Editorial Feature

What Can We Learn About Frida Kahlo From Reading Her Letters?

Jaime Moreno Villarreal discusses the secrets the artist revealed in her personal letters 

When Frida was a little girl, just one tram line connected the southern village of Coyoacán, where she lived with her parents and sisters, to Mexico City. At the Kahlo house, there was no car and no telephone. To receive a telephone call, Frida had to go at an agreed time to the nearby Pinzón dairy, where they had a telephone. If she got there a few minutes late, she missed the call.

For a teenager as lively as she was, sending letters became an extremely useful way of keeping in touch with her classmates at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (National Preparatory High School), especially after the accident which left her bedridden for months at home.

As her convalescence drew out, Frida started to feel isolated and neglected by her friends, to whom she wrote letters that often went unanswered. She used this discourse to forge a very distinctive conversational style of writing, imagining exchanges of close camaraderie with her "cuatezones" (slang for friends), full of colorful descriptions and colloquial phrases. Indeed, before deciding to become a painter, Frida was forging a literary style that had a great expressive force, which she continued to develop throughout her life.

Letter from Frida Kahlo to Alejandro Gómez Arias, 1925 (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)
Letter from Frida Kahlo to Alejandro Goómex Arias, 1938 (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)

Not long after she married Diego Rivera in 1929, the couple moved to San Francisco, California. The young bride of 23 then maintained a constant correspondence with her mother. These letters gave her mother daily updates, saw her ask for news on the family and also express her concerns as a newlywed, all the while maintaining a chatty, gossipy tone.

These letters reveal a Frida who felt neglected again, this time by her husband: Diego refused to have children and worked morning, noon, and night, leaving her on her own. She got bored when meeting people, found it difficult to communicate in English, and preferred to paint, which she was only able to do for short spells.

There were administrative difficulties too, as only Diego brought in any income. Frida, who was a thrifty woman, did as much as she could to send a little money to her parents, but she did not like always having to ask her husband for money. She avoids explicitly saying so in her letters, but reading between the lines reveals the concern that Rivera's infidelities caused her, make her feel more isolated.

Letter from Matilde Calderón de Kahlo to her daughter Frida Kahlo, 1932 (From the collection of National Museum of Women in the Arts)
Letter from Frida Kahlo to her mother Matilde Calderón de Kahlo, 1930 (From the collection of National Museum of Women in the Arts)

Frida began to seek solace in others. During her time in San Francisco, Frida met Dr. Leo Eloesser, whom she fully trusted to be her personal doctor. As time went by, she maintained a correspondence with him in which the doctor-patient relationship turned into an intimate and confessional friendship.

With her "beloved doctor" Eloesser, Frida no longer felt neglected; she had found someone who really cared for her. Still retaining her affectionate tone, but in a style of writing which was at times crude and direct, she came to describe in her letters to him physical and mental complaints, as if in a medical consultation. Frida was precise in her descriptions of her illnesses, suffering, and concerns. This correspondence is fundamental to understanding her clinical history.

Letter from Matilde Calderón de Kahlo to her daughter Frida Kahlo, 1932 (From the collection of National Museum of Women in the Arts)

It was also through a letter, in 1934, that Frida expressed to her friends Ella and Bertram D. Wolfe "the greatest sadness" of her life: the amorous betrayal of Diego with her own sister, Cristina Kahlo. Impassioned, she admitted having been under the illusion that she could change Diego's promiscuous behavior. Now, she thought they would have to separate, even though she still loved him.

A few months later, Frida wrote a letter to Diego in which she gave in: she said she was willing to accept his infidelities, which she called simple "diversions," and that they should not destroy the love that existed between them. Playfully, yet poignantly, Frida ends her letter with this plea: "Love me just a little. I adore you."

Letter from Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera (From the collection of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

By then, Frida was talking and writing in fluent English, and had started to have several amorous relationships both in Mexico and the USA, some of which resulted in intense exchanges of letters, which she kept safe until her death.

In some of those letters, she used blush to print kisses with her lips, and she signed them using the suggestive moniker "Xóchitl," meaning "flower" in the Nahuatl language. In these letters to men and women, she did not elaborate on the problems posed by having, as well as several lovers, Diego as the pivotal feature in her life. Despite the intense passion of her letters, it can be said that even in her most intimate confidences, Frida still kept secrets.

Telegram from Frida Kahlo to Emmy Lou Packard (From the collection of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)
Letter from Frida Kahlo to Emmy Lou Packard in San Francisco (From the collection of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

These secrets would take form in the blank book given to her by a friend, in which she would write and paint her diary. The poetic temperament she nurtured in so much of her written correspondence would find another release there, through free association and automatic writing – processes which Frida knew from her experiences with surrealism.

In that diary, she dives into her subconscious and her dreams, delving further into her relationship with Diego and obsessing over her own revolutionary thoughts. She adjusts the rhythm of her prose, and falls over and over again into rhymes and lists of words, fusing her writing with notes in the form of pictures in ink, pastel, watercolor, and the occasional collage.

Literary and pictorial critics agree on the enormous linguistic wealth, extreme intelligence, and verbal ingenuity present in Frida Kahlo's writing, which is now an indispensable source for anyone wishing to know a little more about her work as an artist.

Frida Kahlo's Diary, front cover (From the collection of Museo Dolores Olmedo)
Words by Jaime Moreno Villarreal
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