Home Movies of Frida Kahlo (and a Side Order of Romantic Entanglements)

Ear­ly home movies have a cer­tain pre­dictable qual­i­ty. Their sub­jects wan­der around, point­ing at things. They shoo the cam­era away with embar­rassed grins, clus­ter togeth­er awk­ward­ly, and casu­al­ly chat up their side pieces in front of their spous­es….

Wait, what now?

The vis­it between mar­ried artists Fri­da Kahlo and Diego Rivera and exiled Russ­ian Com­mu­nist leader Leon Trot­sky and his wife Natalia Sedo­va appears both cor­dial and ordi­nary in Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­ph­er Ivan Heisler’s footage, above.

The Trot­skys took up res­i­dence in La Casa Azul, Kahlo’s fam­i­ly home in Jan­u­ary 1937,  after Rivera per­suad­ed Pres­i­dent Lázaro Cár­de­nas to offer them sanc­tu­ary in Mex­i­co.

Short­ly after arrival, Sedo­va wrote a let­ter to friends, speak­ing warm­ly of the hos­pi­tal­i­ty she was receiv­ing:

We were breath­ing puri­fied air…A motorcar…carried us across the fields of palms and cac­ti to the sub­urbs of Mex­i­co City; a blue house, a patio filled with plants, airy rooms, col­lec­tions of Pre-Columbian art, paint­ings from all over: we were on a new plan­et, in Rivera’s house.

Heisler’s slice of life film would appear to be a con­tin­u­a­tion of this relaxed and hap­py vibe.

Trot­sky pats Rivera on the back and con­vers­es ani­mat­ed­ly with Kahlo, near­ly 30 years his junior. The two women embrace and stroll arm in arm, as the men take inter­est in a cac­tus.  Sedo­va seems  delight­ed when Rivera kiss­es her hand. Then every­one stands around and looks at trees.

Gosh, isn’t it nice when all mem­bers of two cou­ples get along so well?

Is it pos­si­ble, though, that an extra cou­ple was lurk­ing in plain sight?

Short­ly after meet­ing, Trot­sky and Kahlo entered into a brief but pas­sion­ate fling, exchang­ing sweet noth­ings in Eng­lish, con­ceal­ing love notes between the pages of books, and bor­row­ing Kahlo’s sis­ter Cristina’s house for trysts.

They called it quits in July of 1937, after Sedo­va caught on and issued her hus­band an ulti­ma­tum.

Accord­ing to the Hoover Insti­tu­tion Library and Archives, Heisler’s film was shot in 1938.

So we will amend our state­ment to say, isn’t it nice when two cou­ples get along so well, even after two of them were dis­cov­ered to be cheat­ing on their part­ners with each oth­er?

Kahlo’s and Rivera’s extra­mar­i­tal dal­liances are hard­ly news, of course.

Dan­ger­ous Minds sug­gests that part of what drew Kahlo to Trot­sky was the oppor­tu­ni­ty to get back at Rivera for his affair with Cristi­na — the sis­ter who vol­un­teered her house as love nest.

And in Van­i­ty Fair, Amy Fine Collins details how Rivera “boast­ed to any­one who would lis­ten” about Kahlo’s same sex lia­sons, but was apoplec­tic over her entan­gle­ments with men, includ­ing sculp­tor Isamu Noguchi, pho­tog­ra­ph­er Nick­o­las Muray, and Trotsky’s sec­re­tary Jean van Hei­jenoort, wit­ness to the bla­tant flir­ta­tion between the artist and his boss.

The romance with Trot­sky “infu­ri­at­ed him most” Collins writes, adding that “long after Trotsky’s assas­si­na­tion, Kahlo delight­ed in dri­ving Rivera into a rage by humil­i­at­ing him with the mem­o­ry of her affair with the great Com­mu­nist.”

…kind of makes one wish this lit­tle film had sound.

The absence of audio is also lament­ed by view­ers of this col­orized assem­blage of ama­teur footage star­ring Kahlo and Rivera.

Trot­sky appears again at the 1:03 mark. Dare we describe him as look­ing smit­ten?

There’s some spec­u­la­tion that the young woman at 1:17 is musi­cian Chavela Var­gas, anoth­er of Kahlo’s lovers. In that same moment, Kahlo proves her­self as in com­mand of her cin­e­mat­ic image as she was in her self-por­traits. She’s as self-pos­sessed as a movie star through­out.

Which makes the ear­ly glimpse of her sketch­ing en plein air in a fur coat and West­ern style hat, feet propped on a low wall, all the more dis­arm­ing.

It’s rare to see Fri­da Kahlo caught off guard, or so she appears, smil­ing and ges­tur­ing off­screen toward the osten­si­ble sub­ject of her draw­ing.

Is there a lip read­er in the house?

(Seri­ous ques­tion.)

For good mea­sure, here is even more footage — the Kahlo-Riveras at the Casa Azul, as cap­tured by Kahlo’s lover Nick­o­las Muray, whose famous 1939 por­trait of the artist in a magen­ta rebo­zo was declared “mar­velous as a Piero del­la Francesca” by her hus­band.

“To me it is more than that,” Kahlo wrote to Muray:

It is a trea­sure, and besides, it will always remind me [of] that morn­ing we had break­fast togeth­er.

Under­stand­ably, some view­ers remain dis­ap­point­ed that the snip­pets of Kahlo on film lack sound, but sure­ly the “voice” in which she wrote her many loves, Diego includ­ed, is far more expres­sive than any audio that a home movie might have cap­tured.

Which is not to say we’ll nev­er hear Fri­da. Above is a record­ing the Nation­al Sound Library of Mex­i­co believes to be her, from a radio show aired the year after her death.

The title of the text from which she is heard read­ing?

Por­trait of Diego.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Inti­ma­cy of Fri­da Kahlo’s Self-Por­traits: A Video Essay

A Brief Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Life and Work of Fri­da Kahlo

What the Icon­ic Paint­ing The Two Fridas Actu­al­ly Tells Us About Fri­da Kahlo

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

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Fri­da Kahlo’s Blue House Free Online

Dis­cov­er Fri­da Kahlo’s Wild­ly Illus­trat­ed Diary: It Chron­i­cled the Last 10 Years of Her Life, and Then Got Locked Away for Decades

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and cre­ator, most just late­ly, of Inven­tive, Not Well-known: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Com­ply with her @AyunHalliday.

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