54 years after her death, feminist, LGBTQ+, and artistic icon Frida Kahlo continues to captivate. Testament to this is the blockbuster exhibition ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up’ currently enticing hordes of visitors to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The Tehuantepec technicolour of Kahlo’s clothes, the tropical climate of Mexico, and the emphatic artistic assertion of individuality – at first glance – appear lightyears away from the stark, cold, and conformist Bolshevik state that consolidated in her formative years. Yet, Kahlo’s life and work were inextricably tied to Russia and the Soviet Union as a whole. So, what exactly were (and are) Kahlo’s Russian connections? To save you from trawling the internet yourself, we’ve created this handy list…
1. Her headboard was decorated with images of Lenin and Trotsky
According to Mexico’s Museo Frida Kahlo, the artist adorned her bed with images of the Russian revolutionaries, as well as Marx and Engels. Kahlo’s Russian connection was undeniably mediated through the lens of Communism. Becoming a member of the Communist Party of Mexico in 1928, Kahlo and her husband – muralist Diego Rivera (also a member) – fled from right wing repression to the United States, where they became fervent supporters of Trotskyist thought. Kahlo wore her dedication to the ideology on her sleeve – or, rather, her corset. Childhood polio and a near-fatal tram crash rendered her dependant on external spine support. Kahlo emblazoned two with the Communist hammer and sickle.
2. She was Trotsky’s lover for two years
Undoubtedly, Kahlo’s most significant Russian connection was her brief love affair with the exiled Leon Trotsky. Upon her and Rivera’s initiative, Mexico granted the former revolutionary asylum. He lived with the couple for two years (1937-39) under 24-hour supervision. Kahlo and Trotsky’s relationship was a warm one, with the Kahlo affectionately nicknaming him ‘Piochitas’ (little goatee), and the revolutionary hiding love letters for her in books. Even their breakup was amicable: As a gesture of goodwill, Kahlo painted ‘Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky’ (1937) with the inscription ‘with all my love.’
3. Her husband’s mistress and former wife were Russian
Although the most famous, Kahlo was not the first – and nor was she the last – of Diego Rivera’s spouses. The first was Russian illustrator Angelina Beloff, whom Rivera abandoned in Paris after a twelve-year relationship. A notorious womaniser, he was also romantically involved with the Russian Cubist and Pointillist painter, Maria Vorobieff.
4. She impressed Wassily Kandisky in Paris
Trotsky’s presence in her home allowed Kahlo to meet leading Communist intellectuals who flocked to visit the exile. Among these was French surrealist, André Breton. It was he who introduced her into the artistic circles of Paris in 1938-9, where she made a favourable impression upon the Russian expressionist, Wassily Kandinsky.
5. One of her paintings disappeared – and it’s probably somewhere in Russia
While Kahlo herself never visited Russia, her work did. In 1940, she painted ‘The Wounded Table’ and sent it to the Soviet Union as a ‘gift of friendship’. Soviet officials, however, deemed the work ‘decadent bourgeois formalist art’ and forbid its display. In 1955, it surfaced in Warsaw in an exhibition of Mexican Art. After that, it disappeared. Some believe that it could have returned to Russia. Will it ever be rediscovered? The precedent set by one of Rivera’s works sets a hopeful precedent. His mural ‘The Glorious Victory’ disappeared in the mid-1950s, but was found again in 2000 in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum.
6. One of her closest friends was a Russian producer
Jacques Gelman, a Russian-born Jew who had fled the October Revolution, settled in Mexico just before the outbreak of World War II. He and his wife, Natasha, became friends and patrons of both Kahlo and Rivera. In 1943, Gelman commissioned Kahlo to paint a portrait of his wife.
7. She knew (some) Russian
Kahlo was fascinated by languages, particularly Hindi and Sanskrit. However, some extracts from her diary feature Russian phrases, suggesting she was somewhat familiar with the language. While there is no official confirmation of this, her earlier involvement with the ‘Cahuchas’ group which – among other intellectual pursuits – debated Russian classics, hints at an interest in Russia beyond its politics.
8. She became devoted to Stalin
Although initially a fervent supporter of Trotskyism, towards the end of her life Kahlo developed a disturbing fixation on Joseph Stalin. The Russian leader was the subject of one of her last paintings. ‘Viva Diego / Viva Stalin’, she wrote in her diary. So great was her devotion that the Mexican authorities briefly suspected her of being implicated in the murder of her former lover, Trotsky.
So, Russia made an indelible mark upon Kahlo, but what mark did she make upon Russia? Despite her iconic stature, the first retrospective of her work in the country was held only in 2016, at the Faberge Museum in St. Petersburg. The exhibition was a resounding success, and rated mentions in major Russian publications such as RIA and Novaya Gazeta. In the same year, Russian Elle ran a Kahlo-inspired fashion feature. But what of her political legacy? In President Putin’s increasingly conservative Russia, a feminist-LGBTQ+ icon must ruffle a few feathers. Indeed, Pussy Riot – the protest group who performed an anti-Putin ‘punk prayer’ in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012 – presented Kahlo as one of their feminist forbears during their trial. The connection is not lost on the international scene. In 2014, Spanish artist BTOY’s exhibition of her portraits of feminist icons featured Kahlo alongside the punk protest group. Perhaps Kahlo’s subversive potential in modern Russia is best summarised by this line from Anastasia Melnikova’s column on the 2016 exhibition for RIA Novosti: ‘I am afraid to even imagine what will happen if, at the Frida Kahlo exhibition, Vladimir Putin suddenly turns up.’