COYOACÁN is a colonial township that has been absorbed by the city. Even before the Conquest it was a sizeable place. Originally the capital of a small lakeshore kingdom, it was subjugated by the Aztecs in the mid-fifteenth century. Cortés based himself in Coyoacán during the siege of Tenochtitlán, and continued to live here while the old city was torn down and construction began on the capital of Nueva España. The focus of the area is the spacious Plaza Central, but no visit to Coyoacán is complete without strolling out to the northern reaches of the suburb to the two main sights, the Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky museums.
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Museo Frida Kahlo
The Museo Frida Kahlo is just a few minutes’ walk from the centre of Coyoacán. The appropriately named Blue House was the Kahlos’ family home and this is where Frida was born and spent most of her life, sporadically with husband Diego Rivera, who donated the house to the nation shortly after her death. It was during Frida and Diego’s tenure here in the late 1930s that they played host to the newly arrived Leon Trotsky and his wife. Trotsky, ever fearful of assassins, apparently expressed his concern about the ease of access from a neighbouring property, and in a typically expansive gesture Diego simply bought the other house and combined the two. Continually at the centre of the capital’s leftist bohemian life, Diego and Frida hosted a coterie of artists and intellectuals at this house; D.H. Lawrence was a frequent visitor, though he had little political or artistic sympathy with Kahlo, let alone Trotsky.
Several rooms have been set aside as galleries. The first features around twenty relatively minor (and less tortured) examples of Frida’s work, from some of her early portraits through to her final work, Viva la Vida, a still life of sliced watermelons. She painted it in 1954, when the pain and trauma of her recent leg amputation had taken their toll on her painterly control, if not her spirit. Look too for a beautiful charcoal self-portrait from 1932 and the more political El Marxismo Dará la Salud a los Enfermos (Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick) from 1954. A room full of Frida’s signature tehuana dresses leads to more paintings, including over a dozen by Rivera, such as Paisaje de la Quebrada, which shows a rock face at Acapulco into which Diego painted his own face in purple. Alongside are several works by Velasco and Orozco, as well as a Klee and a Tanguy.
Interior and artefacts
Other sections of the house faithfully show the artesanía style that Frida favoured. Witness the blue and yellow kitchen with “Diego” and “Frida” picked out in tiny ceramic mugs on the wall. Its extraordinary decoration continues with bizarre papier-mâché animals and figures, and an impressive collection of retablos around the stairway. This leads up to Frida’s airy studio where her wheelchair is artfully set next to an easel and, of course, a mirror. Diego’s influence in the house is seen more through his interest in Mexico’s pre-Hispanic culture. Artefacts are scattered throughout the house and a small collection is displayed in the courtyard on a small two-step pyramid he had constructed there.
Museo Casa de León Trotsky
Trotsky’s House, or the Museo Casa de León Trotsky, where the genius of the Russian Revolution and organizer of the Red Army lived and worked, is about four blocks away and represents virtually the only memorial to Trotsky anywhere in the world. After Lenin’s death, Trotsky was forced into exile and condemned to death, and as increasing numbers of countries refused him asylum he sought refuge in Mexico in 1937, aided by Diego Rivera (at the time an ardent Trotskyite), who petitioned President Lázaro Cárdenas on his behalf. Here Stalin’s long arm finally caught up with him (see The assassination of Trotsky), despite the house being reinforced with steel gates and shutters, high walls and watchtowers. Today the fortified building seems at first a little incongruous, surrounded by the bourgeois homes of a prosperous suburb, but inside it’s a human place, set up as he left it, if rather dustier: books on the shelves, his glasses smashed on the desk and all the trappings of a fairly comfortable ordinary life – except for the bullet holes.
Since the 1970s, Frida Kahlo (1907–54) has been considered Mexico’s most internationally renowned artist, outshining even her husband, Diego Rivera, who recognized her as “the first woman in the history of art to treat, with absolute and uncompromising honesty, one might even say with impassive cruelty, those general and specific themes which exclusively affect women”. Julie Taymor’s 2002 biopic Frida, starring Salma Hayek, further consolidated her role as a feminist icon. Her work is deeply personal, centred on her insecurities and her relations with her family, her country and her politics. “I paint myself,” she said, “because I am so often alone, and because I am the subject I know best.” Her relatively short painting career was never prolific and the largest collection of her work is at the Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño.
