Nontraditional, controversial, rebellious, and politically volatile, the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are remembered for their provocative paintings as well as for their deep love for each other. Their marriage was one of the most tumultuous and infamous in history—filled with passion, pain, betrayal, revolution, and, above all, art that helped define the twentieth century.
Catherine Reef's inspiring and insightful dual biography features numerous archival photos and full-color reproductions of both artists' work. Endnotes, bibliography, timeline.
About the Author
Catherine Reef is the author of more than 40 nonfiction books, including many highly acclaimed biographies for young people. She lives in College Park, Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
The Artists Wed
¡ESOS CHICOS! Those kids! How dare they play tricks on him and interrupt his work! Diego Rivera was a busy man, and an important one. He was the famous artist who had been hired in 1922 to paint a mural in the auditorium of the National Preparatory School. Black-suited teachers and city officials came often to admire his yellow-clad angels and his haloed saints looking toward the stars. Like the great muralists of the Italian Renaissance, Rivera was painting a religious subject, the Creation, although he claimed not to believe in God.
So why must he put up with these teenagers—these troublemakers—stealing his lunch and rubbing soap on the stairs? How they would giggle to see his great globe of a belly bouncing down the steps. Well, he would tread carefully.
These young people studied at Mexico City’s finest high school, but they knew nothing about respect. The worst one was that girl Frida Kahlo, the one whose face shone with mischief. She liked to spy on him while he romanced his pretty models. She would wait until he leaned in for a kiss to shout from her hiding place, “On guard, Diego! Here comes Lupe!” Rivera was soon to marry the striking Lupe Marín, who often kept him company while he painted.
This girl even had the nerve to call him by his first name. But she admired his painting; he could tell. Once, when he was working late, she pushed too hard against the auditorium door and almost fell into the room. Straightening up and smoothing her schoolgirl’s dress, she asked, “Would it cause you any annoyance if I watched you at work?”
Intrigued, Rivera replied that to the contrary, he would be charmed. So Frida sat for three hours, following every stroke of the artist’s brush. Then she said good night and left. Recalling that evening much later, Rivera remarked, “I had no idea that she would one day be my wife.”
They met again several years later. No one knows exactly how. One friend remembered them meeting at a party; another friend insisted things happened differently. Frida and Diego both liked to tell the same story, though. It was 1928, and Rivera was finishing an immense project, 124 murals in Mexico’s Ministry of Education. Scenes of people at play and at work lined the open corridors around the building’s courtyards. He had painted los tejedores, weavers at their looms, and los alfareros, potters molding jugs. Villages and landscapes spanned doorways. Peasants’ portraits and images drawn from myth adorned stairways and elevators.
Rivera was balanced high on a wooden scaffold, applying pigment to wet plaster on a third-floor balcony wall, when a voice broke his concentration. “¡Diego, baje!” (“Come down!”)
He peered at the speaker standing below. Who was this bold young woman? Rivera had an eye for female beauty. He quickly took in a “fine nervous body, topped by a delicate face.” The speaker wore her dark hair long, and her eyes flashed with uncommon fire.
She was twenty-one and spoke and stood with confidence, but it took great energy for her to hold herself together. Three years before, her body had been pierced and shattered in a horrific accident. Her doctors had expected her to die, but she lived. She had only recently left her bed and started venturing into Mexico City again.
Rivera climbed down. More than six feet tall, he loomed over the girl when standing beside her. But she, undaunted, got right to the point. “Look, I have not come to flirt with you or anything,” she said, aware of his reputation. She had been painting, she explained, and she wanted him to see what she had done. “If it interests you, tell me so; if it doesn’t interest you, likewise, so that I can work at something else.”
She showed him three or four canvases, all portraits of women. They were a beginner’s work, but Rivera saw in them “a vital sensuality, complemented by a merciless yet sensitive power of observation.” He concluded, “It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.” He was tempted to heap praise on her work, but fearing she might think him false, he put it simply: “In my opinion, no matter how difficult it is for you, you must continue to paint.”
