My Private Frida

by Harriet Reisen

The other day I saw the exhibit of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s garden at the Bronx Botanical Garden. It was a perfect day spent in glorious weather with a new friend. She called it a “play date.” I’d call it a good day to go on a pilgrimage, the kind Chaucer wrote of in The Canterbury Tales centuries ago.
I’d been making pilgrimages to shrines of Frida Kahlo for a very long time, more than twenty-five years, from the day when from far across a slushy winter street a Frida Kahlo self-portrait on an Art in America magazine cover bewitched me. I crossed a network of intersections to get to the Out-Of-Town newsstand in Harvard Square to buy the magazine, although it was expensive, and I had never read it before. The subject of the cover story was an exhibit of Frida Kahlo’s work, at the Gray Gallery in New York. Like a magician’s stooge carrying out a post-hypnotic suggestion, I got on a Boston southbound train to see it.
Sometimes I think I dreamed that show. Kahlo’s most famous paintings filled room after room, and I had all of them to myself; not one person entered the gallery while I was there. I recall a guard only at the exit. Being alone with so many of her paintings was like secretly reading Kahlo’s hidden diaries. Her life seemed laid bare, with nothing omitted.
“The Two Fridas,” a double self-portrait with one figure in bright native dress and the other in white Victorian European garb, held hands. The hearts of both lay suspended outside the two bodies. In the schematic “My Grandparents, My Parents, and I” Kahlo had even pictured her conception. A tiny sperm and egg were rendered with the anatomical fidelity of a medical illustration. Above them Kahlo’s Mexican and Hungarian-Jewish progenitors presided from clouds over a blue house. In the courtyard Frida stood as a happy, naked four year-old. The Blue House, La Casa Azul, was where Frida was born and would die.

I discovered Kahlo early in her revival because of my attachment to Mexico, born on the hippie trail, and made companionable via marriage to Tony Kahn, who as the son of an expatriate screenwriter in flight from the blacklist spent a significant chunk of his childhood in Cuernavaca, a small and beautiful city about an hour from the capitol. Tony’s Spanish was perfect, and his understanding of Mexican ways was deep. We vacationed and honeymooned in Mexico, and after we adopted a baby in Guadalajara in nineteen eighty-six, we decided to return every year. We bunked with families in various towns while I learned to speak Spanish (more or less), our son got familiar with his prehistory, and Tony squired us expertly.
One day in nineteen eighty-nine, during our first family visit to Mexico City, Tony and I left our toddler to play with local grandchildren of the blacklist while we made pilgrimages. My destination was Frida Kahlo’s Blue House, a museum then open only a few hours a week. Tony’s shrine was Trotsky’s place, right around the corner, and not by coincidence. Diego Rivera, the great muralist who was Kahlo’s husband, had sponsored the Russian revolutionary’s exile in Mexico, sheltering Trotsky and his wife Natalia in the Blue House for two years. Frida became Trotsky’s lover; or rather Trotsky became one of her numerous amours of both sexes.
Tony and I reached Coyoacan, a quiet, shady enclave long favored by bohemians and intellectuals, via a long, wild ride in Mexico City’s horrendous traffic. The cab driver had never heard of Frida Kahlo, so he dropped us off at Trotsky’s house, where the repudiated leader of the Russian Revolution had been assassinated, with an ice pick, at his desk. The place was shut tight as the fortress it had tried unsuccessfully to be.
So we set out on foot for the Casa Azul, which was also closed, although it was supposed to be open. We rang the bell repeatedly, then pounded on the door, which was rude and very Gringo. Finally a stunning teenage girl opened the door a crack and told us to come back another time.
We wouldn’t be able to come back for years. I begged and pleaded, complaining stupidly that that the house was supposed to be open. Tony simply offered a mordida, a little bribe, or “bite,” which did the trick. The door opened and the willowy girl went back to the garden to lock lips with a luscious young man.
Tony and I roamed the dark house unescorted, turning lights on in each room. We jumped when they illuminated Frida’s brightly decorated surgical corset, a relic of one of dozens of surgeries she underwent after she was impaled by a post in a trolley accident at the age of eighteen. The corset Frida had painted in bright colors was laid out where she had lain on her four-poster bed of pain. We gasped when we saw, under the canopy, in a mirror Kahlo used to study her subject, herself, the reflection of the bodiless corset. Thoroughly spooked, we collected ourselves and moved on.
When we flicked on the kitchen switch, we were relieved to see only the words “Frida and Diego” on the tiled wall above the counters, and a festive conglomeration of pots and utensils. Another room, apparently a salon, was emptied of everything except some two dozen Kahlo drawings and paintings on the floor, propped up against the wall, seemingly positioned to be hanged. If I’d ever considered becoming an art thief, this would have been my chance.
Upstairs, in Frida’s studio, her wheelchair sat before her easel. Her brushes and paints were laid out as if she and Diego were out at the nearby market or visiting friends. When we were satisfied that we had seen the house, we rested on a little crumbling concrete pyramid in the garden and listened to the birds, as if we were waiting for the householders to return. The maid and her swain, pressed against a tree, continued to make out undisturbed.

In the Bronx Botanical Garden show, a pristine painted replica of the little pyramid we sat on in Mexico is propped with indigenous plants of the kind that Kahlo and Diego planted in their garden. The Garden’s Library has an exhibit that features the self-portrait I saw on the cover of Art in America, and a representation of “The Two Fridas” in paper dresses on wire mannequins.
That the Bronx Botanical Garden was able to borrow even one major self-portrait was something of a coup. A show like the one that introduced me to Frida Kahlo will never again be possible; the paintings have become too sought-after and expensive. A friend of Tony’s family from their exile in Mexico had commissioned a Kahlo portrait. Towards the end of her life she was afraid to leave her New York apartment because she couldn’t afford to insure it. Robert de Niro and Laurie Anderson are among Kahlo collectors. “My Birth,” the bird’s eye view of the Blue House with a child Frida presiding, was sold to Madonna. On two occasions long ago I had Frida Kahlo to myself. Now, while her paintings are dispersed, her images are icons worshipped around the world.

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  • July 18, 2015