Casa Azul—or, as Google Maps calls it, the Frida Kahlo Museum—sits on the corner of Londres and Ignacio Allende in a tranquil, affluent neighborhood in southern Mexico City called Coyoacán. The colonia is known for its tree-lined streets, lively market, and the fact that it was once home to the country’s most renowned painters: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. In fact, Casa Azul was not only their shared residence (and briefly that of an exiled Leon Trotsky), but was also the birth—and final—home of Kahlo.
About a month prior to my first visit to Casa Azul in October 2019, I’d received a rather severe trimalleolar ankle fracture via a rather silly accident that—for all practical purposes—snapped my foot off and put me in a dubious hospital for two weeks where no one spoke English and I underwent a nightmare surgery during a painkiller shortage and experienced some of the most transcendently human moments of my life alongside my fellow inmates of the broken bone ward. But that is an entirely different story. Suffice to say that by the time I’d arrived at Frida’s, my body and mind were in post-traumatic salvage mode.
I hadn’t gotten the hang of maneuvering from taxi to wheelchair yet and it was always an uncomfortable, embarrassing ordeal, but once I was situated in my mobile throne and rolling alongside Casa Azul’s cobalt walls, a peace settled over me. The laid-back atmosphere of Coyoacán offers a pacifying respite from the hurried and harried center of the megacity. At that point I lived on the Condesa thoroughfare of Nueva Leon where there is a near-constant chaos of commuters. Here in the placidity of Coyoacán, though, there were few vehicles, mostly a handful of buses and taxis dropping visitors off at the museum.
Said visitors stood in a line that snaked along the wall and around the corner, occasionally crossing the street to buy a cool drink from one of Mexico City’s ubiquitous cart vendors. I was the only one in a wheelchair, and I found myself mulling over what it must have been like for Frida to spend the latter years of her life rolling and crutching over the city’s cracked and uneven pavement before her condition confined her within the ramparts of Casa Azul.
My girlfriend pushed me to the back of the line and we waited in the pleasant, quiet sunshine for our turn to enter. Subsequent visits proved that there is always a line, even though you have to buy your tickets for a particular time online ahead of arrival. (One more tip: Be sure to buy them several days in advance as every time slot will sell out.) Tickets cost $250 pesos (about US$13), and inside the door you can buy a photo pass allowing you to snap pictures for $30 pesos.
I was the only one in a wheelchair, and I found myself mulling over what it must have been like for Frida to spend the latter years of her life rolling and crutching over the city’s cracked and uneven pavement ...
Once within the compound, I rolled through the rooms of the main house where on display is a broad collection of works, photographs, letters, and other artifacts relevant to Kahlo’s life. It’s interesting stuff, and well worth taking the time to examine. It was, however (or perhaps “ironically” is a better word), rather difficult to see from a wheelchair.
Where’s the irony? Those familiar with Frida Kahlo’s history may know she had polio as a child and then later suffered a terrible bus accident that shattered her body and resulted in a lifetime of pain and diminishing mobility. By the end of her life, virtually all of her movement was performed via wheelchair.
But as it turns out, Casa Azul is almost absurdly inaccessible to disabled people.
At the entrance to the house there’s a ramp alongside a handful of stairs. So far, so good. But once into the initial hall, things get dicey—at least from a wheelchaired perspective.
I left the photo gallery behind and walked (or rolled, rather) into a colorful room decorated by a collection of weird ceramic art by Frida, Diego, and company, but to progress any further required the negotiation of stairs. I managed to make my way down the few steps necessary to view a lovely kitchen adorned with the names of Frida and Diego, but from here in order to reach the main studio—arguably the highlight of the house—it was prerequisite to summit some dozen or so stairs. And wheelchairs are not allowed at the top.
At the foot of the steps I was told that I would either have to hop my way up and through then retrieve my chariot on the other side, or I would have to skip it. But I am a tenacious cuss, so hop it was. And hop I did.
At this point my ankle bones had barely begun to heal at all. I had no cast so they were held in place by a hardware store’s-worth of screws and steel plates, and they still jiggled and grated whenever I moved too abruptly. It turns out that jumping up a dozen-plus stairs and then some hundred or so feet through a crowded museum involves an overabundance of abrupt motion. The result: pain. Teeth grinding, sweat-pouring pain.
I was glad I made the agonizing ascension, for here I came upon some really fascinating stuff well worth the toil. Displayed in the studio are an array of painterly tools—palettes, brushes, little jars of paint, and so on—all arranged in front of an easel that had clearly been used by Frida rather than Diego. How can you tell? The wheelchair positioned in front of it.
There’s something humbling and inspiring about the wheelchair, even if you’re not in one yourself. That empty wheelchair—bereft of the great artist it once bore—speaks volumes to the tribulations Kahlo went through for her art.
Recently I had the opportunity to chat with author Chloe Cooper Jones, whose memoir Easy Beauty details her experiences as a traveler coping with a rare congenital disorder, sacral agenesis (meaning she was born without a sacrum or lower lumbar spine, resulting in mobility issues and chronic pain). Our discussion wandered to the topic of Frida Kahlo.
