La Casa Azul—the Blue House—in the Coyoacán neighbourhood of Mexico City, is where Frida Kahlo was born, and returned to, with her husband Diego Rivera. Coyoacán still has a whiff of the Spanish colonial empire, with its colourful walls, ornate iron casting around windows and tall gates, and the hacienda-like expanses beyond them. And then there is the cobalt-blue house of Frida Kahlo, harking back to another time.

The house, built in 1904 by her photographer father, was where Kahlo and Rivera nurtured pursuits, political and artistic, between 1929 and 1954. The house was opened as a museum in 1958, four years after her death, and even though most of her self-portraits have found a home in art museums across the world, La Casa Azul still reflects the home where Kahlo let her art, an expression of her reconciliation with immobility, flow.

Frida Kahlo memorabilia at the Coyoacán market.
Frida Kahlo memorabilia at the Coyoacán market.

A devastating bus accident at the age of 18 had debilitated Kahlo: She suffered rib, leg and collarbone fractures, and an iron rod passed through her pelvis, transforming her body for life. Kahlo continued to draw and paint, began to socialize with friends involved in student politics, and joined the Mexican Communist Party. She had always admired the work of celebrated artist and prominent Communist party member Diego Rivera, and he encouraged her to pursue her own art seriously. Her interest in indigenous Mexican culture came to life in her paintings, which used bright colours and mythological symbols like the monkey. 

In 1929, Kahlo married Rivera, even though he was 20 years her senior, had had two wives and was a womanizer. Their marriage was fraught with extramarital affairs, by both of them, and they divorced in 1939, only to remarry a year later. 

Kahlo suffered several miscarriages owing to her accident, and several of her paintings reference this failure. In all, 55 of her 143 paintings are self-portraits that illustrate in symbols her deep wounds. “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality," she had told Time magazine in an interview.

Only a certain number of people are allowed entry into La Casa Azul each day, and it is a long wait for those who don’t book their tickets online. Within is a different world, with a wide variety of plants, tall cobalt-blue walls, the quiet flow of water from a fountain, and the chirping of birds. It is a space that instantly induces calm, in spite of the slow movement of tourists marvelling at every corner of the house where these beloved and controversial artists of Mexico once lived. That the entrance has large piñatas—papier mâché dolls that usually contain toys or candies—with skeletons painted on them, is testimony to the way Kahlo humoured herself and her life, having faced death and dark shadows.

One of her hair decorations with dried flowers.
One of her hair decorations with dried flowers.

Today La Casa Azul is also home to the couple’s interest in Mexico’s indigenous traditions. This attempt to reclaim the country’s heritage, lost to Spanish imperialism and US capitalist intrusion, was visible in Kahlo’s dresses, which reflect Tehuana culture: long skirts with thick lace edges, worn with flowing blouses bearing the patterns woven by indigenous communities. As Kahlo’s health deteriorated, her dresses grew more flamboyant. The Communist at heart also wore her ideological beliefs in her public life. On one of the rigid corsets that she wore for her spine, she had painted the hammer and sickle in red.

Kahlo had always used her appearance to make political statements. During her youth, she often dressed “like a boy" and even posed for a family photo in a man’s suit. When she was an active participant in the Communist party, she wore workers’ shirts.

Kahlo’s dresses on display.
Kahlo’s dresses on display.

While most of her artwork, and other elements revealing her life, have been on display ever since the house was transformed into a museum, it is only recently that Kahlo’s dresses have become part of the exhibit. After her death in 1954, Rivera had insisted on keeping them locked in a bathroom until 15 years after his death. He died in 1957, but the bathroom was opened only in 2004.

The room in La Casa Azul where Leon Trotsky stayed while in exile
The room in La Casa Azul where Leon Trotsky stayed while in exile

Several doors in and out to the courtyard also lead to a centrally located dining area filled with plates, pots and pans with artwork from the different regions of Mexico. Large piñatas continue to fill the corners, while figurines of animals line yellow shelves. Adjoining the dining area is a small bedroom, with a bed covered in lace linen, bright green doors to an attached bathroom and a large painting of a woman in the nude. This was the room where the Russian Communist Leon Trotsky stayed when he first arrived in Mexico in the late 1930s to seek asylum from the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, before he found a place for his wife and himself a few blocks down the road from La Casa Azul. An affair between Kahlo and Trotsky had infuriated their spouses, forcing Trotsky to move out. Just before Trotsky was assassinated in 1940, at his new home, Kahlo and Rivera had both become open supporters of Stalin.

At the other end of the dining area is a lively kitchen with blue tiles and yellow furniture. The large wooden bowls could be a reminder of the couple’s penchant for entertaining guests, often argumentative and flamboyant Communists (according to Kahlo’s biography by Hayden Herrera), while the edges of the windows are filled with images of birds, created with pebbles.

Kahlo’s bed with a mirror under the canopy to help her paint self-portraits
Kahlo’s bed with a mirror under the canopy to help her paint self-portraits

Kahlo’s own bed has a mirror under the canopy, so that she could observe herself and paint her favourite subject—herself—lying on the bed. Her worsening health had forced her to move from her wheelchair to the bed but she continued to create art to alleviate her physical pain. The bed on display is the same bed in which she was carried to attend the opening of her first exhibit in Mexico in 1953. Shortly thereafter, her right leg, infected with gangrene, was amputated below the knee. The amputation depressed Kahlo, and she tried to end her life by overdosing on painkillers when she heard that Rivera had had yet another affair.

The shoe Kahlo wore on her prosthetic leg after amputation
The shoe Kahlo wore on her prosthetic leg after amputation

Not one to be defied by fate’s brutality for too long, however, Kahlo decorated her prosthetic leg with embroidered lace-up red boots, which she wore until her death. Bedridden towards the end, she still took part in a public demonstration with Rivera against the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) invasion of Guatemala. Upon her death, her body was laid under a Communist flag in a public space in Mexico City.

Her tumultuous marriage to Rivera, the miscarriage, her love for nature, and her ideological conflict during her travels to the US: All these found expression on canvas.

Priyanka Borpujari is an independent journalist.

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