The daughter of a mestizo Mexican mother and Hungarian Jewish father, Frida was born in the Blue House in Coyoacán (now the Museo Frida Kahlo). When she was 6, she battled a bout of polio that left her right leg withered. She rebounded and, as a precocious 14-year-old at Mexico City’s top school, first met Diego Rivera (twenty years her senior) who was painting a mural there. She shocked her friends by declaring that she wished to conceive his child “just as soon as I convince him to cooperate”, but they didn’t meet again for many years.
Marriage to Rivera
At 18, and already breaking free of the roles then ordained for women in Mexico, Frida had begun to pursue a career in medicine when she suffered a gruesome accident. The bus she was riding in was struck by a tram, leaving her with multiple fractures and a pelvis skewered by a steel handrail. It was during the months she spent bedridden, recovering, that she first took up a paintbrush. Later in life, she reflected “I had two accidents in my life. One was the bus, the other Diego.” After her recovery she fell in with a left-leaning bunch of artists, free-thinkers and Communists where she again met Rivera. Within a year they were married: she a striking, slender woman of 21; he a massively overweight man twice her age with a frog-like face and an unparalleled reputation for womanizing. Diego went about his affairs quite publicly (including briefly with Frida’s sister, Cristina). He was furious when Frida took up with other men, but her several affairs with women seemed to delight him. After her death he wrote, “Too late now, I realized that the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida.”
Encouraged by Diego, Frida pursued her painting career. Over half of her canvases are self-portraits: imbued with sophisticated personal symbolism, with themes of abortion, broken bones and betrayed love explored through the body set in an unlikely juxtaposition of elements.
In 1932 Frida miscarried and was hospitalized in Detroit where she painted Henry Ford Hospital. This disturbing depiction of her grief shows her naked body lying on a bed in an industrial wasteland, surrounded by a foetus, pelvic bones and surgical implements all umbilically tied back to her. After returning to Mexico, her circle of friends expanded to include Trotsky (with whom she had a brief affair), Cuban Communist Julio Antonio Mella and muralist David Siqueiros (later implicated in an attempt to kill Trotsky). By now Frida and Diego were living in paired houses in San Ángel, which allowed them to maintain relatively separate lives. In 1939 they divorced, a devastating event Frida recorded in Autoretrato con el Pelo Cortado (Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair), in which her trademark long tresses and indigenous tehuana dresses (both much loved by Diego) are replaced by Diego’s oversized suit and cropped hair. They remarried a year later, with Frida insisting on financial independence and a celibate relationship.
The injuries from her accident dogged her throughout her life, and as her physical condition worsened she found solace in her work (as well as drink and painkilling drugs), painting La Columna Rota (The Broken Column), in 1944, with her crushed spine depicted as an Ionic column. Despite increasing commercial and critical success, Frida had only one solo exhibition of her work during her lifetime, in Mexico City just a year before she died. In her later years she was wheelchair-bound, but continued the political activism she had always pursued, and died after defying medical advice and taking part in a demonstration against American intervention in Guatemala while she was convalescing from pneumonia in July 1954. By this stage, she knew she was dying; defiantly, on her last work, she daubed the words “Viva la Vida” – “Long Live Life”.
The assassination of Trotsky
The first attempt on Trotsky’s life, in his house at Coyoacán, left more than seventy scars in the plaster of the bedroom walls. At 4am on May 24, 1940, a heavily armed group led by painter David Siqueiros (who had been a commander in the Spanish Civil War and was working under the orders of the Stalinist Mexican Communist Party) overcame the guards and pumped more than two hundred shots into the house. Trotsky, his wife and son survived only by hiding under their beds. After this, the house, already heavily guarded, was further fortified. Unknown to all, though, the eventual assassin had already inveigled his way into the household, posing as a businessman being converted to the cause. Although he was never fully trusted, his arrival at the house on the afternoon of August 20, with an article that he wanted Trotsky to look over, seemed innocuous enough. Trotsky invited him into the study and moments later the notorious ice pick (the blunt end), which had been concealed under the killer’s coat, smashed into Trotsky’s skull. He died some 24 hours later, in the hospital after an operation failed to save his life. The killer, who called himself Frank Jackson and claimed to be Belgian, served twenty years in jail, though he never explained his actions or even confessed to his true identity, Jaime Ramón Mercader del Río.