With some 200 works to her name, Frida Kahlo was not a prolific painter. But she was certainly a prolific lover: Her list of romances stretched across decades, continents, and sexes. She was said to have been intimately involved with, among others, Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky, dancer Josephine Baker, and photographer Nickolas Muray.
However, it was her obsessive, abiding relationship with fellow painter Diego Rivera
—for whom she’d harbored a passionate crush since she laid eyes on him at age 15—that affected Kahlo most powerfully.
Many of her canvases allude to the volatile but essential connection between the two hotheaded artists, who married in 1929, divorced some 10 years later, and remarried soon after. In one especially telling self-portrait, Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as Tehuana) (1943), Kahlo tattoos a small likeness of Rivera smack in the middle of her forehead. But it’s her bewitchingly crafted love letters that make it clear how deeply she was affected by her relationship with the Mexican muralist.
Several of these letters were drafted in Kahlo’s famed diary, which she began a few years after remarrying Rivera and kept until her death in 1954. Together, they reveal the complexities of Kahlo’s love for the celebrated, philandering artist, who began as her mentor and ended her equal. But each, in its own way, also affirms the mutuality of the couple’s primordial desire for each other. Their passion combined sex, spirituality, and painting—and shepherded their relationship through countless infidelities and altercations.
Kahlo’s first letter to Rivera in the diary, scrawled in looping cursive, reveals a potent mix of violence, anguish, love, and art. “I ask you for violence, in the nonsense, and you, you give me grace, your light and your warmth,” she writes, in a nod to the explosive nature of their relationship. And then, immediately after, she affirms her love for him in a language they both understand all too well: painting. “I’d like to paint you, but there are no colors, because there are so many, in my confusion, the tangible form of my great love.” Kahlo’s passion for Rivera is so intense and multifaceted, she explains, that there aren’t enough hues to capture it.
In other letters, too, Kahlo uses the vocabulary of color to describe sex and love. “Your eyes green swords inside my flesh. waves between our hands. All of you in a space full of sounds — in the shade and in the light. You were called AUXOCHROME the one who captures color. I CHROMOPHORE — the one who gives color.” Auxochromes and chromophores, the yin and yang of color theory, are the molecular building blocks that allow us to see the world in all its numerous shades. In Kahlo’s missive, they represent a romantic relationship wherein one gives and the other takes.
While this metaphor hints at inequality and imbalance, Kahlo drives home time and time again that, despite turmoil, this is a relationship on which she thrives. In a consecutive entry, she writes: “Upon your form, the lashes of the flowers responded to my touch, the murmur of streams. There was all manner of fruits in the juice of your lips, the blood of the pomegranate, the horizon of the mammee and the purified pineapple. I pressed you against my breast and the prodigy of your form penetrated all my blood through the tips of my fingers.” This is a love that sends her blood coursing to all ends of her body—right down to her fingertips, those extremities which both caress her lovers and wield her paintbrush.
But Kahlo also believed that her relationship with Rivera transcended the bodily, physical, even painterly world. “It’s not love, or tenderness, or affection, it’s life itself, my life, that I found when I saw it in your hands, in your mouth and in your breasts,” she writes to him. “I have the taste of almonds from your lips in my mouth. Our worlds have never gone outside. Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain.”
by Alexxa Gotthardt