Frida Kahlo looms large when thinking of Mexican artists, especially when in Mexico City, where a visit to Casa Azul in Coyoacan is almost a rite of passage. We’ve attempted to visit Casa Azul a number of times, casually I admit, without booking a ticket, and every time we’ve rocked up, the queues have been formidable and stretched around the block (we’re not big on queues), so we’ve been content with having a gorgeous lunch in Coyoacan, sitting by a tinkling fountain thinking how grateful we are to have avoided the masses.
What many people perhaps don’t realise is that Frida Kahlo has another ‘Casa Azul’, her blue-painted house in the compound she shared for a time with her husband, Diego Rivera, over in beautiful (old and rich) San Ángel.
Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo is recognised as one of the most important cultural landmarks of Mexico City, as both a place of residence, but also the studios of two of the most significant artists of the 20th Century. And yet, when we were there, there was hardly anyone – no queue (actually, for a few minutes, no ticket seller), a couple of people milling around and one eager security guard who insisted on masks being worn whilst on the property, which of course he had for sale (a small forgiveable side hustle we thought).
The couple lived here together from 1934 until 1941. When Frida’s father died she returned to live in Coyoacán until her death in 1954, whilst Diego continued to live here until his death in 1957. The two houses were inherited by his daughter, Ruth Rivera Marin, who thankfully donated them to the Instituto de Bellas Artes.
This radical functionalist style compound was designed by Mexican painter and architect Juan O’Gorman in 1932 and appears to draw inspiration from the avant-garde architects of the time such as Le Corbusier, whilst overlaid with more traditional Mexican form and colour, hence the vivid blue of Kahlo’s house and the intense red of Rivera’s. Surrounding the compound is a stylised ‘fence’ of Organ Pipe cactuses, reproducing a traditional Mexican method of defining property limits in rural areas of the country – another minimalist and functional solution. O’Gorman created a home made up of two smooth concrete blocks, independent of each other yet linked by a narrow bridge joining the rooftops, calling it ‘the bridge of Diego and Frida’s love’. Having separate living and working spaces was an essential element to their sometime passionate but often tempestuous, explosive and detrimental relationship, so I guess at times this was a bridge too far. Escenas de la película “Frida Kahlo” filmadas en la casa-estudio.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JusIjDG6KCQ&t=1s
One of the most incredibly atmospheric rooms here in the compound is Rivera’s studio. It’s packed with an eclectic assortment of personal possessions and creations such as his idiosyncratic ‘Judas’ collection of papier-mâché cartonería, fantastical figures of humans, comical devils, ghoulish skulls, skeletons and animals, all assembled here in the studio as he constructed them. Scattered around the room are his work materials such as brushes and jars of pigments, archaeological artefacts, pre-Colombian pottery, Mexican crafts, a bronze cast of his hand and even a death mask of a fellow artist.
Sadly, over in Frida’s house (Casa Azul II), there’s not much to see, as much of what once existed here has been removed to the Frida Kahlo museum in Coyoacán. But there’s one thing here that’s rather significant, for it was in her bathroom, which still exists (bathtub, loo and basin), that she was inspired to paint ‘What Gave Me Water’ in 1938. In a conversation with her friend Julien Levy she said “It is an image of passing time about time and childhood games in the bathtub and the sadness of what has happened to me in the course of life.” This painting was exhibited in Paris in 1939, unsigned and undated at the time, but when it went back to Mexico, Frida signed and dated it as 1938. It was eventually given to her lover, Nickolas Muray to repay the $400 debt she owed him.
In this house, she also painted ‘The Watchful Eye’, ‘The Late Dimas’ and one of her most famous paintings, ‘The Two Fridas’.
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