Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo

by Hayden Herrera

ISBN: 9780060085896

Publisher Harper Perennial

Published in Arts & Photography/Artists, A-Z, Nonfiction/Women's Studies

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Book Description

The Blue House On Londres Street

The story of Frida Kahlo begins and ends in the same place. From the outside, the house on the corner of Londres and Allende streets looks very like other houses in Coyoacán, an old residential section on the southwestern periphery of Mexico City.

Sample Chapter

The Blue House On Londres Street

The story of Frida Kahlo begins and ends in the same place. From the outside, the house on the corner of Londres and Allende streets looks very like other houses in Coyoacán, an old residential section on the southwestern periphery of Mexico City. A one-story stucco structure with bright blue walls enlivened by tall, many-paned windows with green shutters and by the restless shadows of trees, it bears the name Museo Frida Kahlo over the portal. Inside is one of the most extraordinary places in Mexico -- a woman's home with all her paintings and belongings, turned into a museum.

The entrance is guarded by two giant papier-mâché Judas figures nearly twenty feet tall, gesticulating at each other as if they were engaged in conversation. Passing them, one enters a garden with tropical plants, fountains, and a small pyramid decked with pre-Columbian idols.

The interior of the house is remarkable for the feeling that its former occupants' presence animates all the objects and paintings on display. Here are Frida Kahlo's palette and brushes, left on her worktable as if she had just put them down. There, near his bed, are Diego Rivera's Stetson hat, his overalls, and his huge miner's shoes. In the large corner bedroom with windows looking out onto Londres and Allende streets is a glass-doored cabinet enclosing Frida's colorful costume from the region of Tehuantepec. Above the cabinet, these words are painted on the wall: "Aquí nació Frida Kahlo el día 7 de julio de 1910" (Here Frida Kahlo was born on July 7, 1910). They were inscribed four years after the artist's death, when her home became a public museum.

Another inscription adorns the bright blue and red patio wall. "Frida y Diego vivieron en esta casa 1929-1954" (Frida and Diego lived in this house 1929-1954). Ah! the visitor thinks. How nicely circumscribed! Here are three of the main facts of Frida Kahlo's life -- her birth, her marriage, and her death.

The only trouble is that neither inscription is precisely true. In fact, as her birth certificate shows, Frida was born on July 6, in 1907. Claiming perhaps a greater truth than strict fact would allow, she chose as her birth date not the true year, but 1910, the year of the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. Since she was a child of the revolutionary decade, when the streets of Mexico City were full of chaos and bloodshed, she decided that she and modern Mexico had been born together.

The other inscription in the Frida Kahlo Museum promotes an ideal, sentimental view of the Rivera-Kahlo marriage and home. Once again, reality is different. Before 1934, when they returned to Mexico after four years of residence in the United States, Frida and Diego livedonly briefly in the Coyoacán house. From 1934 to 1939 they lived in a pair of houses built for them in the nearby residential district of San Angel. After that there were long periods when Diego, preferring the independence of his San Angel studio, did not live with Frida, not to mention the one year when the Riveras separated, divorced and remarried.

The inscriptions, then, are embroideries on the truth. Like the museum itself, they are part of Frida's legend.

The house in Coyoacán was only three years old when Frida was born; her father had built it in 1904 on a small piece of land he acquired when the hacienda "El Carmen" was broken up and sold. But the heavy walls it presents to the street, its one-story structure, flat roof, and U-shaped plan, with each room giving onto the next and onto the central patio instead of being linked by hallways, make it seem to date from colonial times. It stands only a few blocks from the town's central plaza and the parish Church of Saint John the Baptist, where Frida's mother had a particular bench that she and her daughters occupied on Sundays. From her house Frida could walk by way of narrow, often cobblestoned or unpaved streets to the Viveros de Coyoacán, a forest park graced by a slender river winding among trees.

When Guillermo Kahlo built the Coyoacán house, he was a successful photographer who had just been commissioned by the Mexican government to record the nation's architectural heritage. It was a remarkable achievement for a man who had arrived in Mexico without great prospects, just thirteen years before. His parents, Jakob Heinrich Kahlo and Henriette Kaufmann Kahlo, were Hungarian Jews from Arad, now part of Rumania, who had migrated to Germany and settled in BadenBaden, where Wilhelm was born in 1872. Jakob Kahlo was a jeweler who also dealt in photographic supplies; when the time came he was wealthy enough to be able to send his son to study at the university in Nuremberg.

Sometime around the year 1890 the promising career of Wilhelm Kahlo, scholar, ended before it had begun: the youth sustained brain injuries in a fall, and began to suffer from epileptic seizures. At about the same time, his mother died, and his father married again, a woman Wilhelm did not like. In 1891 the father gave his nineteen-year-old son enough money to pay for his passage to Mexico; Wilhelm changed his name to Guillermo and never returned to the country of his birth.

He arrived in Mexico City with almost no money and few possessions. Through his connections with other German immigrants, he found a job as a cashier in the Cristalería Loeb, a glassware store. Later, he became a salesman in a bookstore. Finally, he worked in a jewelry store called La Perla, which was owned by fellow countrymen with whom he had traveled from Germany to Mexico.

In 1894 he married a Mexican woman, who died four years later as she gave birth to their second daughter. He then fell in love with Matilde Calderón ...


Excerpted from "Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo" by Hayden Herrera. Copyright © 2002 by Hayden Herrera. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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