Three days with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico City

From the 1920s to the 1950s, the lovers were Mexico's more shocking version of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, with an artistic output as well known as their tumultuous relationship.

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).

Walk across the Alameda, the city’s smallish central park, to the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, home to one of Rivera's most famous murals, Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central). The highly colourful, 15m-long piece contains a mass of interacting historical figures from the Mexican conquest in 1521; the Porfiriato dictatorship between 1870 and 1911; and the 1910 revolution. Rivera appears as a pudgy child holding hands with Mexico's famous skeleton, La Calavera Catrina, and it's hard to miss the mono-browed Kahlo, dressed distinctively in the indigenous clothing she favoured, standing close behind.

On day two, head southwest from the grittier historic centre to the pretty suburb of Coyoacán. La Casa Azul – Museo Frida Kahlo (The Blue House – Frida Kahlo Museum) receives hundreds of visitors daily: get there early or expect queues. The beautiful three-winged house is where Kahlo grew up, lived for some time with Rivera and where she died. Trotsky stayed here in 1937 on his expulsion from Russia. A collection of Kahlo's artworks, plus her belongings – books, paintings and, jewellery and dolls – evoke both her personal and artistic sides.

At Casa Azul you can buy a joint ticket to the Anahuacalli Museum, located around 4km south of Coyoacán. Rivera designed this extraordinary space – a replica of a pre-Hispanic temple with functionalist Art Deco elements – to house his vast collection of pre-Hispanic art. The 23 rooms are spread over four levels and exhibit thousands of exquisite figurines that Rivera wanted preserved. The highlight is a massive studio displaying his works, including a study for Man at the Crossroads.

If anywhere reveals more about Kahlo and Rivera's lives together, it’s the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo studio in San Ángel, 4.2km southwest of Coyoacán. Built by architect Juan O'Gorman in 1932 for the couple, the modernist building was way ahead of its time. It comprises two separate buildings – one for each artist – joined by a walkway; Rivera and Kahlo lived in separate areas after they divorced in 1939 and remarried each other the following year. Mojigangas (giant papier mache puppets), paints and Rivera's easel fill the studio, and his pyjamas are laid out in a tiny adjoining bedroom. Kahlo’s side features rotating art exhibits. 

Day three takes you to Xochimilco, the canal district 26km south of the city centre. Museo Dolores Olmeda Patiño, a former 16th-century hacienda, was home to Dolores Olmedo Patiño, one of Rivera’s patrons and many mistresses. The estate is surrounded by lush green gardens full of native Mexican plants, geese and peacocks. It's even home to some bizarre-looking Xoloitzcuintle dogs, a rare pre-Hispanic, hairless species.

Many works of both Kahlo and Rivera are on display here (along with Russian illustrator, Angelina Beloff, with whom Rivera started living in 1911). Here, too, is a portrait of Rivera's mother, painted by Rivera when he was only 10 years old. 

For diehards, the city hides more Rivera jewels. Just west of the historical centre, Chapultepec Park features the intriguing mosaic of Agua, el Origen de la Vida (Water, Source of Life). Alternatively, head to Teatro Insurgentes, a functioning theatre in the suburb of Benito Juarez, whose facade features an extraordinary 46m-long mosaic depicting the arts through historical figures. As only Rivera could have wanted, these fragmented pieces encapsulate Mexico's rich history, politics and culture that continue, even now, to educate and enrich the world.