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.
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?
Read more at the BBC.