Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City, Mexico

The Frida Kahlo Museum (Spanish: Museo Frida Kahlo), also known as the Blue House (La Casa Azul) for the structure’s cobalt-blue walls, is a historic house museum and art museum dedicated to the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. It is located in the Colonia del Carmen neighborhood of Coyoacán in Mexico City. The building was Kahlo’s birthplace, the home where she grew up, lived with her husband Diego Rivera for a number of years, and where she later died in a room on the upper floor. In 1957, Diego Rivera donated the home and its contents in order to turn it into a museum in Frida’s honor.

The museum contains a collection of artwork by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and other artists along with the couple’s Mexican folk art, pre-Hispanic artifacts, photographs, memorabilia, personal items, and more. The collection is displayed in the rooms of the house which remains much as it was in the 1950s. It is the most popular museum in Coyoacán and one of the most visited in Mexico City.

The Blue House
The house/museum is located in Colonia del Carmen area of the Coyoacán borough of Mexico City. Coyoacán, especially the Colonia del Carmen area, has had an intellectual and vanguard reputation since the 1920s, when it was the home of Salvador Novo, Octavio Paz, Mario Moreno and Dolores del Río. Today, the area is home of a number of the borough’s museums. The house itself is located on the corner of Londres and Allende Streets, and it stands out for its cobalt-blue walls, giving it the name La Casa Azul (The Blue House). Like most of the other structures in the area, the house is built around a central courtyard with garden space, a tradition since colonial times.

Originally, the house enclosed only three sides of this courtyard, but later the fourth side was added to enclose it entirely. The house covers 800m2 and the central courtyard is another 400m2. As it was built in 1904, it originally had French-style decorative features but later it was changed to the plainer facade seen today. The building has two floors with various bedrooms, studio space, a large kitchen and dining room. The entrance hall was decorated by a mosaic in natural stone by Mardonio Magaña of the Escuela de Pintura al Aire Libre in Coyoacán, inspired by the murals done by Juan O’Gorman at the Ciudad Universitaria.

The museum
Originally the house was the family home of Frida Kahlo, but since 1958, it has served as museum dedicated to her life and work. With about 25,000 visitors monthly, it is one of Mexico City’s most-visited museums, and the most-visited site in Coyoacán. The museum is supported solely by ticket sales and donations.

The museum demonstrates the lifestyle of wealthy Mexican bohemian artists and intellectuals during the first half of the 20th century. The entrance ticket to the Casa Azul allows for free entrance into the nearby Anahuacalli Museum, which was also established by Diego Rivera. According to records and testimony, the house today looks much as it did in 1951, decorated with Mexican folk art, Kahlo’s personal art collection, a large collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts, traditional Mexican cookware, linens, personal mementos such as photographs, postcards and letters, and works by José María Velasco, Paul Klee, and Diego Rivera. Much of the collection is in display cases designed for their preservation. The museum also contains a café and a small gift shop.

The museum consists of ten rooms. On the ground floor is a room that contains some of Kahlo’s mostly minor works such as Frida y la cesárea, 1907–1954, Retrato de familia, 1934, Ruina, 1947, Retrato de Guillermo Kahlo, 1952, El marxismo dará salud, 1954 (showing Frida throwing away her crutches), with a watercolor Diario de Frida in the center. This room originally was the formal living room, where Frida and Diego entertained notable Mexican and international visitors and friends such as Sergei Eisenstein, Nelson Rockefeller, George Gershwin, caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias, and actresses Dolores del Río and María Félix.

The second and third rooms are dedicated to personal effects and mementos and to some of Rivera’s works. The second room is filled with everyday items Frida used, letters, photographs, and notes. On the walls are pre-Hispanic necklaces and folk dresses, especially the Tehuana-style ones that were Frida’s trademark. Paintings in the third room include Retrato de Carmen Portes Gil, 1921, Ofrenda del día de muertos, 1943, and Mujer con cuerpo de guitarra, 1916.

The fourth room contains contemporary paintings by artists such as Paul Klee, José María Velasco, Joaquín Clausel, Celia Calderón Orozco, and a sculpture by Mardonio Magaña. The fifth room contains two large Judas figures, “mujeres bonitos” figures from Tlatilco, State of Mexico and figures from the Teotihuacan culture. The large papier-mâché Judas figures and other paper mache monsters were traditionally filled with firecrackers and exploded on the Saturday before Easter.

The sixth and seventh rooms are the kitchen and dining room. Both are in classic Mexican style, with bright yellow tile and the floor, blue and yellow tile counters and a long yellow table, where Frida’s sister Ruth stated that Frida spent much of her time. The two rooms are filled with large earthenware pots, plates, utensils, glassware, and more which came from Metepec, Oaxaca, Tlaquepaque, and Guanajuato, all known for their handcrafted items. Decorative features include papier-mache Judas skeletons hanging from its ceiling, and walls with tiny pots spelling the names of Frida and Diego next to a pair of doves tying a lovers’ knot.

