Sex, Plants and Frida Kahlo
The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo kept almighty gardens. She painted furiously, slept with many, and loved like a one-eyed tornado. In her Mexico City gardens love affairs started, ended, and walls of bougainvillea bloomed. Frida’s husband was the hero muralist Diego Rivera and their marriage was squarely non-traditional. Frida loved Diego, and Diego loved most women. But then Leon Trotsky knocked at their door. And that’s where the sex comes in to this story.
The most famous of Frida’s homes is La Casa Azul, The Blue House, on the corner of Calle Londres and Ignacio Allende, Coyoacan, in the south of Mexico City. It’s a busy landmark, a site of pilgrimage in an artistic borough. The house is a loudly coloured fort and the central courtyard is a green ocean of plant life, sculptures and people. Visitors who come in search of Frida are relentlessly photobombed by crazed heads of monstera as they pose for pictures in front of the blue walls. Light flirts wildly across the garden throughout the day. The courtyard has its own stepped pyramid, designed by Diego and covered in idols.
The gardener in Frida must have been equal parts dreamer and pragmatist because her flower consumption was not small. A quarter acre of geraniums adorned her hair daily, harvested for those iconic up-dos and flower crowns. Let it be said: Frida Kahlo was the first lady of flowers.
It’s easy to imagine that the garden provided Frida with daily armfuls of lantana flowers, marigolds and fuchsias. It also provided abundant space for affairs to take root.
Frida married Diego in Coyoacan during the Mexican summer of 1929. She was twenty-two at the time, slender as a dove and notorious for her tendency to drink hard and cuss freely. She was new to the art scene. He was in his mid forties, a 300-pound heavyweight of a man already famous for his towering public murals in Mexico and abroad. He’d married, though unofficially, twice before.
Although Frida was half his age, she’d experienced just as much. The infamous tramcar crash, which happened when she was just eighteen, left her fractured and crushed. Painting became her lifeline while she lay recovering for months in bed. It was after this period of immobility that she met Diego formally, although for the second time. They’d crossed paths years earlier when she was a teenager and he was painting frescos at her high school in downtown Mexico City. Then, she’d teased him about his lovers. On their second meeting Frida wooed him with her loud mouth and her art.
The power couple moved into their first permanent address, on Calle Altavista in San Angel, after four years of marriage. The house is now called El Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, or colloquially “Diego’s house”. It’s a tough and surprising place. Where the Blue House is private, Diego’s house is bald and open to the street. The property-line is marked by a single row of Mexican fence post cactuses, reaching a metre or more high. The garden here is linear and sparse, with a collection of gigantic magueys glowering in corner plots and a series of formal borders constructed from other, under-age agaves. A solo jacaranda casts a skinny shadow over the yard of gravel and stone.
Diego was a lady’s man and the marriage was not destined to be easy. Sapo-rana (toad frog) was the pet name Frida gave him, while he called her chiquita (babe). A year after they moved into the house at San Angel, Diego slept with Frida’s younger sister, Cristina. This action set off a chain reaction for Frida, who did not paint for a year afterwards and moved out of their home into a rented apartment. There she wooed women and men, including the Hungarian American photographer, Nikolas Muray. Muray’s vivid colour portraits are the ones that show Frida off best. The camera and the photographer both loved her.
Leon Trotsky arrived in Mexico at a time when the alliance between Frida and Diego was stretched. Leon was on the run from Stalin’s Soviet Union and sought asylum with his wife, Natalia Sedova. At Diego’s invitation, the Blue House in Coyoacan became Leon and Natalia’s permanent residence for the next two years.
The two couples were as thick as thieves in the early days. Frida and Diego welcomed Leon’s socialist values and Diego would bundle them all into his car on weekends for long, boozy picnics in the Mexican countryside. Leon was a revolutionary, fond of rabbits and rare species of cactus. During these trips he would uproot huge specimens, piling them in the boot of Diego’s car for replanting at La Casa Azul.
Family photos from the time show Natalia collecting posies of wildflowers and Leon levering magueys from the earth with a shovel. In another, Leon strolls along a dirt road with his arm held aloft in victory and a cactus slung over his shoulder.
Leon provided the kind of romance that Frida craved. With their eyes on each other, Frida and Leon began an affair during the spring of 1937. Their shared language was English, and they used it to exclude Natalia from their canoodling. Frida visited the couple regularly at La Casa Azul to collect political texts, into which Leon slipped love letters. They’d meet at Cristina Kahlo’s house for sex. Diego didn’t seem to notice.
Natalia, on the other hand, became suspicious some months into the fling. Suitcases were packed. Leon moved them to a hacienda three blocks away on Rio Churubusco and planted a jacaranda tree in the courtyard for his wife, a symbolic end to his affair with Frida. At the new house Leon kept rabbits, wrote and worked in the garden. Today the courtyard is a rambling and gentle space, composed of lawn rectangles that wrap around the living quarters. Pot plants keep company with climbing roses in pale pinks. There’s a lemon tree and green rabbit pens that remain from Leon’s time. Loud magenta blooms from a bougainvillea peer into the house, invading the privacy of the room where he once slept.
After the affair with Leon ended, Frida painted two pictures in quick succession: one a portrait of Diego and the other a self-portrait dedicated to Leon. In the self-portrait, Frida holds a small bunch of roses, forget-me-nots and jasmine. She wears a traditional full-skirt which is embroidered with white flowers. Her hair is twisted up with red yarn and a pink rose. She holds a note, which reads: “For Leon Trotsky with all my love, I dedicate this painting, on 7 November 1937”. This last love letter was delivered on the open canvas of a painting, not hidden in the pages of a book.
More permanent fractures appeared in the following years. Diego asked Frida for a divorce in April 1939. Leon was assassinated in August 1940 at his Rio Churubusco home. In December of the same year, Frida and Diego reconciled and promptly remarried but the union was stiff. Diego would go on living at the San Angel residence, while Frida made the Blue House her own.
The garden at La Casa Azul thrived under Frida’s guidance and for some time a sort of calm descended over her house. This lush private world is reflected in Frida’s paintings from the time, those like Self-Portrait with Bonito (1941), Self Portrait with Monkeys (1943) and Roots (1943). The famous Bonito was in fact Frida’s pet parrot and the monkeys were a duo of spider monkeys, Fulang Chang and Camito de Guayabal. Together with an eagle by the name of Gertrudis Caca Blanca (Gertrude White Shit), Granizo the deer and a hairless Mexican dog called Señor Xolotl, they roamed the gardens freely.
Most love stories can be reduced to a three-word potted history: he loved her or she loved him; they loved wildly, or they had sex. In Frida and Diego’s case the love was traumatic and the story more complex. It involved many women and many men, Leon Trotsky not the least amongst them. The story of Frida, Diego and Leon is perhaps best told as a story of three iconic gardens in Mexico City, all of them still very much alive and growing today.
Slider image credit: Diego Rivera’s house, Photo by Kenny Viese.