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The two houses of Kahlo

The Mexico City museums are aligned at last, honoring the life of the iconoclastic painter.

September 06, 2004|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — If Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul and the Dolores Olmedo Patino Museum had been people instead of buildings, you wouldn't have dared leave them in the same room together. They might've called each other names. They might've clawed each other's eyes out. They might've mimicked the kinkier parts of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

Like their former mistresses -- the iconoclastic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and the real-estate magnate and art collector Dolores Olmedo Patino -- these private homes-turned-national-landmarks have spent much of their lives locked in a bizarre, sometimes fierce, rivalry. But now, amid a citywide cultural blowout marking this summer's 50th anniversary of Kahlo's death, the museums finally are patching up their differences and cohosting this year's largest, most striking display of Kahlo's paintings anywhere in the world. The irony is that it took the deaths of both women for their namesake institutions to make peace.

For all their personal differences, Kahlo and Olmedo had plenty in common. Both were women of passion, formidable talent and no little ego. Both were bohemians who liked dressing as Indian peasants. Both were intimates of artist Diego Rivera -- one his protege, soul mate and sometime spouse, the other his steadfast patron, reputed lover and posthumous manager of a large part of his legacy. Both modeled nude for him, Kahlo in a discreetly introspective pose, Olmedo in full-frontal luxuriance, eyes drooping with sleepy sensuality. Both tried continually to satisfy Rivera's Rabelaisian appetites.

And both, frankly, couldn't stand each other. "I know my mother didn't like Frida," says Carlos Phillips Olmedo, Dolores Olmedo's son and the current director of both museums. "They were contemporaries; at one time they had the same boyfriends, and that creates friction between women. Between men as well."

A dapper businessman who looks astonishingly like the perestroika-era Mikhail Gorbachev, Phillips chuckles at this idea as he sips cappuccino in the shady gardens of the Casa Azul, where Kahlo was born in 1907, spent much of her life and died a half-century ago at 47. Cats prowl the Casa Azul's cool, damp courtyard, scampering across the miniature Aztec-style pyramid that Rivera built there. A few feet away, a tape loop of Rivera's daughter, Guadalupe Rivera Marin, can be heard rattling off stories about the old house's famous occupants.

Phillips too has childhood memories of the Casa Azul and the formidable artist who lived there, though they're not the sort of fond reminiscences that spawned the worldwide '80s art craze known as "Fridamania." "I just remember a lady that was disagreeable, dirty, smelled bad and was in bad humor," he says of Kahlo. "I just remember saying hello. But I was only 13."

Though it's still early in the day, the colonial-style Casa Azul (Blue House) is already swarming with tourists, who are climbing the stairs and strolling the garden paths once trod by the likes of Leon Trotsky and Andre Breton.

Not long ago, these cultural pilgrims would've been paying homage at a rather shabby-genteel monument to Kahlo's genius. For many years, the Casa Azul was seen as a financially undernourished, spottily managed institution in desperate need of a patch-up and a good paint job. Its crumbling walls and skimpy collection of mostly minor artworks by Kahlo and Rivera angered and embarrassed Mexico's arts intelligentsia, while leaving some foreign visitors decidedly underwhelmed.

The main culprit in this state of affairs, some critics charged, was Dolores Olmedo, who'd been entrusted with the Casa Azul and its contents by a cancer-stricken Rivera shortly before his death in 1957. A year later, the house was converted into a museum dedicated to the life and work of Kahlo, who posthumously became an art-world star -- in the words of critic and essayist Elena Poniatowska, "one of the most extraordinary idols that Mexico has given, after the Virgin of Guadalupe." Or, as the Mexican actress Jesusa Rodriguez put it more caustically a few weeks ago, "a species of Third World Barbie."

Though she later took credit for popularizing Kahlo's work, Olmedo never concealed her personal distaste for Kahlo or her view of Kahlo's artistry compared with that of her husband. "Frida never was and never will be the equal of Diego," she told The Times in 1993. As museum director and president for life of Rivera's trust, Olmedo ran the Casa Azul on her own terms. And though the museum attracts about 350,000 visitors annually to this city's elegant Coyoacan district and is considered a must-stop for Fridamaniacs, Olmedo's critics allege that her personal animus toward Kahlo led to the building's neglect, a charge that Olmedo rebutted until her death at 94 in July 2002.

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