Off the dining room was Rivera’s bedroom, with his hat, jacket, and work clothes still hanging from a wall rack. Next to this is a stairwell that leads from the courtyard area to the upper floor. This area also contains a large number of folk art items and includes about 2,000 votive paintings from the colonial period to the 20th century, other colonial era work, and more Judas figures.

The two rooms of the upper floor which are open to the public contain Frida’s final bedroom and studio area. This is located in the wing that Rivera had built. The original furniture is still there. In one corner, her ashes are on display in an urn, which is surrounded by a funeral mask, some personal items, and mirrors on the ceiling. On her bed is a painted plaster corset she was forced to wear to support her damaged spine, and under the canopy is a mirror facing down which she used to paint her many self-portraits. The head of the bed contains the painting of a dead child, and the foot contains a photo montage of Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Mao Zedong. The pillow is embroidered with the words “Do not forget me, my love.” Her wheelchair is drawn up to an unfinished portrait of Stalin, on an easel which is said was given to her by Nelson Rockefeller. Stalin became a hero to Kahlo after the Red Army victory over Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front in World War II.

The tour of the museum ends at the large courtyard garden which is completely enclosed by the four sides or wings of the structure. The courtyard area is divided by a stepped pyramid, a fountain, and a reflection pool. These were built in the 1940s when Rivera first moved into the house and built the fourth wing enclosing the house. This wing’s walls which face the courtyard are decorated with marine shells and mirrors. There are also sculptures by Mexican artist Mardonio Magaña. One side of the courtyard contains the inscription “Frida y Diego / vivieron en / esta casa / 1929-1954” (Frida and Diego lived in this house – 1929-1954).

The House Museum allows its visitors to discover the deep relationship that exists between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, their paintings and their home. The rooms show part of the work of Frida and Diego Rivera, who also lived there.

Among the highlights of the house are the beds (day bed and night bed) that Frida used to paint while she was immobilized due to the terrible accident she had. Many of his paintings were inspired by this and the suffering he experienced after several reconstructive surgeries.

Another attraction of the museum is the study of Frida, where you can also appreciate its library. The kitchen of the house has been preserved in the same condition as when the painter used it. This is a very important element within the enclosure, since all the objects within it, such as vessels and plates, clearly reflect the impact that Mexican culture had on the artist’s gastronomic lifestyle. Although at the time Frida and Diego lived, gas was already used in kitchens, Frida liked to prepare meals in a more traditional way, with wood-based cooking. Likewise, the Mexican-style garden designed by Diego Rivera houses a pyramid in which his collection of pre-Hispanic pieces are exhibited.

Among the most famous works found in the museum are Viva la vida and Frida and the caesarean section. However, the largest and most important public collection of Kahlo’s original works is in the Dolores Olmedo Patiño Museum.

In order to discover the history of Frida, the museum offers video guides that explain the history of each part of the house and the importance it has in the life of the painter.

Private Universe
As one explores Frida Kahlo’s work more deeply and enjoys the privilege of getting to know her home, one begins to discover the intense interrelations between Frida, her work, and her house. Her creative universe is to be found in the Blue House, the place where she was born and where she died. Following her marriage to Diego Rivera, Frida lived in different places in Mexico City and abroad, but she always returned to her family home in Coyoacán.

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In the room she used during the day is the bed with the mirror on the ceiling, set up by her mother after the bus accident in which Frida was involved on her way home from the National Preparatory School. During her long convalescence, while she was bedridden for nine months, Frida began to paint portraits

At the foot of the bed –a reminder of those days– are the portraits of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tsetung. In the studio, is the easel given to Frida by Nelson Rockefeller, along with her brushes and books, and in her nighttime bedroom is a collection of butterflies –a gift of the Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi–, as well as a portrait of her by her friend and lover the photographer Nickolas Muray.

Every object in the Blue House tells us something about the painter: the crutches, corsets, and medicines attest to her physical sufferings and the many operations she had to undergo. The exvotive tablets, toys, clothing, and jewelry reveal a Frida who was obsessed with hoarding objects.

The house itself speaks of the artist’s daily life. The kitchen, for example, is typical of Mexican colonial houses, with clay pots hanging on the wall and casserole dishes set out on the range: a testimony to the variety of cuisine prepared in the Blue House. Both Frida and Diego enjoyed offering their guests a whole range of traditional Mexican dishes.

Many prominent cultural figures and outstanding artists gathered around the dining table: André Breton, Tina Modotti, Edward Weston, Lev Trotsky, Juan O’Gorman, Carlos Pellicer, José Clemente Orozco, Isamu Noguchi, Nickolas Muray, Sergei Eisenstein, Dr. Atl, Carmen Mondragón, Arcady Boytler, Gisèle Freund, Rosa and Miguel Covarrubias, Aurora Reyes, and Isabel Villaseñor, among many others.

The Blue House was transformed into a synthesis of Frida and Diego’s tastes and their admiration for Mexican art and culture. Both painters collected traditional folk art with a sure esthetic sense. Diego in particular had a love for pre-Hispanic art, as witnessed by the decoration of the gardens and interior of the Blue House.

Frida’s home was turned into a museum because both Kahlo and Rivera cherished the idea of donating their works and possessions to the Mexican people. Diego asked the poet and museographer Carlos Pellicer to redesign the space so that the house could be opened to the public as a museum.

