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Ever since reading The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, I’ve been fascinated by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Their love story captivated me and I was enthralled by their passion, art and political involvement. It’s the first piece of historical fiction I’ve ever read that made me desperate to know more of the lives depicted.
When earlier this year, on the way home from San Pancho, we had a one-day stopover in Mexico City, I knew exactly what I wanted to do – visit Frida’s La Casa Azul and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, home to Diego Rivera’s famous El Hombre En El Cruce de Caminos (Man at the Crossroads) mural. Here are some photos from our visit.
Before reading The Lacuna, all I knew of Frida was her famous monobrow and fierce self-portraits.
The book brought those images to life, revealing the woman behind the glare.
At the Casa Azul where Frida lived, now known as The Frida Kahlo Museum, you can see some of Frida’s early work. Most of her most famous portraits are held at galleries around the world.
This sketch was one of my favourites,
…as well as a Dali-like painting,
…and dark puppet show.
At the house, you can see where Frida worked,
…the brushes she used,
… her brilliant selection of glitter,
…and the easel she painted at. Frida suffered from various ill health throughout her life including polio as a child, and a later traffic accident that left her with multiple problems including the inability to conceive.
She died in 1954, aged 47. The cause of death was unclear but she had been in ill health for much of the year before. Frida died at home and you can see her death mask in the museum.
When we visited the Blue House, an exhibition of Frida’s clothing had just opened.
It included parts of her medical wear, like this corset, which she painted with a hammer and sickle.
Frida’s right leg had to be amputated at the knee due to gangrene. This is one the stylish boots she had made to disguise it.
The exhibition is the first time since Frida’s death that her famous wardrobe has been on display. It includes much of her signature style, emblematic of her indigenous roots,
…and love for the surreal.
It also features clothes by major fashion houses, inspired by her style,
…including this corset dress by Jean Paul Gaultier.
The house itself is stunning, painted a deep shade of blue and dotted with lots of idiosyncrasies like this charismatic stone statue.
After our visit to La Casa Azul, we headed to the Palacio de Bellas Artes. I was keen to see a mural by Rivera that is mentioned in The Lacuna. It was originally commissioned for the Rockefeller Building in New York. He was given the theme: ‘Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future’ and Diego wanted to contrast Capitalism and Socialism.
Controversy struck when Diego chose to include an image of Lenin in the mural, which provoked outrage in the media and resulted in Rockefeller asking him to remove Lenin’s picture. Diego refused, work ceased and the mural was destroyed.
Diego had feared that this would be the result so had taken photos of the mural in progress. He repainted it in a slightly smaller scale at the Palacio Bellas Artes in his hometown of Mexico City. The new version was renamed ‘Man, Controller of the Universe’ and included additions such as this image of Trotsky. Trotsky features in The Lacuna when Diego and Frida hosted him at their homes for some time during his political asylum in Mexico. He and Frida are said to have had an affair in the Blue House before his assassination in 1940.
The new version even includes an image of Rockefeller himself in a nightclub with a woman and a dish of syphilis bacteria above their head.
A miserable-looking Darwin sits on the side of Capitalism,
….with animals at his feet.
Above it all stands an angry Jupiter on one side, and a headless Ceaser on the other, representing the replacement of superstition with science.
For me, the beauty of the mural is in the details, especially the biological images,
…like these cell forms.
The mural, Man at the Crossroads / Man, Centre of the Universe is immense and one that you could stare at all day, picking up on every little detail and nuance. We drank in as much as we could, and as I sat there, after a day filled with Diego and Frida, I realised something. Ever since I was young, I’ve yearned for the characters in the novels I read to be real, to travel to the places they lived and take a peek at the lives they led. On that day in Mexico city, the dream came true.
More on Mexico City
We’ve written a guide to Condesa and Roma in Mexico City, (including the best Condesa boutique hotels) and here’s a huge list of all the best things to do in Mexico City. Finally, for some more Mexican culture, here’s an article with lots of interesting Mexico facts.