Frida Kahlo’s Passionate Love Letters to Diego Rivera

The truth young ide­al­is­tic lovers learn: rela­tion­ships are messy and complicated—filled with dis­ap­point­ments, mis­un­der­stand­ings, betray­als great and small. They fall apart and some­times can­not be put back togeth­er. It’s easy to grow cyn­i­cal and bit­ter. Yet, as James Bald­win famous­ly wrote, “you think your pain and your heart­break are unprece­dent­ed in the his­to­ry of the world, but then you read.” You read, that is, the life sto­ries and let­ters of writ­ers and artists who have expe­ri­enced out­sized roman­tic bliss and tor­ment, and who some­how became more pas­sion­ate­ly alive the more they suf­fered.

When it comes to per­son­al suf­fer­ing, Fri­da Kahlo’s biog­ra­phy offers more than one per­son could seem to bear. Already dis­abled by polio at a young age, she found her life for­ev­er changed at 18 when a bus acci­dent sent an iron rod through her body, frac­tur­ing mul­ti­ple bones, includ­ing three ver­te­brae, pierc­ing her stom­ach and uterus. Recall­ing the old Gre­go­ri­an hymn, Kahlo’s friend Mex­i­can writer Andrés Hen­e­strosa remarked that she “lived dying”—in near con­stant pain, endur­ing surgery after surgery and fre­quent hos­pi­tal­iza­tions.

In the midst of this pain, she found love with her men­tor and hus­band Diego Rivera—and, it must be said, with many oth­ers. Kahlo, writes Alexxa Got­thardt at Art­sy, “was a pro­lif­ic lover: Her list of romances stretched across decades, con­ti­nents, and sex­es. She was said to have been inti­mate­ly involved with, among oth­ers, Marx­ist the­o­rist Leon Trot­sky, dancer Josephine Bak­er, and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Nick­o­las Muray. How­ev­er, it was her obses­sive, abid­ing rela­tion­ship with fel­low painter Diego Rivera—for whom she’d har­bored a pas­sion­ate crush since she laid eyes on him at age 15—that affect­ed Kahlo most pow­er­ful­ly.”

Her let­ters to Rivera—himself a pro­lif­ic extra-mar­i­tal lover—stretch “across the twen­ty-sev­en-year span of their rela­tion­ship,” writes Maria Popo­va; they “bespeak the pro­found and abid­ing con­nec­tion the two shared, brim­ming with the seething caul­dron of emo­tion with which all ful­ly inhab­it­ed love is filled: ela­tion, anguish, devo­tion, desire, long­ing, joy.”

Truth is, so great, that I wouldn’t like to speak, or sleep, or lis­ten, or love. To feel myself trapped, with no fear of blood, out­side time and mag­ic, with­in your own fear, and your great anguish, and with­in the very beat­ing of your heart. All this mad­ness, if I asked it of you, I know, in your silence, there would be only con­fu­sion. I ask you for vio­lence, in the non­sense, and you, you give me grace, your light and your warmth. I’d like to paint you, but there are no col­ors, because there are so many, in my con­fu­sion, the tan­gi­ble form of my great love.

So begins the let­ter pic­tured at the top. In anoth­er, equal­ly pas­sion­ate and poet­ic let­ter, pic­tured fur­ther up, she writes:

Noth­ing com­pares to your hands, noth­ing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mir­ror of the night. the vio­lent flash of light­ning. the damp­ness of the earth. The hol­low of your armpits is my shel­ter. my fin­gers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-foun­tain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.

Kahlo and Rivera fell in love in 1928, when she asked him to look at her paint­ings. Over her mother’s objec­tions, they mar­ried the fol­low­ing year. After ten tumul­tuous years, they divorced in 1939, then remar­ried in 1940 and stayed part­nered until her death in 1954. Over these years, she poured out her emo­tions in let­ters, many, like those above, first writ­ten in her illus­trat­ed diary. Let­ters to and from her many lovers have also just emerged in a trove of per­son­al arti­facts, recent­ly lib­er­at­ed from a bath­room at Casa Azul where they had been kept under lock and key at River­a’s behest.

Both artists’ many affairs caused tremen­dous pain and “cre­at­ed rifts between them per­son­al­ly,” notes Katy Fal­lon at Broad­ly, although “their rela­tion­ship has been mythol­o­gized past recog­ni­tion,” in the way of so many oth­er famous cou­ples. In the most egre­gious betray­al, Rivera even slept with Kahlo’s younger sis­ter Cristi­na, his favorite mod­el, an act that inspired Frida’s 1937 paint­ing Mem­o­ry, the Heart, a self-por­trait in which she stands with a met­al rod pierc­ing her chest, her hands seem­ing­ly ampu­tat­ed, face expres­sion­less. We learn the wrong lessons from roman­ti­ciz­ing “every­thing” about Fri­da and Diego’s life, Pat­ti Smith sug­gests in her trib­ute to Kahlo’s love let­ters. But there is also dan­ger in pass­ing judg­ment.

“I don’t look at these two as mod­els of behav­ior,” Smith says, but “the most impor­tant les­son… isn’t their indis­cre­tions and love affairs but their devo­tion. Their iden­ti­ties were mag­ni­fied by the oth­er. They went through their ups and downs, part­ed, came back togeth­er, to the end of their lives.” In a 1935 let­ter to Rivera, read by pianist Mona Golabek above, Kahlo for­gives his affairs, call­ing them “only flir­ta­tions…. At bot­tom, you and I love each oth­er dear­ly, and thus go through adven­tures with­out num­bers, beat­ings on doors, impre­ca­tions, insults, inter­na­tion­al claims. Yet, we will always love each oth­er…. All the ranges I have gone through have served only to make me under­stand in the end that I love you more than my own skin.”

Read many more excerpts from Frida’s let­ters to Diego at Brain Pick­ings.

Relat­ed Con­tent:   

Vis­it the Largest Col­lec­tion of Fri­da Kahlo’s Work Ever Assem­bled: 800 Arti­facts from 33 Muse­ums, All Free Online

Artists Fri­da Kahlo & Diego Rivera Vis­it Leon Trot­sky in Mex­i­co: Vin­tage Footage from 1938

Rare Pho­tos of Fri­da Kahlo, Age 13–23

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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