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Finding Frida

The artwork and persona of Mexico's Frida Kahlo are growing in influence 50 years after her death, making their cultural mark worldwide.

By Associated Press
Published July 13, 2004

MEXICO CITY - Fifty years after Frida Kahlo's death, her very private, raw and vulnerable work is getting only more popular.

During her life, Kahlo had become a mythic figure in her country, famous for her marriage to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, her communist ideals and her native dress and jewelry.

In recent years, Kahlo's art has been sought by top museums worldwide, and her dress has inspired fashion designers. Her bohemian lifestyle - crossing the paths of many famous artists, writers and personalities - has been the subject of plays as well as the 2002 film Frida, starring Salma Hayek.

The 50th anniversary of her death on July 13, 1954, is being marked with a flurry of exhibitions, events and books in her birthplace, Mexico City.

Many of the piercing self-portraits for which Kahlo was famous are going on display at her home, the Blue House, so named for the indigo color she painted it. Through these self-portraits, Kahlo dealt with her crippling bus accident, her inability to have children and her stormy marriage to Rivera.

Rivera had Kahlo's home turned into a museum in 1958, and it is one of the most visited museums in Mexico. Each year more than 325,000 people come to the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacan to tour the house's lush gardens and see the bedroom where Kahlo often painted and where she died at 47.

The gift shop offers iconography featuring Kahlo's images as well as mouse pads and cigarette holders.

The public trust that controls the museum just finished a yearlong $130,000 restoration, replacing windows, fixing fountains and restoring the blue exterior to its original brightness.

The museum has also begun cataloging more than 26,000 letters and other documents left when the house was turned over to the trust. The archive of hitherto unseen material will eventually be open to the public.

In Mexico, Kahlo appears to have gained equal stature with the country's heroes. Street stalls sell Kahlo reproductions, photographs and T-shirts alongside souvenirs of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

"You can see images being sold in the markets that associate Frida with the Virgin of Guadalupe," said Hilda Trujillo, coordinator of the Frida Kahlo Museum. "The idea of pain and suffering that's present in Catholicism, they associate with Frida."

Kahlo's unusual and intimate writing is gaining more attention, says Raquel Tibol, who has published several books on her. A new edition of her collection of Kahlo's writings is No. 4 on Mexico's bestseller list.

Many of Kahlo's writings and paintings deal with the effects of a near-fatal accident at 18, when a bus she was riding in was hit by a trolley car. She was skewered on a metal pole and broke bones throughout her body.

She began painting while bedridden for months. Kahlo had more than 30 operations throughout her life and remained in constant pain.

At 22, she married Rivera, 20 years her senior. The couple hosted a stream of famous guests from the United States and Europe, and both had numerous affairs. Perhaps the most famous of Kahlo's trysts was with exiled communist Leon Trotsky.

"She was one of the few liberal women of that time who had a career, lived independently, said what she thought; who acted how she liked and who was liberated from social constraints," said Carlos Phillips, director of the Frida Kahlo Museum.

But Rivera's constant infidelity, including an affair with Kahlo's sister, led Kahlo to famously say that she had suffered two accidents in her life: the trolley car crash and Rivera.

There is something particularly attractive to other Mexicans about the way Kahlo loved life despite her constant pain, says Mexico City resident Roberto Munoz.

"Mexicans don't lead what you would call an easy life, so in a certain way we see that tragedy reflected in her paintings," Munoz said, sitting in a plaza in Coyoacan. "Although we don't suffer the same exact problems, we can see that she was able to overcome hers . . . and it gives us pride that people in other countries know her and identify with her."

[Last modified July 12, 2004, 23:51:21]

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