Cache of long-lost photos found in abandoned bathroom reveal secrets of Frida Kahlo’s life
The fixed gaze of Frida Kahlo’s painted self-portraits evolved from taking and posing for photos. (Frida Kahlo Museum: Guillermo Kahlo)
They are images that shed new light on the private life of the world’s most famous female artist.
But hundreds of photographs belonging to Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, on show at the Bendigo Art Gallery from this week, almost never saw the light of day.
The photographs are part of the artist’s personal archive, the existence of which only became known in 2004.
Frida Kahlo Museum director Hilda Trujillo was there the moment Frida Kahlo’s cache of photographs was unlocked. She said it was like opening Tutankhamen’s tomb. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
Until then they were stored haphazardly inside bathrooms at La Casa Azul, or the Blue House — Kahlo’s lifelong home in the Mexico City neighbourhood of Coyoacán.
“At the beginning we didn’t realise what we had in our hands,” Frida Kahlo Museum director Hilda Trujillo said.
Ms Trujillo was among the first people to lay eyes on the contents of the bathroom.
She likened the moment of their discovery to the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Secret buried for decades
After Kahlo’s death in 1954, her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, gifted the house and its contents the Mexican people.
Hundreds of Frida Kahlo’s photographs, dresses and other belongings were locked up behind this green door for five decades after her death. (ABC Central Victoria: Mark Kearney)
Fearful his wife’s legacy would become politicised during another volatile period of upheaval in the country’s history, Rivera asked his friend and patron, Dolores Olmedo, to keep the works private for 15 years.
Motivated by her jealousy of Kahlo, Olmedo instead let the collection sit idle until her own death.
“It is likely she did not want to deal with Frida’s memorabilia because it was particularly Frida’s memorabilia,” Ms Trujillo said.
An unlikely discovery
While she regularly depicted her disability on the canvas, photography gave Frida the opportunity to appear unencumbered by a wheelchair. (Frida Kahlo Museum: Giséle Freund)
From when the haul was first uncovered, it took four years to catalogue and restore the 6,000 photographs, 300 dresses and 20,000 personal documents that were inside.
Some staff even proposed that the worn clothing and faded photographs be discarded.
Even if the value of the photographs was not immediately clear to its guardians, Ms Trujillo said Kahlo treated them like living objects.
Kahlo cut up, defaced or embellish many of her photographs. This picture of husband Diego Rivera still bears her lipstick mark. (Frida Kahlo Museum: Anonymous, 1940)
“She cherished them as substitutes for the people she loved and admired,” she said.
The surface of one picture in the Bendigo exhibition still bears the lipstick marks left there by the Mexican artist.
Others were defaced after Kahlo fell out with the model.
Some were cut up to fit into the small compartments of wooden boxes she used to store keepsakes.
Comfortable with the camera
Kahlo’s exposure to photography began in childhood, when she was tasked with accompanying her photographer father, Guillermo, to work, in case he suffered an epileptic seizure.
She conducted only the most rudimentary of experiments with photography, with just a handful of images known to have been taken by her.
In one, she used a rag doll and toy horse to recreate the bus accident that left her in need of more than 30 operations and reliant on a wheelchair for much of her life.
Frida Kahlo knew how to pose for the camera in a way that did not show the pain and injuries with which she lived. (Frida Kahlo Museum: Nickolas Muray)
But familiarity with the camera inspired her own artistic style, especially the fixed gaze she painted in her self-portraits.
“Frida Kahlo is always looking at the viewer directly in the eyes, because she was posing to herself as if posing to a camera,” Ms Trujillo said.
Photographs were useful stand-ins for live models when discomfort prevented her from standing or sitting up to work.
On those occasions, an easel was tied to her bedhead, holding a canvas above her head and parallel to her prostrate body.
A love for life
She also became a favourite model of photographers, many of whom were artists drawn to Mexico after its revolution, in which Rivera was a central figure.
“They came for Diego Rivera, but they stayed for Frida Kahlo, because she was so charismatic,” Ms Trujillo said.
Ms Trujillo said her appearance in front of the camera could even be describes as “coquettish”.
“Even if she suffered, she only expressed that on the canvas,” she said.
“She didn’t like to say to people she was ill, because she loved people: parties, tequila, mariachi.”
Bendigo Art Gallery curator Leanne Fitzgibbon believed visitors to the exhibition would leave with a better understanding about who Frida Kahlo was away from her easel.
“It’s an amazing revelation about her personal life and motivations,” Ms Fitzgibbon said.
“The photographs allow you to get up close and personal with Frida Kahlo — I feel like I know her intimately now.”
About 2,500 people visit Frida Kahlo’s home, Casa Azul, every day. (ABC Central Victoria: Mark Kearney)
In the markets of Coyoacán, just metres from the Casa Azul’s doorstep, the likeness of Frida Kahlo adorns the surface of every conceivable souvenir.
The commercialisation of Kahlo’s face is a phenomenon with which Ms Trujillo is uncomfortable.
She said it is something outside the control of the museum, which is entrusted with the preservation of her art, home and archives.
One of the photographs to be featured in the exhibition shows Ms Kahlo pictured in 1944. (Frida Kahlo Museum: Lola Álvarez Bravo)
But she comforts herself knowing it is the Mexican masses who were first to widely use Kahlo’s image — not the upper classes that once spurned the artist for her unusual dress sense and fluid sexuality.
Ms Trujillo said if footballers and singers can rise to superstardom, then why should Kahlo not enjoy the same status?
“I think it’s more interesting to have passion for the artist,” she said.
Frida Kahlo, her photos is on display at the Bendigo Art Gallery until February 10, 2019.