Garden of Frida’s Delights

There’s never been a better time to visit the New York Botanical Garden, where the iconic Mexican artist’s Casa Azul has been re-created inside the Victorian Enid Haupt Conservatory

By Ilene Dube

Like the wings of a crow, the unibrow of Frida Kahlo has been hovering over the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) since May, where a plant-themed exhibit, Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden and Life, continues through November 1.

The artist’s love of nature and its importance as a source of inspiration are evident in her work, home and garden. Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is recognizable by, and even imitated for, the flamboyant flowers adorning her hair—dahlias, bougainvillea, gardenias. Fruits and tropical plants were ornaments to her Tehuana clothing and home.

The delicate lavender-like scent of jacaranda wafts through NYBG’s magnificent Victorian structure, the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, as Art, Garden and Life re-imagines Kahlo’s studio and garden at the Casa Azul (Blue House), her lifelong home. Nearby, in the NYBG’s Mertz Library Art Gallery, is a display of more than a dozen original paintings and drawings by Kahlo, as well as photographs and other materials to help tell the story of her life, and an homage to her painting “The Two Fridas” by contemporary artist Humberto Spindola.

 “This exhibition (enriches) our understanding of Frida Kahlo’s connection not just to her native Mexico but to the natural world overall,” says Guest Curator Adriana Zavala, associate professor of modern and contemporary Latin American art history and the director of Latino studies at Tufts University. “Kahlo’s life, her times and her work were, like the natural world itself, a crossroads of trans-cultural influences.”

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Symbols of fecundity, such as seedpods, populated her paintings, as did cacti, vines and roots, often morphing into genitalia. Unable to bear children, Frida—like Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, she is recognizable by first name alone—was obsessed with fertility and surrounded herself with a menagerie of animals and tropical birds, treating them as surrogate children. She was fascinated by the unity of all things—humans, plants, animals, the sun, earth and moon and the universe—and painted hybrids of plant and animal forms.

To many, Kahlo’s life is just as interesting as her art. Because of her legendary status—she was the first Latin American woman to have a painting in the Louvre—we expect the paintings to be large, and viewers are often surprised to see her familiar images on canvases that are merely life size. Larger than life was muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957), her on-and-off-again husband. Shortly after they wed, Kahlo painted “Frida and Diego Rivera,” in which his feet are about eight times the size of hers. In fact hers are so tiny, they look as if they were bound, symbolic of her role as the dutiful wife. He holds the palette and paintbrushes, and she is bejeweled and wrapped with a red-fringed shawl.

Kahlo wore indigenous Mexican and Tehuana costumes both to please her husband and to conceal her right leg that had withered from childhood polio and injuries sustained in a near-fatal streetcar accident in 1925. It was also a political statement, showing her pride in Mexican culture. Of mixed heritage, she aligned herself with Mexican peasants even though she was raised in privilege.

Frida was born in Casa Azul, today home to Museo Frida Kahlo outside of Mexico City and one of its most visited attractions. Her father, Guillermo Kahlo, a German Jew, was a successful photographer of architectural landmarks. He brought her along on shoots and allowed her to retouch his work in the studio. Frida was at ease before the camera, and brought this same sense of poise to her numerous self-portraits. Her mother, Matilde Calderon y Gonsalez, was “mestiza”—of indigenous and Spanish blood. As a result, Frida became fascinated with the concept of hybrid.

She had planned to be a doctor before a metal handrail on a bus impaled her abdomen when she was 18, leaving her with lifelong health problems. She started to paint from bed while recuperating.

Diego Rivera was 20 years her senior, one of Mexico’s most prominent painters. His murals celebrated Mexican history, culture and people, gracing important public buildings in Mexico City.

Both Rivera and Kahlo were active in an intellectual movement that embraced Mexico’s folk art, rural and indigenous traditions and pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican heritage. Born on the cusp of the Mexican Revolution, Kahlo came of age during a period of political upheaval and social transformation. The two met when Rivera was painting a mural in the amphitheater of the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso. She asked if she could watch him work and stayed for three hours, her eyes riveted on every brush movement. She married Rivera in 1929.

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Frida assumed ownership of Casa Azul in 1930 and, with Rivera, transformed it into a monument of their shared vision, expanding the courtyard and stripping the exterior of the neoclassical detail, replacing pilasters and window frames with simple grillwork and bands of color. They painted it a brilliant blue from pigments of indigo and prickly pear. A variant of the recipe is still used at Museo Frida Kahlo.

