How Diego Rivera Met the Fierce Teenage Frida Kahlo and Fell in Love with Her Years Later
By Maria Popova
There is something singularly mesmerizing about the fateful encounters that sparked epic, often turbulent, lifelong love affairs — take, for instance, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas or Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. But one of modern history’s most vibrant, passionate, and tumultuous loves is that between legendary artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the unusual and enchanting beginning of which is recounted first-hand in My Art, My Life: An Autobiography (public library) — a rare glimpse of Rivera’s inner life posthumously published in 1960, based on the interviews Gladys March conducted with the artist while shadowing him between 1944 and his death in 1957. March describes the book as “Rivera’s apologia: a self-portrait of a complex and controversial personality, and a key to the work of perhaps the greatest artist the Americas have yet produced.”
In a section titled An Apparition of Frida, Rivera describes his first encounter with the fierce teenage Kahlo while painting his first significant mural, Creation, at the Bolívar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City in 1922. Kahlo was one of only thirty-five female students at the prestigious institution.
While painting, I suddenly heard, from behind one of the colonial pillars in the spacious room, the voice of an unseen girl.
Teasingly, she shouted, “On guard, Diego, Nahui is coming!”
Nahui was the Indian name of a talented woman painter who was posing for one of the auditorium figures.
The invisible voice continued to play pranks on Rivera until it finally presented itself in the mischievous flesh: One night, as Rivera was painting up on the scaffolding and his then-wife Guadalupe “Lupe” Marín was working below, they heard loud commotion coming from a group of students pushing against the auditorium door. Rivera describes the moment, which he would only later, in hindsight, come to recognize as pivotal in his life:
All at once the door flew open, and a girl who seemed to be no more than ten or twelve* was propelled inside.
She was dressed like any other high school student but her manner immediately set her apart. She had unusual dignity and self-assurance, and there was a strange fire in her eyes. Her beauty was that of a child, yet her breasts were well developed.
She looked straight up at me. “Would it cause you any annoyance if I watched you at work?” she asked.
“No, young lady, I’d be charmed,” I said.
She sat down and watched me silently, her eyes riveted on every move of my paint brush. After a few hours, Lupe’s jealousy was aroused, and she began to insult the girl. But the girl paid no attention to her. This, of course, enraged Lupe the more. Hands on hips, Lupe walked toward the girl and confronted her belligerently. The girl merely stiffened and returned Lupe’s stare without a word.
Visibly amazed, Lupe glared at her a long time, then smiled, and in a tone of grudging admiration, said to me, “Look at that girl! Small as she is, she does not fear a tall, strong woman like me. I really like her.”
The girl stayed about three hours. When she left, she said only, “Good night.” A year later I learned that she was the hidden owner of the voice which had come from behind the pillar and that her name was Frida Kahlo. But I had no idea that she would one day be my wife.
It wasn’t until several years later that the two crossed paths again. In another section of the book, titled Frida Becomes My Wife, Rivera recounts how their passionate epic, in the true sense of the word, love affair began:
I was at work on one of the uppermost frescoes at the Ministry of Education building one day, when I heard a girl shouting up to me, “Diego, please come down from there! I have something important to discuss with you!”
I turned my head and looked down from my scaffold.
On the ground beneath me stood a girl of about eighteen. She had a fine nervous body, topped by a delicate face. Her hair was long; dark and thick eyebrows met above her nose. They seemed like the wings of a blackbird, their black arches framing two extraordinary brown eyes.
As he climbed down the scaffolding, Frida made no attempt to conceal her spirited attitude and fierce ambition, telling Rivera:
I didn’t come here for fun. I have to work to earn my livelihood. I have done some paintings which I want you to look over professionally. I want an absolutely straightforward opinion, because I cannot afford to go on just to appease my vanity. I want you to tell me whether you think I can become a good enough artist to make it worth my while to go on. I’ve brought three of my paintings here. Will you come and look at them?
Rivera agrees and follows her into a cubicle under the staircase, where she has stowed her paintings. His recollection captures the ineffable magic of a rare occurrence — that priceless precipice of creative communion where one artist is humbled by another, a recognition that inevitably blossoms into love:
She turned each of them, leaning against the wall, to face me. They were all three portraits of women. As I looked at them, one by one, I was immediately impressed. The canvases revealed an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity. They showed none of the tricks in the name of originality that usually mark the work of ambitious beginners. They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own. They communicated a vital sensuality, complemented by a merciless yet sensitive power of observation. It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.
Kahlo, however, having been warned of Rivera’s reputation as a ladies’ man, is skeptical of the noticeable enthusiasm in his face and immediately scolds him “in a harshly defensive tone”:
I have not come to you looking for compliments. I want the criticism of a serious man. I’m neither an art lover nor an amateur. I’m simply a girl who must work for her living.
Rivera is smitten — intellectually, creatively and, though he doesn’t yet realize it, romantically. He simply notes:
I felt deeply moved by admiration for this girl.
So when she insists on his honest opinion regarding whether she has what it takes to become a professional artist or whether she should pursue another line of work, he answers resolutely:
In my opinion, no matter how difficult it is for you, you must continue to paint.”
Vowing to follow his advice, Kahlo asks him one last favor — to come to her place the following Sunday and look at the rest of her paintings. It is only after providing her address that she tells Rivera her name — a revelation that stops him dead in his tracks as he remembers two important pieces of information about how he had come to know that name. The first was relayed to him by a good friend, then-director of the National Preparatory School where Kahlo went, who had identified her as the leader of a “band of juvenile delinquents” and had even considered quitting his job out of frustration with Kahlo’s mischief. The second is the memory of their first encounter at the Creation mural years earlier, that brave twelve-year-old girl who had stood up for herself without a shadow of fear or self-doubt. Rivera describes the exhilarating exchange that followed:
I said, “But you are…”
She stopped me quickly, almost putting her hand on my mouth in her anxiety. Her eyes acquired a devilish brilliancy.
Threateningly, she said, “Yes, so what? I was the girl in the auditorium, but that has absolutely nothing to do with now. You still want to come Sunday?”
I had a great difficulty not answering, “More than ever!” But if I showed my excitement she might not let me come at all. So I only answered, “Yes.”
Then, after refusing my help in carrying her paintings, Frida departed, the big canvases jiggling under her arms.
The following Sunday, Rivera promptly presented himself at the address Kahlo had given him, only to find her engaged in an appropriately fearless and mischievous activity:
In the top of a high tree, I saw Frida in overalls, starting to climb down. Laughing gaily, she took my hand and ushered me through the house, which seemed to be empty, and into her room. Then she paraded all her paintings before me. These, her room, her sparkling presence, filled me with a wonderful joy.
I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life. And she would continue to be, up to the moment she died, twenty-seven years later.
A few days later, the two kissed for the first time and Rivera “began courting her in earnest.” Although she was eighteen and he twice her age, neither of them “felt the least bit awkward.” Four years later, on August 21, 1929, they were married in a civil ceremony by the Mayor of Coyoacán, one of Mexico City’s sixteen boroughs, who proclaimed the merger “an historical event.” Kahlo was 22 and Rivera 42. They remained together until Kahlo’s death in July of 1954. Despite having an open marriage where each had multiple affairs — for the bisexual Kahlo, the most notable were those with French singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker and Russian Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky — both Kahlo and Rivera maintained that they were the love of each other’s life.
* In factuality, Kahlo was two weeks shy of her 15th birthday
Published May 22, 2014