“One thing I find really inspiring about her,” Cooper Jones said, “and something I would thank her for is that she integrates all of those painful things—struggle, difficulty—they’re all integrated into her work. They’re all integrated into her self-portraits and self-reflection. They’re not hidden. They’re not meant to be seen as negative things. They’re seen as absolutely necessary parts of what it means to look at oneself.”
That a person can thrive and achieve not despite their struggles and challenges but because of them is precisely the sort of antifragility that has forged many of history’s most profound artists and artworks.
“When we look at the way in which people present in social media or whatever, there’s such a pressure to hide what could be seen as struggle or difficulty or ugliness or difference or whatever,” Cooper Jones continued. “It’s like we want to erase all those things from our lives, and present filtered and carefully curated things that only carry a positive valence. And then artists like Frida Kahlo . . . she painted her leg braces into her paintings! She painted her pain and her miscarriages and her back braces. All of those things are absolutely present and they’re part of a very vibrant and full person. I think the most fascinating thing about that is that when people look at her art, I think they feel a lot more and they feel a lot closer to her and her vision than we can often feel to the perfect airbrushed image.”
After the studio I entered the bedroom where Frida spent the final days of her life. In it stands a simple bed, a death mask resting upon the comforter. A painting of a dead infant hangs over the head of the bed; at its foot hangs the mirror she used to paint self-portraits. Beneath the mirror leans a pair of crutches.
Looking at these humble wooden crutches caused my emotions to kaleidoscope. To consummate such artistic and sociopolitical greatness while shackled by physical duress that many would presume impossible to transcend—what a triumph of a human was she! Also, why hadn’t I brought along my own crutches? Who would have guessed that the home of Frida Kahlo would be such a corporeal challenge?
In the final room is a smattering of Frida’s personal effects and a ceramic urn containing her ashes. It’s a surprisingly unassuming receptacle and I didn’t even realize what I was looking at during that first visit. But that might have been because the room was crowded and I needed to get out and get seated. So I hopped my way down the stairs exiting into the garden where my wheelchair awaited.
The garden is a peaceful place even when thronged by selfie-snapping tourists. It isn’t difficult to see how it would provide the ideal climate to nurture introspection and artistry. Lush flora abounds within walls and walkways of cobalt and granite. Frog mosaics cover the pond floors. Clay sculptures of strange, red, featureless faces and rough figures are carved in stone. There’s a constellation of conch shells. A red pyramid decorated with ancient ruins.
To the rear of the garden is an exhibit of Kahlo’s colorful traditional dresses alongside a collection of medical apparatus: crutches, harnesses and corsets, jars of bandages and other material, and a blood-spattered hospital gown. The whole scene serves as a sort of unintentional metaphor for her most famous work, The Two Fridas: one colorful, celebratory, vital—the other wounded, stark, imperiled, heart torn open and bleeding.
The Two Fridas is on view at the Museo de Arte Moderno, which stands on the edge of the vast and varied park of Chapultepec. It’s one of my favorite art museums in the world.
The museum is circled by a statue garden of abstract and surrealist works, and the interior is separated into two floors intertwined by a double-helix staircase. The permanent collection is upstairs, and it’s here that you’ll find Las dos Fridas.
Now it’s May 2022, and I’ve just arrived at the MAM after spending the morning at Casa Azul. So much has happened in the two and a half years since my first visit. This time I’m on two feet, if with a slight limp.
A large portion of the museum is dark, but the permanent collection is open. There’s virtually no one there at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. It’s just myself, a friend, and a small tour group of Mexicans. The tour group moves through the room at a fairly steady pace but is fixed before The Two Fridas for quite a while as their guide explains the painting’s significance. It’s no surprise that it garners extra attention as it is one of the most renowned works of art to emerge from Mexico and the keystone of the museum’s collection.
One Frida, dressed in the traditional Tehuana fashion, her heart whole and color high, clutches with her free hand a small portrait of her recently (though only temporarily) divorced husband Diego. Her other hand holds the hand of another Frida, this one wearing a European dress of white, her face pale and heart cut open, a vein running from it pouring blood onto the skirts of her dress as she attempts to stop the bleeding. The Fridas are joined by another vein that runs between their hearts. It’s a portrait of duality and pain; loss and perseverance.
“The things that she’s made will last forever,” Cooper Jones told me later. “She’s captured something that’s so valuable to so many people. I think that would not have been the case if she had been less able to show all of those sides to her.”
Standing there looking at the Fridas, I realized I understood a little bit more about her than I had three years earlier, before the accident. Or perhaps I had it backwards. Perhaps Frida understood something about all of us, and that’s what made her so great.
Frida Kahlo knew that everybody hurts, that everybody has had their heart injured and has struggled and has questions about the person they see in the mirror. That in itself—her empathy—is essential to her greatness, but more importantly, Kahlo knew something that is harder to appreciate: that there can be grace in pain and beauty in struggle.
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