Great art and music resonate differently with each person. A certain sound or visual world can touch your very being, rich with meaning and emotion, melding with your personality, gender identity, ethnicity, heritage, memories, relationships, even shared life experiences with the artist or composer.
Frida Kahlo and her self-portraits resonate with me. I can identify with her unabashed love of women. She had a swagger when she dressed in men’s clothes, expressing her power and independence in that way. Although her marriages with Diego Rivera and her affair with Leon Trotsky dominate her story, she had many female lovers, including Josephine Baker, the Parisian nightclub sensation, movie stars, and the artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
It isn’t the technical brilliance of her art, rather how she could paint from her heart in such an original and immediately identifiable way — pictures that were both biography and metaphor, a symbolic narrative linked to her most intimate experiences, relationships, passions, and terrible, lifelong physical pain. Her style connects with European Surrealism, as well as Mexican folk art. Her paintings reflect her matrilineal connection to native Tehuanan culture (the style of her famous dresses).
And so, on a journey to Oaxaca, I stopped overnight at Mexico City and took a taxi to La Casa Azul, known internationally as Museo Frida Kahlo, in the Coyoacán borough, now a district of wealth with secluded residences patrolled by armed guards. Casa Azul was originally the Kahlo family home. Rivera lived here for a time, but they kept separate studios.
I wanted to linger in her garden where she spent countless hours, inspiring her art and offering solace. What would I discover about this woman artist, beyond the countless tourist trinkets with her image?
This is a courtyard garden with irregular flagstones, whispering of Spain, transported to the Americas and overlaid with the idea of Mexico – its cultural, biological and botanical worlds — enclosed by high walls painted deep blue with scarlet window trim, filled with terracotta pots, statues of forgotten ancient gods, pomegranate trees, native tropical and desert plants, including cacti, yucca, and canna lily.
In her lifetime, this was a noisy place, where a menagerie of exotic animals wandered including monkeys, deer, parrots, turkeys, and weird hairless dogs. This place witnessed extremes of delight and pain. Her favorite bougainvillea is still pampered with its drooping bath of flowers. In one self-portrait, she painted only its stems as a necklace of torment.
Casa Azul isn’t a pastel English cottage garden, not one where you putter, pot up plants, or mow lush lawns. It has qualities of an art installation and a figurative statement about her and what mattered to her. Yet, it is truly a garden, reflecting her love of plants and knowledge of botany. Kahlo liked to press flowers within the pages of her books. After she died, a tiny bouquet was discovered in her beloved copy of “Leaves of Grass”, written by the gay poet, Walt Whitman.
She left us her presence not only in her art, but also in this vibrant, phantastic place.