What’s your idea of a “happy house”?
A couple of months ago, during an especially bleak week—black clouds and persistent drizzle spreading universal depression—I happened to be driving down our town’s main street just as the absent sun sent a ray of light into a grove of trees to my left.
In that dazzling moment I glimpsed my dream cottage—a small bright blue house with red geraniums cascading out of terracotta pots, in the midst of an unruly jungle. It was so vivid I could almost hear parrots squawking.
In the twinkling of an eye, I knew it was the house for me. It looked like a place where I could cook and write and laugh with friends, tend a garden of papaya and lemon trees, sleep soundly in a soft feather bed. In the morning, sunflowers would smile at me through the window, and a pot of coffee, magically bubbling on the stove, would lure me into wakefulness.
The next day I drove up and down the street, trying not to run over the curb or overly enrage the exasperated drivers behind me—but, like happiness itself that week, the house seemed to have vanished into thin air.
It was an illusion, of course.
That sudden burst of sunshine had, for about 10 seconds, transformed a sad gray clapboard house dwarfed by dark evergreens into a merry cottage where life would be a perpetually joyous dance.
There’s plenty to be said for color as a mood elevator. The right pinks and blues can lift a heavy heart out of the doldrums, while yellow, orange and lime will electrify one’s existence—in a good way. All those currently fashionable gray hues? Send them back to the paint can where they belong!
In short, color–the brighter the better–can make you happy. Incidentally, do you remember my office? Take a look, in case you’ve forgotten.
With thoughts like these swirling in my head, it’s no wonder that I’ve been dying to see the New York Botanical Garden’s newest exhibit, “Frida Khalo: Art Garden Life.”
Last week B and I spent a leisurely morning there, wallowing in the fresh greens of the clipped hedges and topiary in the formal herb garden, before heading to the Conservatory where an evocation of Frida’s rather more rambunctious garden was on view.
Frida Kahlo, as you probably know, was a Mexican artist (1907-1954) celebrated nearly as much today for her revolutionary politics and early feminism as for her extraordinary body of work. In her short but tumultuous life, she created approximately 140 powerful, intensely colorful paintings, as well as dozens of drawings and sketches. Although she was overshadowed by her husband, the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, during her lifetime, a feverish cult has sprung up around her persona in recent years, eclipsing Rivera’s own popularity.
Her paintings include 55 self-portraits which, as Wikipedia notes, “incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds.” As well, many symbolically reveal what Kahlo was feeling about herself and her marriage. In Self Portrait as a Tehuana, also known as Diego in My Thoughts, she painted her husband’s face in the center of her forehead, signifying her ”obsessive love” for a man who was frequently unfaithful. Kahlo often wore and painted herself in traditional Mexican garb–here she is costumed as a woman from Tehuantepec–in part because of her national and cultural pride. As well, this costume was a favorite of Rivera’s.
Often Kahlo had to paint lying in bed due to the excruciating pain caused by a devastating street car accident at age 18. It broke her spine, collarbone, ribs and pelvis, fractured one leg in 11 places, dislocated a shoulder and her right foot—injuries which required more than 30 operations. She had three pregnancies but, because the accident severely damaged her reproductive system, she was unable to carry a child to term and had to wear corset-like braces until her death at age 47.
Although Kahlo’s work is sometimes described as surreal—one artist described her as “a bomb tied up in ribbons”—she disputed the label, saying, “I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” In her view she painted so many self-portraits because “I am so often alone, and I am the subject that I know the best.”
But I’m getting off track. Let’s talk about Frida and her garden.
Instead of examining her creative life through the usual filters—her two stormy marriages to Diego Rivera; the couple’s extramarital affairs, including her own with both women and men, notably with Leon Trotsky; and her almost constant physical pain—the NYBG curators decided to “look at her paintings through a horticultural lens.”
As it turns out, Frida’s affinity for the natural world offers an interesting new slant on her creative life.
Frida’s original garden was –and still is—at the Casa Azul (Blue House), her family home in Coyoacan outside Mexico City. This was the house where she was born, and where she lived with Rivera during their marriages. Over the years she and her husband transformed a conventional, somewhat formal, European-style courtyard garden, based on the Spanish patio, into a paradise of indigenous Mexican flora and fauna, filled with cactus, marigolds and calla lilies, populated by pet parrots and spider monkeys, adorned with folk art and pre-Hispanic artifacts.
The use of bright Mexican color was an integral part of the transformation. As the name “Casa Azul” suggests, many exterior walls were painted a vivid cobalt. Elsewhere there are expanses of rich terracotta pink and deep golden hues. If you know the work of the great Mexican architect Luis Barragan, you’ll notice similarities to houses he designed, and it is said that his garden was one source of Frida’s inspiration.
All the architectural and decorative elements came together in the colorful pyramid which the couple installed in the center of the garden. It served both as a way of displaying Rivera’s collection of Pre-Hispanic artifacts and symbolically as a celebration of Mexico’s native heritage.
To see what Casa Azul, now the Frida Kahlo Museum, looks like today, take a look at this YouTube video.
The NYBG’s much smaller exhibit garden is not a copy of the original. The biggest challenge was that the Casa Azul garden has become shadier and wetter than it was in Frida’s day. No one made a plant list, so the horticulturists studied archival photos and mined her paintings and letters for clues as to what plantings should be included.
Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, which serves as the exhibition poster, reveals the way Frida used “uncontrolled nature” to express her feelings. In the catalogue, Curator Johanna L. Groarke writes, “A wall of variegated foliage looms behind Kahlo, forming a backdrop and enclosing her. The large upright leaves resemble those of elephant ear plants…[which] can be found in the garden of the Casa Azul today. Here the untamed plants and the menacing animals seem to claim and confine Kahlo.”
As well, her neck is bleeding from the piercing thorns, an allusion perhaps to the continuous pain that she suffered–stoically, as her expression suggests. The hummingbird is dead–like Frida herself, a living being who is no longer able to fly. As one observer as written, “This is a painting about suffering.”
Instead of following the crowd to the start of the exhibit, B and I took a roundabout stroll through the other rooms of the Conservatory. Many of the plants on permanent display are not only native to Mexico, but were also be found in Frida’s original garden at Casa Azul.
These bright blue water pots—painted almost the same cobalt as the walls of her home—appear to float in the Palm House pool. The ripple-leafed philodendrons spilling over the sides recall one of Frida’s early paintings, Portrait of Luther Burbank (1931), in which the famed horticulturist holds five similar leaves in one hand. Burbank’s legs, incidentally, end in roots that descend deep into the earth—a touch of surrealism despite Kahlo’s dislike for the label.
The desert plant house is filled with stunning cacti and succulents, many of which are, no surprise, indigenous to the southwestern US and Mexico. These striking “pincushion” cacti are found in the dry deserts of northern Mexico, as well as Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala and Honduras. They are one of 200 species belonging to the genus Mammillaria, so called because they resemble the nipple of the female breast—minus the thorns of course!
A detour through an open door took us outside to the courtyard pool where a fleet of gardeners in waders were repositioning the lotus plants after a long winter’s sleep. A row of columnar cacti along one side and the spiky architectural leaves of green and gold flax, reminiscent of yucca and sansevieria, aka “mother in law’s tongue,” hinted at other plants we were about to see.
Back inside, we walked right into Frida’s studio. Or a facsimile thereof.
Her original workspace was located in a “lava clad” addition to Casa Azul, designed by Diego Rivera and architect Juan O’Gorman , that included a “large, light filled studio” overlooking the garden.
In the Conservatory exhibit, the designers alluded to the garden view by surrounding her work table with leafy plants, in particular calla lilies, a favorite of Rivera and a popular Mexican flower, that I am happy to say is growing in my own tropical garden.
On the table you can see Frida’s work tools: jars of paint, a palette and bristly used brushes, mortars and pestles for grinding pigment, and a mirror of the type that she might have used to paint her self portraits. Other personal effects include a globe and a few books–apparently she was a voracious reader.
If you’re wondering about Frida’s passion for color, just look closely at the pigments in these jars. Absolutely dazzling!
The “big reveal” in the NYBG’s exhibit is a facsimile of the pyramid which Diego and Frieda installed in the center of the garden at Casa Azul. The original pyramid was designed to display pieces from Rivera’s collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts which, in the view of Juan Rafael Coronel Rivera, in an essay for the catalog, were “engaged in a symbolic struggle” with an orange tree representing the Spanish culture that dominated Mexico for so many centuries.
Over time, the pyramid is said to have acquired a more deeply symbolic meaning. Successive “renovations” transformed it into “an allegory” related to the Aztec tradition of the mountain, with the different tiers representing the stages on the journey from the underworld to a “heavenly” temple on top with representations of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god.
In the exhibit garden, the pyramid again serves as a device for display—not for Rivera’s collection of artifacts, but for pots of sculptural cacti and succulents that hark back to the desert plants originally planted at Casa Azul. The tall organ pipe cactus and “bearded” Old man cactus can both be seen in archival photos, as can the smaller pin cushion mammallaria.
On another side, pots of gaily colored marigolds climb the pyramid stairs. In Mexico these cheerful flowers are known by their nahuatl name cempoalxochitl. I’ve always thought of marigolds as short little flower, but these tall willowy ones have made me re-think my own garden plantings.
I love the mosaic inscription on one of the walls that partially surround the exhibit garden. It says,“Frida and Diego lived in this house from 1929 to 1954 [the year of her death].”
Illness, infidelity, tumult aside—I think Casa Azul must have been a happy house for Frida, a place where she gathered all the people she loved, and the things—flowers, plants, books, folk art, pets—that inspired her. Although she was in terrible pain the last year of her life—one leg became gangrenous and had to be amputated—and had to stop painting, I imagine (or hope) that her surroundings gave her comfort.
In the cookbook Frida’s Fiestas, Guadalupe Rivera (Diego’s daughter by his first wife), tells of a visit she and Frida paid to a peasant named don Tomas one afternoon. Frida was in a foul mood since she had just read a newspaper article about her husband’s affair with a Hungarian painter and their plans to marry after he obtained a divorce.
Don Tomas invited her into his garden where “…that simple quiet man was suddenly transformed into a menacing creature like Quetzalcoatl, the Teotihuacan deity. A strange light shone in his eyes and he spoke prophetic words.
“’Nina Fridita,’ he said, ‘you have more suffering before you, but you will die sheltered and protected by the one who causes your present pain. You and don Diego will not be able to live apart. Sometimes you are united in love and affection, other times hatred keeps you apart. But you will die together and after your death be a single shining star, sun and moon in conjunction. Have no doubt, my dear girl: you are destined to live forever in this universe, each one merged with the other in eternal eclipse.’”
Actually Rivera died in 1957, three years after Frida. But he had already designated Casa Azul and its fascinating garden as Museo Frida Kahlo, a final gift, perhaps, to an extraordinary woman.