Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera painted each other for 25 years: those works give us an insight into their relationship, argues Kelly Grovier.

Seen side-by-side in photographs, they struck an almost comic pose: his girth dwarfing her petite frame. When they married, her parents called them ‘the elephant’ and ‘the dove’. He was the older, celebrated master of frescoes who helped revive an ancient Mayan mural tradition, and gave a vivid visual voice to indigenous Mexican labourers seeking social equality after centuries of colonial oppression. She was the younger, self-mythologising dreamer, who magically wove from piercing introspection and chronic physical pain paintings of a severe and mysterious beauty. Together, they were two of the most important artists of the 20th Century.

When it comes to telling the story of the complex relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, historians invariably reach for the same set of biographical soundbites: his early career in Paris in the 1910s as a Cubist and her childhood struggles with polio; their fleeting first acquaintance in 1922 when she was just 15 and he was 37; the bus accident three years later that shattered her spine, pelvis, collarbone and ribs; her discovery of painting as salvation while she was bedridden and recuperating; their re-acquaintance in 1927 and his early awe at her talent; his affairs and her abortions; their divorce in 1939 and remarriage a year later.

Portrait of the artists

But if you really want to comprehend the passions and resentments, adoration and pain that defined the intense entanglement of Kahlo’s and Rivera’s lives, stop reading and start looking. Everything you need to know is there in the way the two artists portrayed each other in their works. Take Frida and Diego Rivera (1931), the famous double portrait she painted two years after they married for the first time in 1931, when the couple were living in California’s Bay Area.

Though the ribbon pinched in the beak of the pigeon that hovers in the top right of the painting may joyously declare “Here you see us, me, Frieda Kahlo, with my dearest husband Diego Rivera”, this is hardly the picture of uncomplicated marital bliss. With its criss-crossing, out-of-sync stares and slowly unclasping hands, the canvas vibrates with subtle tensions. The relationship it depicts is anything but straightforward or easily captioned.

The gesture rhymes with the wandering eyes of the two subjects, who will each both go on to have a string of extramarital affairs

What are we to make of the slight swivel of Diego’s head, forever away from hers, while his eyes drift back like a compass’s needle in Kahlo’s direction? What can we gather from the cockeyed, quizzical tilt of her own gaze, fixed as it is in dead space somewhere to our left, refusing either to run in parallel with his or engage ours? How do we read the curious clash of sartorial styles – his European suit and her traditional Mexican dress? Though Kahlo painted the work, why is it that we find Diego clutching the palette and brushes, as she grips a knot at her stomach with one hand and, with the other, begins to let go?

A marriage of inconvenience

The portrait was undertaken when Kahlo accompanied Diego on a lengthy sojourn to San Francisco, where he had been commissioned to create murals for the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the California School of Fine Art. The image captures Kahlo, who had adopted traditional Mexican dress to impress the champion of the Mexican worker, at a key moment in her development. The fist she makes at her gut – her fingers wringing a wad of shawl – may be an allusion to the chronic uterine pain she’d been suffering the past six years, since the handrail of a bus she was on in Mexico City ripped through her body, leaving her in recurring agony. But the gesture is also prescient of the losses she’ll experience by ensuing miscarriages and inability to carry a child to term. As a foreshadow, the gesture rhymes with the wandering eyes of the two subjects, who will each both go on to have a string of extramarital affairs.

A decade after painting Frida and Diego Rivera, Kahlo will revisit the subject of their tumultuous relationship in one of her most haunting self-portraits – a genre of which she would become as potent a pioneer as Rembrandt and Van Gogh before her. Self-Portrait as Tehuana (1943) (often referred to as ‘Diego on My Mind’), was begun in 1940, during the brief interlude between the couple’s two volatile marriages. It shows the artist clad in the lace of traditional Mexican dress, surrounded surreally by a shatter of web-like fibres that appear to crack the work’s invisible pane, as if the windscreen of her spirit has been struck by an existential stone.

At the centre of the impact is a miniature bust of Diego, emblazoned on her forehead like an elaborate third eye – a recurring motif in folk art symbolising inner vision. The migration of Diego from an imposing physical presence beside her in the earlier, more conventional portrait, to an integral component of her very being, is profound. However tempestuous their relationship has become, she has come to see Diego as the very lens through which she perceives reality – the epicentre of her creativity.

A later self-portrait, Diego and I (1949), revisits the theme of Diego imprinted on Kahlo’s brow and was created amid rumours that he would soon abandon her for a Hollywood starlet. The trails of tears that streak Kahlo’s cheeks invest the face-within-a-face with a gaping wound-like trauma – a stigmata of the mind.

An unflinching gaze

Unlike Kahlo, for whom painting her husband’s face was a frequent cartographic exercise that enabled her to map the undiscovered territories of their love and art, Rivera rather less frequently captured Kahlo’s likeness in his work. His intimate etching, Seated Nude with Raised Arms (Frida Kahlo), created in the couple’s first year of marriage in 1930, is lovingly observed. Sitting on the edge of their bed with nothing left to take off but her stockings, heels, and a chunky necklace, she appears lost in contemplation as she reaches behind her head to untie her hair. Rivera has frozen her in a moment of seemingly fretless tranquility, her elbows hoisted high like butterfly wings about to lift.

Nine years later, that innocent sense of serenity has sharpened into something rather more severe with the creation by Rivera of Portrait of Frida Kahlo (1939) – described by the institution that owns it, the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as “the only known easel portrait of his wife”. Set against a riven sky that shifts dramatically from blue on the left to green on the right, Kahlo’s unflinching stare is uncomfortably piercing in its hypnotic hold.

The penetrating likeness has the intensity of an ancient icon and ably embodies Diego’s famous assessment of Kahlo’s genius, as possessing “a merciless yet sensitive power of observation”. The small (14 × 9 .75 in. / 35.56 × 24.77 cm) image, which Diego held onto like his own Mona Lisa until his death in November 1957, represents the master muralist’s attempt to see Kahlo through Kahlo’s own eyes. His decision to paint the portrait on asbestos shingle invests the work with a secret poignancy and suggests the alternatingly insulating and toxic nature of their love.

Fire, as a resonant symbol for Kahlo’s spirit, will continue to ember in Rivera’s mind even after her premature passing in July 1954 at the age of 47, following a bout with gangrene a year earlier that had resulted in her leg being amputated. To mark the anniversary of her death, the widower drew a portrait of his wife that manages to transform her image into a kind of inscrutable Sphinx – an esoteric icon.

Based on a picture taken 16 years earlier by a photographer with whom Kahlo was having an affair, Rivera’s drawing locates Kahlo’s countenance at the epicentre of tensions between primal energies – earth and fire. Framing her cocked head is a coil of ribbons that have swollen surreally into sputtering arteries, while below her chin a strange strangle of gnarled roots flex. That clash of interior and exterior forces – heart and trees – almost distracts us from the unexpected sweetness of the simple sign-off that Rivera has inscribed below her: “For the girl of my eyes”.

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