In November 1955, Pellicer described the house in the following terms: “Painted blue within and without, it seems to harbor a little bit of sky. It is the typical tranquil village house where good food and deep sleep give one the energy needed to live without serious alarms and to die in peace.”

Diego Rivera also lived in the Blue House for long periods. It was the muralist who ended up buying the property, paying off the mortgages and debts left by Guillermo Kahlo. Frida’s father had been an important photographer during the Porfiriato, but his fortunes had declined in the wake of the Revolution. Moreover, the medical costs incurred as a result of Frida’s accident left the family in debt.

Built in 1904, the house is not particularly spacious. It now has a constructed surface area of 800 square meters on a lot of 1,200 square meters. According to historian Beatriz Scharrer, Guillermo Kahlo (who had been born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) built the house in the style of the age: a central patio surrounded by the rooms. The exterior was designed in a thoroughly French style. It was Diego and Frida who later gave the house its distinctive air and who imprinted on it –by means of colors and traditional decorative elements– their admiration for the indigenous peoples of Mexico

Beatriz Scharrer has explained how the construction underwent certain modifications over the years. When the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida in 1937, the bluepainted exterior walls were erected to enclose a newly-purchased lot of 1,040 square meters now occupied by the garden, thereby affording the Soviet intellectual a measure of protection from the pursuit Josef Stalin’s hired assassins

In 1946 Diego Rivera asked Juan O’Gorman to build a studio for Frida, proposing that he use local materials such as basalt, the volcanic stone employed by the Aztecs to build their pyramids and carve their ceremonial pieces. The studio was designed in a functionalist style and decorated with works of Mexican folk art. In this part of the house, Diego lined the ceilings with mosaics and the walls with seashells, also embedding clay pitchers in the exterior walls to provide nesting spaces for doves and pigeons.

Contents in the house museum
In the old house of Frida Kahlo – who claimed to have been born in 1910 after the colonial era and at the same time as the new Mexico – we can find not only his works of art, but we can also be partakers of the pain that hugged Frida from his childhood with the poliomyelitis he contracted at age six, with the tragic tram accident that made it impossible for him to have children, a fact that took a long time to accept and with which he caused Diego Rivera’s infidelity, all of which reflected him in his paintings This reminds us of what Frida thought when they compared her work with surrealism: “They think I’m surreal, but it’s not true, I am not. I have never painted what I dream. I paint my own reality.”

In life, Rivera asked Dolores Olmedo that when he and Frida died they would turn the house into a museum, leaving everything open to the public with the exception of a bathroom, which they could open fifteen years after their death. Those years became fifty and when they opened the space they discovered thousands of documents, photos, dresses, books and toys. It was necessary to condition the building next door to be able to exhibit all these new objects.

In each room the obsessions and customs that the couple had around Mexican aesthetics are revealed. A collection of pre-Hispanic pieces is distributed throughout the house, there are paintings and representations of San Judas that hang from the walls, plants such as cacti and looms. The rooms and studios of the artists completely rebuilt: the paintings, brushes, books and notebooks as they once were. Frida and Diego’s personalities scattered throughout every corner of their home leaving their essences in each place.

Before he died, Diego asked Dolores Olmedo, his friend and patron, not to open the bathroom of his own bedroom in the Blue House for a period of fifteen years. Time passed, and Lola respected the wishes of her friend during her own lifetime. She kept the space locked up, as well as the bathroom of Frida’s bedroom, a small storage space, and various trunks, wardrobes, and drawers. Diego had left a brief inventory of the objects stored in his bathroom, but until just recently nothing was known about the contents of the other spaces.

For almost three years, with the support of the non-profit organization Apoyo al Desarrollo de Archivos y Bibliotecas de México (ADABI), which provides financial aid to archives and libraries, a group of experts was able to organize, classify, and digitalize the newly-discovered collection: 22,000 documents, 6,500 photographs, magazines and periodicals, books, dozens of drawings, personal objects, clothing, corsets, medicines, toys…. The task of making this archive public coincided precisely with the centennial celebration of the birth of Frida Kahlo and the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Diego Rivera. The archives and objects brought to light were genuinely fascinating, providing clues that will enrich the biographies of both artists. Many scholars visiting the exhibition have commented in surprise that the stories of Frida and Diego need to be rewritten, since many suppositions have been proven false or misleading.

These documents and drawing provide fascinating clues about Frida’s work. They include, for example, illustrations and drawings of the womb and the development of the human fetus, which would later be used to decorate the wooden frame of the diptych Still Life. Hidden away in the back of the closet, behind some books, was a small sketchbook containing the small but important drawing Appearances Can Be Deceiving. Stored in the same place were several drafts of the text Frida wrote about Diego (“Portrait of Diego Rivera”) for the tribute to the muralist held at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The authorship of this text had been questioned (and even attributed to Alfonso Reyes), but thanks to this new archive we can now be sure that Frida herself wrote it. All this is preserved in Frida’s house, a building that constitutes a living spring of passionate experiences.