits as "the radical principle of painting." This definition can be applied to the work of Frida Kahlo, whose recurring use of the self-portrait not only establishes her visual personality, but also allows a stark glimpse of her obsessions. Using his camera as his brush, and thanks to his long friendship with the Mexican artist, the Colombian managed to create portraits as intimate as they were unique, in which Frida seems happy to surrender to his lens. Whether in a garden in Xochimilco or at her home in Coyoacán, Kahlo is aware of Matiz's caliber.
"When I arrived in Mexico in 1941 these two artists had consolidated, among the creative and frenetic atmosphere of their lives, the indelible image of their own legend. I was invited to the house museum in Coyoacán many times," recalls Leo Matiz in his biography The Metaphor of the Eye, written by Miguel Ángel Flórez. "On one of those visits I took photographs that emerged in the kitchen in Talavera, of Frida walking unguardedly around her front yard, buying fabrics from street vendors, or of Diego's concentration while looking at a sketch of a mural."
Are Frida and Diego, perhaps, two sides of the same coin? His murals depict the history of a Mexico plundered and stripped bare. She portrays a Mexico with a wounded soul. It is a Mexico of marginalization, of women and abortions, of indigenous and Catholic traditions; a Mexico full of pain. She is the irreplaceable woman; the eccentric, bisexual woman; the scandalous, revolutionary woman. The incomparable woman who we call Frida Kahlo is broken: heartbroken on the inside, just like Mexico.
"When I look at these images, taken 50 years ago, I see Frida's penetrating gaze and Diego's severe expression, and I appreciate them as powerful and suggestive sparks that illuminate the fragile veil of my memory. I will die content, believing that nobody will ever eclipse what I lived through in Mexico. I believe that I lived through the best century that life has had to offer. I could not find anything, anywhere in the world, similar to what I discovered and loved in that country. No one could forget its transparent, white light, its gray and blue sunsets, experienced in that bustling city of 5 million inhabitants."
The artist, born in Aracataca, has produced some of the best portraits of the painter. One in particular, from the same series as the students, depicts Frida almost like a sculpture, wearing a traditional dress and a shawl—essential elements of her personal iconography. From a low angle, her face is bathed in light and shade, her gaze contemplates infinity, and she wears a flower headdress on her head.
In the book, Frida Maestra: a Reunion with the Fridos, Magdalena Zavala describes: "La Rosita was a bar close to the Blue House, located on the corner of the streets Aguayo and Londres. At the first opportunity, Frida convinced the owner to allow a group of first-generation students to paint the exterior walls. At this stage, the students organized themselves to choose the theme of the walls. Frida asked them to come up with various proposals, and they all agreed on those put forward by Erasmo Vázquez Landecci, Guillermo Monroy, and Arturo Estrada. The painting itself was a collective work, and all the students participated."
It is his series of portraits of Frida Kahlo, in which the photographer's lens became a prism, that transformed this Mexican icon into a familiar, intimate, and earthly individual. Matiz's photography reveals Frida's sweet, even coquettish, side: an aspect of the artist's character that could only have been captured as a result of the familiarity between her and the photographer.
Frida's house was a universe of its own. Its doors were always open to her friends and lovers. There was always food, tequila, and good conversation to be had. Leo even captures her alone— the silence that inspires her; her thoughts; her inner world. Maybe it was because he was so used to changing his home; his habitat—his world. "I have lived in despair, with a constant desire to always be changing. I lived in one building and moved between different apartments within it. I sought solitude and fled from people and things, always trying to find places where nobody else had been, or to return to places I had previously left."
Leo Matiz's vision has given us Frida Kahlo's enduring gaze: alive, radiant, and inquisitive. Within the brevity of his prints, the legendary image of the Mexican artist invites us to share an observation of the meeting of two sensibilities who consumed Mexico and that whole period, as a source of existential freedom and artistic creation. Full of suggestion, charmingly intriguing and nostalgic, painstaking in their composition, and daring in their expert use of contrast between light and shade, Leo Matiz's images fix Frida Kahlo's imperishable spirit and face in the secret corners of our memory.
Fundación Leo Matiz
Miguel Ángel Flórez Góngora y Juan Carlos Ensuncho Barcena
Estefanny Esquivel Magdaleno y Arturo Ávila Cano
Nadia Anahí García