They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality. -Frida Kahlo
La Casa Azul holds many secretos and juxtapositions, the boldest of which is color. Kahlo’s most famous works, self-portraits such as Autoretrato Las dos Fridas/Selfportrait The two Fridas, Autoretrato Diego y Yo/Selfportrait Diego and I, and Autoretrato Pensando en la Muerte/Selfportrait Thinking about Death, are done in earthy tones, the background often an olive green, steely gray, or rich brown. In contrast, her living space is the brightest blue. Her clothing was reds, yellows, pinks, and greens, leaping from the fabric. She surrounded herself with bold, vibrant color. Kahlo’s extensive biography is available on the web, in books, and in traveling exhibits. Walking through the space that she and Diego created together, however, opens a sensory way of learning about Kahlo’s art, her pain, her relationships, and her eccentricities. Touring La Casa Azul is perhaps the most intimate experience a tourist can have with Frida Kahlo.
Frida Kahlo’s identity is complex. Born to Guillermo Kahlo, of Hungarian-German descent, and Matilde Calderon, of indigenous and Spanish descent, Kahlo’s artwork and fashion show her navigation of two ethnic identities. She also stretched boundaries of gender, sexuality, and ability. When Kahlo was six, she contracted polio which resulted in one of her legs being underdeveloped. She wore three or four socks on that leg, as well as a platform shoe, to even her stance. At eighteen, she was impaled by a railing during a serious bus accident, breaking her spine and resulting in a long hospital stay and a back brace that she wore most of the rest of her life. Her living space, La Casa Azul, illuminates those complexities, celebrating the effects they had and the choices they inspired. As teachers, we want our students to see and understand Kahlo’s ability to negotiate layers of identity and personal relationship through art.
Stepping over the threshold into the four-room art exhibit, a focus on self and individual relationships jumps from the oils and photographs. Kahlo is most famous for self-portraits that exhibit deep pain and reflection, and these first four rooms contain work that is more typical of a Kahlo exhibit, including portraits, self-portraits, and a few stills. These four rooms also contain quotations, photographs, and pages from Kahlo’s diary. The fourth room has a label on each wall, indicating four points of genesis for Kahlo’s creative work: passions, inspirations, family, and photography. (Kahlo’s father was a photographer, and she was surrounded by portrait photography as a young person.)
The fifth room is filled to the edges with Mexican popular and pre-Hispanic glassware and pottery, which Kahlo and Rivera valued for its traditional artistry. The couple loved entertaining, and the volume of dishware proves that they were ready to host tens of guests at a time. This is one of the first rooms where Kahlo’s compartmentalization of her pain is glaring. She jovially hosted artists and political figures including Georgia O’Keefe, Leon Trotsky, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Edward Weston, saving her pain for her art.
After peeking into Diego’s bedroom and the kitchen, we walked up the stairs into Kahlo’s studio. Her wheelchair is parked right in front of the easel, which sits between two work tables. One of the tables holds her paints, brushes, and sparkling stones that she used in her painting. On the other sits the mirror she used when painting her self-portraits. One wall is entirely glass, letting in glorious light and a view of the garden below, while the opposite wall is entirely bookshelf, displaying Kahlo’s collection of books, photographs, and diagrams of the human body used in her work.
Next come Kahlo’s two bedrooms–a day bedroom and a night bedroom. Most obvious in the day bedroom are the mirror affixed to the canopy top that her mother put there after her accident and Kahlo’s death mask. In the night bedroom, affixed above the bed is a panel of butterflies, a gift from an American painter. The room also houses a collection of dolls Kahlo created of herself in different styles including a Chinese doll, a Japanese doll, and a Mexican doll, as well as a pre-Hispanic urn that holds Kahlo’s ashes, which sits on her dressing table. The urn is shaped like a toad, a reference to Diego’s self-assigned nickname, el sapo-rana.
In her private spaces, such as her bedrooms and her studio, we saw evidence of both her physical disability and the mental anguish it caused her. The two beds strongly indicate that Kahlo spent much of her time horizontally, and the wheelchair demonstrates a life-long struggle with mobility. These physical signs of pain are exclusively on the second floor of the house, making them less visible to Kahlo’s friends and guests who frequented La Casa Azul.
After walking through the beautifully curated, lush garden, we arrived at the exhibit behind Kahlo and Rivera’s home, Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe. According to Circe Henestrosa, the exhibition curator, the exhibition “displays these objects for the very first time and is a study of Kahlo’s construction of her own identity. Themed into five rooms, the exhibition focuses on the construction of Kahlo’s style through disability, tradition, fashion and dress, showing the original ensembles and objects drawn from the museum’s collection. It also shows how Kahlo’s personal style remains a source of inspiration for international artists and designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Dai Rees, Comme des Garcons, and Riccardo Tisci.”
When we walked into the exhibit, the first things we saw were Kahlo’s crutches and six different forms of back brace, offset by one of the corsets that she decorated. The next two rooms display what Kahlo’s true wardrobe including long skirts that hid her shrunken leg and the blouses of Tehuana style with elaborate embroidery, drawing the viewer’s eye to the top part of her body away from her legs. On the walls in these rooms are photographs that Kahlo altered with scissors and a page from her diary that elaborates on her feelings about her worsening physical condition. Finally, in the last two rooms, stand several examples of avant-garde fashion pieces inspired by Kahlo’s style, including one top and skirt set belonging to Kahlo herself. She painted the top in great detail, the colors beautifully matching the long green skirt.
Kahlo’s ability to take ownership of a challenge and turn it into art is obvious throughout La Casa Azul. The museum beautifully displays Kahlo’s multiple representations of her identity through painting, diary pages, homemade dolls, quotations, fashion choices, and the items she surrounded herself with day and night. We hope that, as our students progress through the Borders and Identity Unit we are currently building, they can learn from these multiple representations of identity, mimicking Kahlo’s genres of expression and finding their own. Just as Kahlo used her clothing as a tool to empower herself through disability and pain, we want our students to see art and literature as tools to navigate identity, borders, and challenges in their own lives.
Kat + Alice