Bio Passport: Frida & Diego's America

2015 will be packed with tributes to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the famed Mexican artists (and famously turbulent couple). From 1930-1934, Kahlo and Rivera lived in the United States, spending time in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City. Here, we take a journey to some of the places they visited, the places that inspired or repulsed them, the places that shaped their vision of America.
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Frida Kahlo: While enrolled in a premedical program at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria in Mexico City, Frida met her future husband, famed mural painter Diego Rivera. (Photo:  Bettmann/CORBIS)

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. (Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS)

By all accounts—all the ones published, anyway—Frida Kahlo's and Diego Rivera's feelings about the United States mirrored the intensity and variety of emotions that characterized the Mexican artists' relationship with one another. There were curiosity, passion, adulation, and excitement, especially on the part of Rivera, who was feted like a celebrity in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York, the three cities where they lived between 1930 and 1934. Kahlo's feelings were decidedly less warm and fuzzy, her frustration and, occasionally, fury often close to the surface. Initially, though, there was wonder.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States, 1932, oil on metal, Private Collection. (Photo: Detroit Institute of Arts)

In San Francisco, while Rivera painted at the Pacific Stock Exchange Lunch Club, Kahlo spent hours on end riding the city's trolleys and walking around Chinatown, which she described in a letter to a friend as “especially fantastic.” Biographer Hayden Herrera, described Kahlo as “wander[ing] through Chinatown looking for Oriental silks with which to make long skirts,” and it was clear the artist found inspiration in the neighborhood. “[I]t did make sense to come here,” Kahlo wrote to the same friend, “because it opened my eyes and I have seen an enormous number of new and beautiful things.”

Among those “new and beautiful things” were the city's bay, hills, and bridges, as well as the posh houses in the Russian Hill neighborhood, still an enclave for the well-heeled and worth visiting today for its architecture and views of the city. Though they weren't opposed to participating in distinctly American pastimes—they took in a university football game, which Rivera adored, describing it as “splendid, thrilling, beautiful”—the couple was more frequently sighted at galleries, museums, and universities, often in response to invitations for Rivera to lecture or exhibit his work. The Legion of Honor, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, was one of those places; it gave Rivera a one-man show. Stop by today and you'll enjoy the same view Rivera and Kahlo did in 1930; the Legion overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay splayed out beneath it.

There are also places where modern-day visitors to San Francisco can get glimpses of Kahlo's and Rivera's work and learn more about their time in the city. One of these is an unexpected spot along the tourist trail: The San Francisco General Hospital Medical Center. The hospital has one painting by each artist, gifts made to Dr. Leo Eloesser, who treated Kahlo for medical problems and remained her friend for many years. “La Tortillera” by Rivera, and “Portrait of Dr. Leo Eloesser,” by Kahlo, are on display temporarily at SFMOMA until the hospital's new facility opens in December 2015. The other place where you can enjoy Rivera's work is the former Stock Exchange Tower at 155 Sansome Street. Now accessible by a reservations-only tour, the tower holds Rivera's “Allegory of California,” the first mural he painted in the U.S.

From San Francisco, the couple returned to Mexico, but less than a month later, a well-connected representative of the New York art world arrived at their doorstep to extend a personal invitation: Would Rivera be interested in a retrospective exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art? By November, he and Kahlo were sailing into a Manhattan port, where MoMA's president awaited them.

Frida Kahlo: Frida traveled with her husband, artist Diego Rivera, when he went to New York to meet with Anson Conger Goodyear, the President of the Museum of Modern Art, to begin work on a series of murals. (Photo:  Bettmann/CORBIS)

In New York, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera met with Anson Conger Goodyear, the president of the Museum of Modern Art. (Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS)

The couple lived at Barbizon-Plaza at 106 Central Park South, a hotel popular with visiting artists and musicians because it had its own concert halls, art galleries, studios, and in-house performances. The neighborhood was equally tony, but Kahlo was unimpressed. Writing to her doctor, she complained about the city's “high society,” which “turns me off. . .Americans completely lack sensibility and good taste,” she said, adding presciently, “[I]t is terrifying to see the rich having parties... while thousands...are dying of hunger.” Indeed, the country was just on the cusp of the Great Depression, and Central Park, within easy walking distance of the hotel, would soon be a tent city. (Kahlo's watercolor and pencil work depicting the park sold at auction for $83,650 in 2003). As for the hotel, its glory days were short-lived; it closed in 1933. Now owned by Donald Trump, visitors can still see the beautiful modern classical architecture and imagine the sensation the dramatically-dressed Kahlo and her rotund, besuited husband must have made as they came and went.

Many of the places the couple frequented in Manhattan have shuttered over the years, including movie houses where Kahlo watched horror films and Reuben's, a deli where she lunched. The most important place, however, remains: MoMA, where Rivera's 1931-1932 show drew record crowds. Today, the museum has more than 90 Rivera works in its collection—though only a fraction is on display—and three Kahlo paintings.

From New York, the couple moved to Detroit, the city where even greater acclaim awaited for Rivera and heartbreak for Kahlo. They lived in the Wardell, a hotel at 15 Kirby East and Woodward Avenue, convenient to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). The Wardell, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007, was built in 1926 in the late 19 and early 20 century revival style; today, it is a condominium and considerably more luxurious. The DIA remains, no small feat given the city's devastating financial problems that almost resulted in the liquidation of the museum's collection, including the masterwork Rivera painted there.

While Rivera was being celebrated, Kahlo was dealing with one of the most devastating chapters of her life. Already unimpressed by Detroit, which she referred to as “a shabby old village,” the city would loom dismal in her memories for another reason: it was here where she suffered a miscarriage, admitted to Henry Ford Hospital. It was difficult for Kahlo to appreciate any of the city's beauty, but visitors in search of Kahlo's and Rivera's Detroit can find it more easily by taking a tour with Detroit Experience Factory, whose guides lead guests on a jaunt to see the places that became significant to the artists while they lived there.

When their stint as U.S. expats was done, Rivera and Kahlo returned to Mexico; Kahlo, happy to be home, Rivera content with his success. Their time in the U.S. marked their careers and lives, but their presence here perhaps had an even greater and longer-lasting impact, still visible today in these three cities. 

For more about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, here is a list of current and upcoming events paying tribute to the artists this year: 

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit (March 15-July 12, 2015 at Detroit Institute of Arts) brings together nearly 70 works of art that depict the evolution of the two artists’ careers, including eight of Rivera’s epic preparatory drawings for the Detroit Industry murals and 23 pieces by Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life (May 16-November 1, 2015 at The New York Botanical Garden) will focus on Kahlo's appreciation of the natural world with a display of more than a dozen original Kahlo paintings and works on paper, and a reimagining of her famed garden and studio at the Casa Azul, her lifelong home in Mexico City.

Michigan Opera Theatre is also remembering Kahlo with an opera about her life, Frida, on stage this month. 

The permanent home of The Mexican Museum in San Francisco, which has quite a Rivera collection, will open in 2018, further proof that the global appreciation for these two artists remains strong.