Diego Rivera, one of the greatest artists of the 20th. century, had four wives. But his third, the fascinating Frida Kahlo, an artist in her own right, was the focus of his most passionate and haunting affair. Their lives initially intersected in 1922, when Rivera, already a celebrated artist at age 36, painted his first mural in Mexico City in the amphitheater of the National Preparatory School. Born in Guanajuato, Mexico, Rivera had studied painting in Spain and had settled for a decade in Paris, where he was a member of the avant-garde. In 1921, he had left behind his common-law wife, returned to his homeland and joined the Communist party. A lifelong revolutionary, he expressed his social and political convictions in monumental paintings that spoke to his countrymen. Brilliant, charismatic and a devoted lover of women, he often found those affections returned, even though he was overweight and incontestably ugly, with fuzzy hair and bulging eyes.
Kahlo was a student at the Preparatory who watched the famous artist with interest. She was bright and a definite tomboy who ran around with troublemakers. Petite and striking, her looks stemmed in part from her heritage: part German, part Jewish, part Spanish, and part Indian. Her black eyebrows met over her nose and her right leg was withered from polio. She was only 15, but she knew that she was wanted. “My ambition is to have a child by Diego Rivera”, Kahlo immediately notified a friend” And I am going to tell him someday”. To get the artist’s attention, she mercilessly taunted him, calling him names like “Old Fatso” and playing pranks on him.
On one occasion, she soaped the stairways Rivera used every day, hoping that she could witness the national celebrity slip and fall, though he never did. She tried hard to insult one of his models, Guadalupe Marin, a great beauty, whom he was then courting. But in due time, Marin became Rivera’s second wife and the mother of two of his daughters. Kahlo meanwhile, was the victim of a devastating car street accident in which her spine, collarbone, pelvis and right leg were broken and her right foot was crushed. She was confined to a plaster body cast for months. With her still-whole arms, she requested paint and canvas and began to hone the skills she would use to paint haunting and surreal portraits that mirrored her suffering and psyche.
Several years passed, and when Kahlo regained her mobility, though never her full health, she tracked down Rivera at the Ministry of Education, where he was working on another mural. She boldly asked the master to come down from his scaffolding to speak to her and critique the painting she had brought to show him. She wanted to know if he thought she could earn a living as an artist. Rivera liked her work and wanted to see more, so she invited him to her family’s house in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City. The two were to become soul mates on many levels. Now divorced from Guadalupe, Rivera was attracted to Kahlo, who had adopted a political conscience of her own as a member of the Communist League. A few days after her visit, Rivera kissed her for the first time.
After he completed his work on the education building, he began to court the young seriously. Rivera had many women in his life, but Kahlo matched his wits with him and they could discuss everything. Soon he was asking her to critique his work, even though her opinions were sometimes brutal. More than just intellectual equals, Kahlo and Rivera were also aware of the palpable chemistry between them. Once when they were talking through Coyoacan, the streetlights suddenly turned on. When Rivera impulsively decided to kiss Kahlo, the light closest to when back on when they finished. They tested this phenomenon on other street lamps and witnessed the same results. This electricity did not go unnoticed.
After observing the lovers silently for a time, Kahlo’s father, Guillermo Kahlo, felt duty bound to speak out. ” I see you are interested in my daughter, eh?” “yes,” replied the artist” Otherwise I would not come all the way out to see her” “well, sir, I want to give you a warning. Frida is a clever girl, but she is un demonio oculto- a concealed devil. Un demonio oculto!” “I know it,” said Rivera. “Well, I have done my duty” her father sighed. With that partial blessing, Rivera 42, and Kahlo 22 were married Aug 21 1929.The civil ceremony in Coyoacan’s city hall was attended only by Kahlo’s father and three witnesses, Kahlo wore a Tehuana Indian costume that pleased Rivera- a layered skirt, which concealed her bad foot, a blouse, shawl and beads. Rivera dressed “American style” in a suit with a vest. Afterwards, a few relatives and friends attended a celebration in their honor.
Kahlo never did have a child. With Rivera she suffered one miscarriage and also had to have and abortion due to the position of the fetus. Rivera’s work and fame spread throughout the world, and he resumed his lifelong habit of extramarital love affairs. It was easy for Kahlo, who kept her maiden name, to look other way most of the time, since the couple lived in separate, adjoining houses. But she too began to have affairs-both with men, including Leon Trotsky, who had a house nearby, and with women. The couple began divorce proceedings in1939. Rivera’s profound love for Kahlo never died. After a year apart, while he was painting, he asked to join him, on the pretext of consulting an important bone surgeon about her slowly deteriorating body. They remarried in a civil ceremony in San Francisco on Dec. 8 1940. Rivera’s 54th birthday. They stayed together until she died in 1954 at age 47.