The girl asked him to come and see her other paintings, and she told him her name: Frida Kahlo. Where had Rivera heard that name before? Of course! This was the schoolgirl who had teased him back in 1922. Seeing recognition on Rivera’s face, Kahlo quickly said, “Yes, so what? I was the girl in the auditorium, but that has absolutely nothing to do with now.” So on the following Sunday, his next day off, Rivera knocked on the door of a blue house in a sleepy suburb called Coyoacán, where dogs and chickens wandered the streets. He spent the afternoon looking at Frida’s paintings and savoring her delightful presence. “Frida had already become the most important fact in my life,” he said.
Diego began coming often to the blue house. At other times, Frida sat with him while he painted. Soon, the two planned to marry, but the thought of having Diego Rivera as a son-in-law horrified Frida’s parents. Rivera was divorced and a communist; and not only was he more than twice Frida’s size, he was also, at forty-two, twice her age. “It was like a marriage between an elephant and a dove,” they lamented. But then, Frida’s father, Guillermo Kahlo, gave the matter some thought. He took Rivera aside. “Note well, my daughter is a sick person, and all her life she will be sick,” he warned. Sick people run up medical bills, and Frida’s would become her husband’s to pay. “Think it over, and if you want to marry, I give my permission,” Guillermo Kahlo said.
Rivera thought it over, and he did. The couple married on August 21, 1929, with the mayor of Coyoacán performing the service. The wedding “was celebrated in a very cordial atmosphere and with all modesty,” according to the local newspaper. The bride wore a print dress, pearls, and a large rebozo, or shawl. The groom had traded his vast denim overalls for a suit and tie. When he posed with Frida for the wedding photograph, he held his mammoth Stetson hat at his side.
Rivera’s artist friends liked to have a good time, and during the celebration that followed the ceremony, people drank too much tequila. At one point, the revelers danced their way up to a rooftop, where a woman’s underwear had been hung out to dry. Lupe Marín even showed up. Rivera’s ex-wife brazenly lifted Frida’s skirt and announced to the crowd, “You see these two sticks? These are the legs Diego has now instead of mine!” When Diego pulled out a pistol and started shooting, Frida returned to her family in tears. Her husband showed up at the blue house several days later, finally ready to apologize, and took her home to begin their life together.
They married for love, but they soon discovered that love makes demands. It asked more of them than they were able to give. They found happiness together, but they also found heartache. Yet if there were times when they failed each other as human beings, they never did so as artists. Each respected the other’s talent; each championed the other’s work.
Each one also painted the other. Frida painted Diego as a giant of a man wearing brown shoes that were twenty times larger than her own. Diego painted Frida as a red-shirted communist handing out bayonets to an imagined workers’ army.
Frida painted Diego as someone who was so much on her mind that his image bled through onto her forehead. He painted her as a face in a crowd.
They painted each other, and they painted themselves. Kahlo painted herself with flowers in her hair and wearing a necklace of thorns. She painted her body cracked open and studded with nails, because she lived in pain. She painted herself with monkeys, with parrots, and as a deer with arrows piercing its flesh. She painted her heavy eyebrows as the open wings of a swallow. Her greatest subject was herself. Frida Kahlo was “an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings,” said Rivera.
Rivera painted himself as a young artist in a Spanish café, his face shadowed by a broad hat. He painted himself as an aging man with drooping eyelids, with gravity pulling his flesh toward the earth. But more often he looked outside of himself. He covered walls with expansive scenes of the present, past, or future. He filled every bit of space in these great murals with people, animals, plants, and machines. Diego Rivera was “the eternally curious one,” said Frida Kahlo. “The whole of life continues to interest, to amaze him, with its changeability, and everything surprises him with its beauty.”
Table of Contents
1 The Artists Wed 1
2 The Curious One 8
3 An Accidental Artist 22
4 Reborn 30
5 South and North of the Border Line 41
6 Wounds 58
7 Life's Bitterness 74
8 Painted Bread 89
9 Nightfall 102
10 The Great Fiesta 111
Paintings Frida Kahlo Diego Rivera 117
Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera: A Timeline 134
Picture Credits 156