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It seems appropriate that Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera – a fascinating couple that painted in extraordinary and post-revolutionary times – are represented on Mexico's 500 peso note. The artists contribute millions to the country’s economy in merchandise. Their faces and artworks adorn everything from T-shirts and mugs to postcards and matchboxes, not to mention the numerous museums associated with the duo and their art. But their legacy extends well beyond the tourist dollar.

From the 1920s to the 1950s, these lovers were Mexico's more shocking version of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, with an artistic output as well known as their tumultuous relationship (which included his infidelity, her bisexuality, their involvement in the Communist Party and their friendship with Leon Trotsky, whom Kahlo is said to have bedded). Rivera’s large-scale murals – completed for a post-revolutionary Mexico that embraced public art to help educate the masses – captured the collective spirit of his people, depicting the lives and struggle of the working class, largely indigenous Mexicans.

What Rivera lacked in looks (he was very large and considered ugly), he made up for in talent. He was considered a genius who could turn his brush to any style, including Cubist, Impressionist and Flemish. Kahlo's style, meanwhile, was surrealistic; her forte was self-pitying (some might say self-deprecating) portraits imbued with symbols. Though she was beautiful, she frequently depicted her broken body in her art; she was left a semi-invalid when, having already suffered from childhood polio, she was seriously hurt in a tram accident. Her injuries left her unable to bear children, which, when combined with Rivera’s infidelities, caused her much angst. Indeed, for Kahlo, art imitated (her) life. She once said, "I paint my own reality."

From the 1920s when they started courting to Kahlo’s death in 1954 and Rivera’s death in 1957, the artists churned out hundreds of works, many of which are on display in museums and public spaces across Mexico City. The works, and the sites associated with the artists, provide a lasting picture of the historical, cultural and social context in which they painted.

Following the spirit of Frida and Diego
An excellent first stop is the stunning, compact amphitheatre in Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, a former Jesuit college-turned-museum in Mexico City’s historic centre. The space is dominated by Rivera’s first mural, La Creación, which depicts the creation of science and art through figures and symbols. The massive piece, completed on his return from Europe in 1923, paved the way for the birth of Mexican muralism, a movement that spanned around 50 years. Few people seem to know about this gem, so you are likely to have it to yourself.

From here, head one block northwest to the Secretaria de Educacion Publica (Education Secretariat). This government office – with free admission and friendly guards – sees only a trickle of visitors, unlike the nearby Palacio Nacional which houses Rivera's more often-visited pieces. The Secretaria’s two courtyards are lined with 120 fresco panels by Rivera. These represent a story, the artist said, of “the very life of the people”, including indigenous festivals and traditions, along with depictions of Mexico’s labour, industry and agriculture. The building's top level, which displays a series of his murals on the 1910 Mexican Revolution – when workers stood up to the small group of elite that dominated Mexico's politics and economy – shows Rivera at his political best: the capitalists are fat and unattractive, their wives sport short hair and scowls.

From here it's a 1.2km stroll southwest to the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum), as spectacular for its Art Deco design as it is for its murals. An entire wall is covered by Rivera's El Hombre en la Cruce de Caminos (Man at the Crossroads), originally commissioned for New York City's Rockefeller Centre but destroyed because of its communist and anti-capitalist themes. Fortunately, a photograph survived and Rivera repainted the mural in 1934 (sketches are displayed in the city’s Anahuacalli Museum).

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