Motivated by the post-Revolutionary renaissance, Kahlo and Rivera were discarding the trappings of European culture. Casa Azul became a haven where she painted, taught students and entertained. The kitchen had a yellow floor, yellow furniture with accents of red and green, and tile work of blue and yellow.

At the Haupt Conservatory, thanks to designer Scott Pask (credits include the set for The Book of Mormon), you enter an evocation of the garden as it was in the mid 20th century. The garden was a showplace for Kahlo and Rivera’s collections of pre-Hispanic objects, modern folk art and native Mexican plants. Red zinnias, native to Mexico, were arranged in bouquets that filled the dining room in Casa Azul.

Among the flowers Frida wore in her hair was bougainvillea, which grew in her garden. These colorful “flowers” are actually bracts—modified leaves that attract pollinators to the true flowers, which are white and small. Into her hair and table decorations Frida also arranged dahlias, the national flower of Mexico. The Aztecs grew dahlias for their edible tubers, medicinal properties and ceremonial rites.

Lady’s Eardrops, a fuchsia hybrid, is thus named because the flowers resemble earrings. In Frida’s “Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird” (on view at the Mertz Library), the flower is depicted transforming into a winged insect.

She is said to have told a lover, “I paint flowers so they will not die.” Her portrait of famed horticulturalist Luther Burbank shows him growing from a tree trunk, its roots emerging from a skeleton underground. He holds fronds of a philodendron, a common plant at Casa Azul—the Aztecs referred to philodendron as huacalxochitl, or basket flower, because of the vessel-like form of the spathe and spadix. Its roots dangle, while fruit hangs from two trees in the background, showing the cycle of death and rebirth, of new life springing from the old.

Kahlo affectionately nicknamed Diego “sapo-rana” (“the toad frog”) because of his large protruding eyes. Frog images appear in Rivera’s paintings and were associated with fertility in pre-Hispanic symbolism. A re-created mosaic floor of the Casa Azul fountain includes frogs.

Kahlo’s parents had a kitchen garden and family gathering place with potted plants on the balustrade. In the Haupt Conservatory we see an arrangement of such pots with jade, crown of thorns, agave, aloe vera and Aeonium Jack Catlin—a giant hen-and-chick. Kahlo and Rivera grew agave and yucca, as well as  jacaranda, the wood from which is used in musical instruments.

In 1940, after a yearlong separation and divorce, Frida and Diego remarried. Rivera designed a four-tiered pyramid structure to house his growing collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts. It was based on Meso American and pre-Aztec structures and was surrounded by a profusion of agave and cacti, and has been re-created here at NYBG.

When Kahlo and Rivera purchased adjacent lots to expand, they added a modern light-filled studio overlooking the garden. From here she painted an increasing number of still lifes of carefully arranged fruits and flowers. Interestingly, although revered as one of the most significant artists of the 20th century, Frida’s body of work numbers only 250, most of which are paintings of herself. Kahlo said she painted self-portraits because she was so often alone and “I am the person I know best.”

Re-created in the Haupt Conservatory, the studio’s shelves are crammed with small sculpture, a microscope and books on subjects from poetry to botany and pre-Hispanic cultures. There is a desk set up with an easel and her pigments, oil pastels, tubes of paint, bottles, brushes, a mortar and pestle, and a globe.

Preparatory drawings for “The Dream,” where visions arise from her in bed, and “Frida and the Miscarriage” show her interest in surrealism. She said she didn’t know she was a surrealist until André Breton, the movement’s founder, called her one.

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“Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird”—painted as a gift to her lover when she remarried Rivera, and one of her most noteworthy paintings—is on view, with its thorny vine piercing the skin around her neck. A dead hummingbird talisman dangles from the “necklace.” A pet monkey and black cat stand guard, butterflies ornament her braided hair, and a zinnia and fuchsia transform into winged insects above her head. In Mexican folklore, a dead hummingbird amulet was believed to bring back a departed lover.

Contemporary artist Humberto Spindola (who is also a gardener at Casa Azul) pays tribute to the dresses in “Two Fridas,” rendering them in tissue paper, a modern application of the Aztec tradition of making art with paper from tree bark. The dresses are displayed on mannequins formed by molding thin, moistened strips of reeds and fastening them with hemp yarn and wax.

But of course the best thing about Art, Garden and Life is that it provides a great excuse to visit one of the most extraordinary botanical gardens in the world—250 acres of Eden in the Bronx!—with a Victorian conservatory that is the largest glass house in the country, and a native plant garden that shows what the Bronx looked like before it was developed in the 1800s.