Editorial Feature

The Elephant and The Dove: A look at Frida and Diego’s Relationship

Javier Aranda Luna explores the impact Frida’s marriage had on her work

“There have been two great accidents in my life,” Frida Kahlo once wrote in her notebook: the terrible crash that left her "broken" and the time she met Diego Rivera, who quite literally became the love of her life.

She first set eyes on him in 1922 when Diego was painting the mural "La Creación" at the Simón Bolívar Amphitheater in a Mexico City senior high school. She was one of the first women to study at the legendary San Ildefonso campus.

Seeing Diego paint the huge fresco was a revelation. Frida was just 15 years old and seeing a 36-year-old Diego paint the huge fresco was a revelation. She began watching him paint and Diego would talk about avant-garde Paris, his artist friends Modigliani, Picasso, Breton and the horrors of war.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in the studio of Ralph Stockdale, San Francisco (From the collection of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution) 

Diego and Frida were re-introduced in 1928 by their mutual friend, Italian photographer Tina Modotti, who had arrived in Mexico with Edward Weston in 1923.

Both Tina and Frida soon became Rivera's muses. Tina was immortalised in murals as 'The Sleeping Earth', while Frida was portrayed as a communist militant on the walls of the Ministry of Public Education. A year after later, Frida and Diego got married.

By this time, Frida had started painting, mostly self-portraits created while she recovered from her accident. She showed them to Diego and asked him what he thought, Diego said, “You have talent,” and added, “You must continue to paint”. This encouragement led to Frida fully throwing herself into her art and making it her career.

Their life between 1930 and 1934 was particularly intense. They travelled to the United States, where Diego painted a mural at the Pacific Stock Exchange Luncheon Club and the San Francisco Art Institute. There, Frida suffered her first miscarriage - one of three - in 1930. Two years later, she went through the second, which is depicted in “Henry Ford Hospital”.

Diego was gaining more attention and becoming busier in the United States. He travelled to Detroit and then on to New York to paint an ambitious mural at the Rockefeller Center, which was a great work of art but also too provocative. It portrayed abstemious and puritanical patrons drinking alongside society women, as well as including an immense face of Lenin. The owners of Rockefeller Center tore down the mural.

Henry Ford Hospital by Frida Kahlo, 1932 (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)

Frida would come and go and, on one of her sojourns in New York while Diego was working on the Rockefeller Center mural, she had an affair with the photographer Nicolas Murray, author of some of the iconic portraits of the painter.

Before Diego, Frida would dress quite conventionally. With him and his monoliths of stone and clay, the number of handmade dresses multiplied.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Coyoacán, Mexico by Florence Arquin (From the collection of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

The open relationship between Diego and Frida that had survived other affairs broke up when Frida found out about Diego's romance with her sister Cristina. Frida’s painting, “A Few Small Nips”, was painted just a year after she found out and alludes to that time with black humor. This was one of many paintings Frida created in order to process her feelings about Diego and their relationship.

If Frida endured a Lupe Marin, Rivera’s previous wife, who on the day of her wedding lifted up her dress and shouted "Diego changed me for these legs", showing her infection with polio, Diego endured Frida's romance with Trotsky, the revolutionary leader he had brought to Mexico to prevent him being killed by Stalin.

A Few Small Nips by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)

If the true biography of an artist is in their work, the love between Frida and Diego was palpable. For Frida, Diego almost became the son she never had. For Diego, he saw Frida as the young revolutionary, the painter who watched the world, the mother who protected him and knew the secret of yin and yang.

It is impossible to imagine Diego without Frida, who appeared in some of his main murals, such as the famous "Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central". Impossible to imagine the pictorial production of Frida without her son-Diego, who could see with his third eye. If Frida painted her miscarried fetuses in several of her paintings, Diego also painted a fetus in one of his murals in Detroit. The works of both artists feature pyramids and Mexican hairless dogs, the past and the present.

Diego Rivera painting "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park" (From the collection of Colección y Archivo de Fundación Televisa)

More than that though, Diego was her other half, her dream – at various points in their relationship she idolized him, which can be seen in these rather romantic depictions of her husband in “Frieda and Diego Rivera” in 1931, which is considered to be a wedding portrait and “Diego and I” a double portrait of herself and Diego merged into one.

Frieda and Diego Rivera by Frida Kahlo (From the collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

Frida Kahlo's last public appearance was on Friday 2 July, 1954 at a march for the Guatemalan people and against the military coup that overthrew President Jacobo Arbenz. In a photograph from that day Frida sits in a wheelchair pushed by Diego, and holds her fist high. With her other hand she waves a banner for peace and is surrounded by people. Despite her beauty, she looks emaciated and only the strength of her eyes seems to hold her. Her head is covered with a scarf. She still has the pneumonia she caught a month ago.

Ten days later, prostrate in her bed, with an amputated leg and the ceaseless throbbing pain in her spine, she gave Diego Rivera the ring that he had bought her for their 25th wedding anniversary. She gave it to him because she thought her passing was imminent. Frida died the next day on 13 July, 1954.

Frida Kahlo, Juan O'Gorman and Diego Rivera, in the last photograph of Frida, during a demonstration against the president of Guatemala, 1954 (From the collection of Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo) 

After her death, Diego formed a trust to turn her house, the famous Casa Azul (Blue House), into a museum to commemorate the love of his life. The artist asked the poet Carlos Pellicer to develop the museography; gathered Frida’s clothes, letters, books, corsets and some of her medicines, as well as some of his own belongings and sealed them in the bathroom. He told the trust that this makeshift storeroom could only be opened 15 years after the painter’s death. In reality, her belongings gathered dust until 2004, 47 years after Diego’s own death.

The opening up of the Blue House bathroom on the centenary of Frida’s death revealed more than a hundred unseen drawings by Frida and a further hundred by Diego, as well as letters and notebooks from both artists. This final act of preservation from Diego meant part of their history remained hidden so long, we’re still piecing together their partnership today.

Frida's House, La Casa Azul (From the collection of Colección y Archivo de Fundación Televisa)
Frida Kahlo and Diego River with dog by Florence Arquin (From the collection of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Although Frida was known in the artistic and cultural world (Picasso, Duchamp, Breton had praised her), she was a painter for the happy few. Diego sought to transcend that circle, which was valuable but small, because he was sure that his life partner had been working on "a series of masterpieces without precedent in the history of art."

Paintings that, for the muralist, "extolled the feminine characteristics of resistance, honesty, authenticity, cruelty and suffering. Never before had a woman depicted on canvas such agonized poetry as Frida did”.
Their estrangements, break-ups and affairs were not greater than their unconventional love beyond death.

Frida Kahlo didn’t succumb to the influence or immense presence of Diego Rivera, while he survived the iconic image of the lay saint who adopted Frida as one of his most emblematic images. But for both of them, their painting expressed more than their story. For her, the only influence on her paintings was pain until it became a flower of steel, whereas he had a great ability to synthesize complex historical processes with powerful images.

Frida and Diego at lunch in Coyoacán by Emmy Lou Packard (From the collection of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution) 
Words by Javier Aranda Luna
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