Frida Kahlo and Diego: Legends and Icons of Mexican Culture
Artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are two of the most iconic figures of Mexican culture.
Through their modernist and post-revolutionary paintings and murals, they captured an era when the people wanted their power back. Indigenous roots and the origins of Mexicans were important to define national identity. And feminism was absent from the artistic field.
Their influence transcended the arts into the social, political, and intellectual spheres. They gathered with important people who shared their political and artistic views.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were irreverent, extravagant, and talented. She was his foremost admirer and most ruthless critic.
Read this article to enter the world of this legendary couple and learn about their influence on Mexican culture.
Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo Calderón was an artist, painter, and activist born in 1907 in the neighborhood of Coyoacán in La Casa Azul (The Blue House). Today, it’s a tourist hotspot in Mexico City and the Frida Kahlo Museum.
She was born three years before the Mexican Revolution. This historical passage deeply influenced her way of seeing the world and how she expressed herself through art.
As a child, Frida Kahlo suffered from polio, which led to being isolated for surgeries and recovery. Although Frida had a complicated relationship with her mother, she was close to her father, photographer Guillermo Kahlo.
He would take her to doctor’s appointments and help her get better. Later, Guillermo suffered from epileptic attacks, and Frida was the one who took care of him.
Frida Kahlo attended the prestigious Escuela Nacional Preparatoria (Preparatory National School). There were 2,000 students, of which only 35 were women.
She met many artists in that school like Salvador Novo, Miguel Nicolás Lira, and her boyfriend Alejandro Gómez Arias. The group expanded and called themselves Cachuchas. They were rebels with anarchist and revolutionary ideas that shared critical points of view on subjects like politics and injustice.
All of Frida Kahlo’s work—150 self-portraits and engravings—revolve around her biography and suffering. One of her most traumatizing moments, a bus accident, pushed her to start painting. Thirty-two surgeries were needed to partially repair her shattered spine.
The surrealist artist André Breton encouraged Frida to exhibit her work in France. Autorretrato – el marco (self-portrait – the frame) was the first piece from a Mexican artist to be acquired by the Louvre Museum; today it is at the Pompidou Museum.
According to Frida, she never painted dreams or surrealist settings, but her own life and reality. She had the admiration of important artists and reached international acclaim after her death.
How did Frida Kahlo die? Frida died in July 1954 of pulmonary embolism caused by pneumonia. Her last diary entry said, “I hope the exit is joyful… and I hope never to come back – Frida.”
Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez was the full name of artist Diego Rivera. He was born in Guanajuato in 1886.
Diego was a modernist, realist, and cubist painter and muralist. Much of his work is housed in the following locations:
- Centro histórico de la Ciudad de México – Historic center of Mexico City
- Escuela nacional de agricultura de Chapingo – National Agricultural School of Chapingo
- Cuernavaca, Mexico
- Buenos Aires, Argentina
- New York City, Detroit, and San Francisco, USA
Diego Rivera studied art against his father’s wishes and won a scholarship to study in Spain. Later, he lived in Paris and made friends with many artists and painters. He studied Cubism, post-impressionism, and Renaissance art. He came back to Mexico and dabbled in muralism.
Rivera got married and had a daughter. He affiliated with the Communist Party and ran for president. He died in 1957 at the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo (Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera House-Museum-Study) in San Ángel, Mexico City.
His remains are in the Rotonda de Personas Ilustres (Roundabout of Illustrious People), along with other important Mexicans like Francisco González Bocanegra, the composer of the national anthem, and Mario Moreno Cantinflas, a beloved actor and comic.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s Relationship
How did Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera meet? After Frida Kahlo’s bus accident, she started to frequent many political, artistic, and intellectual circles. Cuban communist Julio Antonio Mella and Italian photographer Tina Modotti took Frida to Communist Party events, where she met Diego.
Frida contacted Diego when he was working on a set of murals in the Secretaría de Educación Pública (Public Education Secretariat). Rivera was impressed with her artwork and encouraged Frida to keep painting.
They married in 1929 and were famous for having a creative yet tumultuous bond, inspiring each other, and complementing one another professionally and personally. Frida and Diego divorced in 1939, only to remarry a year later.
Mexico was at a point of transition after the Revolution, where new ideals were much-needed. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera became two prominent figures who validated a new vision where justice would reign.
How Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Influenced Art
Frida and Diego influenced each other’s art. They shared a passion for their indigenous roots, Mexican popular art, and communist political visions.
Diego was part of the “big three” of muralism. Along with Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco, they shaped the minds of viewers and artists. Their murals in the main cities of Mexico visualize the history and origins of Mexicans. This was important in a country where many people did not know how to read.
Frida Kahlo’s paintings are explicit, intimate, and reflective of her suffering and loneliness. Her unique trademarks that made her into the iconic pop artist she is today: the bushy eyebrow, long colorful skirts, Oaxaca huipiles (loose tunics with handmade embroidery), flower crowns, and exotic jewelry.
Although they’ve influenced Mexican art for decades, their popularity has skyrocketed in recent years. Frida Kahlo, especially, has become a symbol of Mexican feminist identity.
Mexicans today accept and revere their culture and heritage, largely thanks to figures like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. They confronted malinchismo—the act of despising your own traditions and history and preferring foreign ones. After all, feeling pride towards our ancestors, past and roots is natural and healthy.
Frida Kahlo Quotes
As an intellectual, Frida Kahlo said many phrases that immortalized her as an artist and a romantic. Here are some of the most iconic ones:
Pies, ¿para qué los quiero si tengo alas para volar?
Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?
Pinto flores para que así no mueran.
I paint flowers so they don’t die.
Escoge una persona que te mire como si quizás fueras magia.
Choose a person that looks at you as if you were magic.
Yo le duro lo que usted me cuide, yo le hablo como usted me trate y le creo lo que usted me demuestra.
I will stay for as long as you take care of me, I will talk to you as you treat me and I will believe from you what you show me.
Lo quise hasta que mi dignidad dijo: no es para tanto.
I loved him until my dignity said: he’s not that much.
Donde no puedas amar no te demores.
Where you can’t love, don’t delay.
Lo que no me mata, me alimenta.
What doesn’t kill me, feeds me.
Learn Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s Language
If you are curious about Mexican culture and Mexican artists, the best way to get closer is to go to the source. Nothing compares to seeing the artwork of your favorite artists in person. Go to Mexico to see the modern movement and inspiring paintings and murals firsthand.
Learning Spanish is a brilliant idea, not only to travel easier but also to get a tool that will open doors and opportunities for you. It empowers you to talk to locals in their native language; ask for opinions, tips, and directions; and maybe even make friends.
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