Twentieth Century Artists and International Icons: Frida y Diego

Considered to be two of Mexico’s most beloved artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera had a deep admiration for their homeland, a mutual respect for one another’s talents, and a love-hate relationship that would rival any Hollywood drama. To appreciate their work is to take a closer look at the tragedy and controversy, passion and conviction that filled their lives.
Born in 1886 in Guanajuato, Diego Rivera quickly discovered art’s allure as a youth. He advanced his skills at the San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts and later immersed himself in Europe’s thriving art scene. While he was drawn to the prevailing styles of the time, the Mexican Revolution (1914-15) and Russian Revolution (1917) altered Diego’s focus. He turned an artistic spotlight on the oppression of Mexico’s indigenous people and peasantry, believing frescoes would become the people’s art. Upon returning to his native land in 1921, Diego is quoted as saying:
“My homecoming produced an esthetic exhilaration which it is impossible to describe. It was as if I were being born anew, born into a new world. All the colors I saw appeared to be heightened; they were clearer, richer, finer, and more full of light. The dark tones had a depth they had never had in Europe. I was in the very center of the plastic world, where forms and colors existed in absolute purity. In everything I saw a potential masterpiece — the crowds, the markets, the festivals, the marching battalions, the working men in the shops and fields — in every glowing face I had the conviction that if I lived a hundred lives I could not exhaust even a fraction of this store of buoyant beauty.”
A member of the Mexican Communist Party, Diego combined his revolutionary and socialistic ideals in his frescoes. He had already begun to establish himself as the father of mural and modern political art in Mexico by the time he crossed paths with Frida Kahlo in 1921.
Frida, born in Coyocoán in 1907, was afflicted with polio as a young child. This left her with one leg considerably smaller than the other. However, Frida’s permanent limp didn’t stop her from pursuing a career in the medical field. By the time she enrolled in the renowned National Preparatory School, she stood out in the crowd as an intelligent and precocious young lady. Frida, known for her fervor, joined a socialist-nationalist political group called the “Cachuchas,” a group who was as devoted to literature as they were to mischief.
It was during this time that Diego was commissioned to paint “Creation” in the lecture hall of the National Preparatory School. Despite Diego’s reputation for being a womanizer and his being nearly twenty years her senior, Frida was mesmerized by “El Maestro”. She would watch him paint for hours, believing one day she would bare him a child. However, their time had not yet come.
In 1925 tragedy struck eighteen-year-old Frida. A streetcar accident left her spine, collarbone, and ribs fractured, and she sustained additional injuries to her shoulder, pelvis, and feet. Bedridden and in excruciating pain, Frida found relief in painting. After a long recovery, she jumped into politics by joining the Young Communist League and the Mexican Communist Party. Through these circles, Frida and Diego crossed paths once again in 1928. Impressed by her work and jovial spirit, Diego began courting Frida. The two were married the following year.
Stormy and passionate, Frida and Diego’s on-again, off-again romance was nothing short of a modern-day drama. Frida once said, “I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down … The other accident is Diego.”
Diego’s professional endeavors – and desire to promote the Mexican Renaissance – took the couple to Europe and to the United States. Diego often painted rich, vibrant murals overflowing with symbolism. Much to the dismay of his benefactors, these works contained elements of Diego’s political ideals. When Nelson Rockefeller commissioned him to create “Man at the Crossroads” in the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center, Diego included a portrait of Russian Communist leader, Vladimir Lenin. Although the Rockefellers protested, Rivera refused to remove the portrait. His work was immediately stopped, and the mural was eventually destroyed.
Homesick and depressed over multiple miscarriages and Diego’s infidelity, Frida threw herself into her artwork and what was considered unconventional behavior at the time. She drank, smoked, hosted wild parties, and engaged in torrid affairs with both men and women. She draped herself in the colorful skirts, shawls, and exotic jewelry of traditional Mexican cultures. Attractive and talented, Frida’s persona was magnetic.
Eventually, Frida and Diego returned to Mexico. Commissioned work, social gatherings, political functions, and art exhibitions filled their days. But whatever the challenge, the two respected one another’s talents. Frida championed Diego’s vivid murals of Mexican farmers and laborers as well as political notables. In turn, Diego encouraged Frida’s blend of Mexican culture, Mesoamerican mythology, folk art, and surrealism. Frida drew, sketched, and painted over two hundred pieces in her lifetime; fifty-five of these were self-portraits. She painted her reality, often borrowing the essential elements of 19th century “Ex-Voto” style – a tragic scene, an inscription, and a saint or martyr. In 1953 Frida attended her only solo exhibition. A local critic wrote, “It is impossible to separate the life and work of this extraordinary person. Her paintings are her biography.”
Despite their tumultuous “art imitates life” relationship, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s shared passion for each other and for their beloved Mexico sustained them until their deaths – Frida’s in 1954 and Diego’s in 1957. Not only are they revered by generations of proud countrymen, but they have become two of the most prolific international icons of the twentieth century.

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