The artist Frida Kahlo is famous for her paintings, especially her revealing and often dramatic self-portraits. A new exhibition at The New York Botanical Garden re-stages another of her creations: her private garden in Mexico City.
Admirers of Frida Kahlo can immediately identify the artist’s signature style: her dark brows, her colorful dresses, and the ribbons and flowers in her hair. Just like the embroidered dresses, which were a nod to Mexico’s past, the flowers had a deeper personal meaning: they were often picked from Kahlo’s own garden.
Kahlo possessed a strong love for the natural world throughout her life. She also took pride in her homeland’s culture and history, from its ancient civilizations to the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 (just three years after she was born). Her garden was one of the ways she expressed these values.
Many of Kahlo’s iconic self-portraits include imagery of foliage and flowers from her garden. In addition to her traditional Mexican clothing and jewelry made from shells, stones or bones, as well as her pet birds and monkeys, she frequently incorporated plants like “elephant-ear” leaves from the aroid (Araceae) family and white-haired “old-man cactus” (viejo), or other cacti and an assortment of flowers. By combining her own likeness and these additional details, she stressed the close links between humans, animals, and the natural landscape.
Kahlo lived most of her life in her family home, located in Coyoacán, on the outskirts of Mexico City. Her father had purchased it in 1904; it was a single-story building with a central courtyard. After Kahlo and the famous muralist Diego Rivera married in 1929, the couple lived together in this house and decorated it with the Mexican art and antiques that they both loved. They expanded the property, built an addition to the house and slowly transformed the garden, mixing native Mexican plants like sunflowers, dahlias, and cacti with the European species (like ivy and roses) that Kahlo’s family had already cultivated there.
Since 1958, Kahlo’s home has been open to the public as the Museo Frida Kahlo and is one of Mexico City’s most popular sites. However, even if you’re not able to travel to Mexico this summer, there’s a way to sample one of the Museo’s greatest pleasures. For the exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life,” a team of scholars and horticulturalists has recreated elements of Kahlo’s garden in a conservatory setting at the New York Botanical Garden. The exhibit centers around a courtyard modeled after the one in Kahlo’s house, with walls painted in the exact blue shade that gave her home its nickname of “Casa Azul” (“Blue House”). Along the walls and pathways, and around fountains and water pools, Kahlo’s inventive plantings of trees, shrubs and flowers have been replicated for visitors to enjoy.
A focal point of the Casa Azul’s garden, reconstructed for this show, is a tiered pyramid painted in bright colors. The original pyramid, inspired by ancient Aztec structures, was built to showcase Rivera’s collection of pre-Hispanic sculptures and other decorative objects. Rivera and Kahlo shared a strong sense of nationalism and wanted to revive Mexico’s indigenous culture, looking back to the time before Spanish colonization. The Botanical Garden’s version of their pyramid displays a variety of potted cacti and flowers, all native to Mexico.
In addition to the garden displays, 14 works by Kahlo are being shown in the Botanical Garden’s Art Gallery, including several of Kahlo’s still-life paintings of fruit. Kahlo said, “Fruits are like flowers: they speak to us in provocative language and teach us things that are hidden.” For these works, Kahlo selected fruits and vegetables that had grown in her garden or bought at local street markets. She particularly enjoyed depicting native Mexican fruits like prickly pears, mamey sapote, and Mexican hawthorn (also known as manzanita or tejocote), as well as citrus fruits that had been introduced to Mexico from other parts of the world. Kahlo’s fruit paintings often featured her pet parrots, which roamed freely throughout her house and garden.
Before leaving the exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, visitors can stop and look closely at a recreation of Kahlo’s studio worktable. At the Casa Azul, her table stands facing a large window that looks out onto the garden. In the New York Botanical Garden’s interpretation, a similar desk is positioned directly within the plantings, with its easel, pigments and brushes carefully arranged just as Kahlo might have placed them. In this setting, as in the original location, we can begin to understand how this garden refuge gave Kahlo lasting inspiration, even to her final days at the Casa Azul. As she once wrote, “I paint flowers so they will not die.”