Celebrating the life and loves of Frida Kahlo, Mexico’s most famous bisexual and a global icon
On what would’ve been Frida Kahlo’s 116th birthday, we celebrate the visionary Mexican bisexual who remains a global LGBTQ+ icon more almost years after her death.
The life of Frida Kahlo has become stuff of legend. Born in 1907, the inspiring painter is often described as a surrealist or magical realist, a force of nature who used her art and style to pursue questions of identity, post-colonialism, gender, race and class well ahead of her time.
Her legacy is long and complex, but in today’s popular culture she’s best known for her fierce pride in her Mexican heritage, her distinctive self-portraits, her trailblazing gender non-conformity and her passionate love affairs.
Throughout her artistic career Frida Kahlo expertly wove her sexuality into her work as she explored themes of infertility and sexual pleasure, as well as her tumultuous relationship with her husband, the celebrated muralist Diego Rivera.
But Diego was far from her only romantic interest. In her short but eventful 47 years of life, Frida Kahlo would have a number of colourful affairs with men and women, including the movie stars Dolores del Rio, Paulette Goddard and Maria Felix, among others.
Here are just a few of her big loves.
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Arguably the most central figure in Frida Kahlo’s life was her fellow artist Diego Rivera, to whom she was married, divorced and then married again.
Together they were two of the most important artists of the 20th century, but their relationship was complex and volatile, filled with passions and resentments, adoration and pain.
20 years older than Kahlo, Rivera encouraged his wife’s romantic relationships with women, and although he was often jealous of her male partners Kahlo didn’t let that stand in her way. They both had several extramarital affairs, Rivera having one with Frida’s sister.
Their tempestuous marriage is open to interpretation through Kahlo’s many works, some more favourable than others. And though Rivera would ultimately remarry after her death, it is telling that his final wish was for their their ashes be mixed.
Dolores del Rio
The enchanting Hollywood starlet was friends with both Kahlo and Rivera, and was originally counted among Rivera’s lovers.
Kahlo’s husband once proclaimed himself to be “totally in love with her, just like forty million Mexicans and one hundred and twenty million Americans who couldn’t be wrong”.
This didn’t stop Kahlo herself from getting close to her. She had a history of befriending and charming her husband’s girlfriends, and del Rio was rumoured to be no different.
In 1939 Kahlo presented the star with a painting that, given its subject matter, suggests they had a very close relationship indeed. Entitled Two Nudes in a Forest, the painting features two naked women – and the fairer of the two, who’s resting on the other’s lap, just slightly resembles del Rio.
Kahlo met the famous communist leader in January 1937, when he and his wife arrived in Mexico seeking political asylum. Kahlo and her husband were keen members of the Mexican Communist Party who played a key role in Trotsky’s asylum, and Kahlo personally greeted him on arrival in Mexico.
The painter was 29 and the politician was 57. It wasn’t long before a passionate love affair developed, with him openly slipping her notes in books right under his wife’s nose.
Eventually Trotsky’s wife issued an ultimatum, but by this point the relationship was fizzling anyway. “I am very tired of the old man,” Kahlo reportedly wrote at the time.
By July 1937 the affair was over, but it inspired a painting of Kahlo’s: an artwork presented to her former lover that’s now known as Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky.
Kahlo and the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi became lovers in the mid-1930s after Noguchi traveled to Mexico to work on a relief mural. “You are to me every love thought,” he once wrote to her.
Their relationship was passionate and intense, but constantly plagued by the jealousy of Kahlo’s husband, who could not abide her male lovers.
The story goes that Rivera once chased Noguchi from his wife’s bed; the sculptor managed to scramble out of the window, up an orange tree, over the roof and onto the street – only for Rivera to pursue him with a gun.
One of Frida Kahlo’s biggest loves was the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. They met in America in the early 1930s and immediately recognised each other as kindred spirits.
“Both were fearless, flamboyant, and very powerful personalities,” explains Linda Grasso, author of Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe and Twentieth-Century Feminism. “They automatically would have been attracted to each other.”
Their romance played out in numerous passionate letters to one another. “I thought of you a lot and never forget your wonderful hands and the colour of your eyes,” Kahlo wrote in 1993.
“If you [are] still in the hospital when I come back I will bring you flowers, but it is so difficult to find the ones I would like for you. I would be so happy if you could write me even two words. I like you very much Georgia.”
For the avoidance of any doubt, a letter written by Kahlo to a friend that year confirms their relationship was far from platonic.
“O’Keeffe was in the hospital for three months, she went to Bermuda for a rest,” she said. “She didn’t made [sic] love to me that time, I think on account of her weakness. Too bad.”
The details of Frida Kahlo’s relationship with Parisian nightclub sensation Josephine Baker remain shrouded in history. Although the biopic Frida depicts them as lovers, there’s no written correspondence definitively proving this.
The two women, both brilliant artists, are believed to have met in 1939 when Kahlo travelled to Paris for an exhibition of her works. Baker was working against Hitler in the French Military Intelligence at the time and often kept her affairs with women quiet.
We know they continued their relationship after this as a photo shows the pair together in Mexico in 1952, when Baker made a trip to see her – but exactly what happened there will remain between them.
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