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.
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.