How Frida Kahlo’s Love Affair with a Communist Revolutionary Impacted Her Art
Leon Trotsky, Natalya Sedova, Frida Kahlo and Max Schachtman, Mexico, 1937. Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images
In the summer of 1940, Frida Kahlo found herself in jail. Mexico City police suspected her as an accomplice in the murder of the embattled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Several days prior to her arrest, he’d been gruesomely offed with an ice pick. His murder—and her implication in the crime—was a dramatic turn of events, especially considering that Kahlo and Trotsky had been giddy lovers just three years earlier; she’d even dedicated a striking self-portrait to him.
Kahlo had many romantic partners over the course of her short life (she died in 1954 at 47), but few resulted in dedicated paintings—and fewer pointed explicitly to her political beliefs. The liaison with Trotsky did both. Although their romance only lasted several months, it offers a window into Kahlo’s politics and how deeply they influenced her work.
Kahlo and Trotsky first met in 1937, when the painter was 29 and the politician was 57. Kahlo and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, were vocal supporters of Marxism and had been on-and-off members of the Mexican Communist Party for a decade, since 1927. Influenced by the Mexican Revolution at the turn of the century, they advocated for a populist government and believed political power should rest in the hands of the working class. In Rivera’s 1928 mural The Arsenal, he showed Kahlo as an activist. Wearing a shirt emblazoned with a red star (red being the traditional color of Communism), Kahlo disseminates weapons to workers while a flag bearing the Communist party’s hammer-and-sickle insignia flies over the scene.
The couple also championed Mexicanidad, a post-Revolutionary movement that called for stripping the country of colonial influence and replacing it with the trappings of indigenous culture. It was in this spirit that Kahlo dressed herself, painted, and even gardened. On most days, she donned traditional Tehuana clothes, elaborately patterned skirt-and-blouse ensembles native to Oaxaca. Many of her paintings took cues from age-old Mexican votive panels, and she and Rivera re-planted their yard to include only native plants (succulents abounded).
By the mid-1930s, Kahlo and Rivera both considered themselves Trotskyites. They’d followed the Russian Revolution and the rise of Communism closely, and knew Trotsky as a hero of the 1917 October Uprising, which cemented Vladimir Lenin and the Socialist regime’s rise to dominance. But when Joseph Stalin assumed leadership in 1924, he consolidated power and demoted Trotsky, exiling him for good in 1929. As a result, the Communist party fractured into two main camps: Stalinists and Trotskyites.
It was Rivera who convinced Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas to offer Trotsky political asylum in Mexico. After several years in Turkey, France, and Norway, Trotsky and his wife Natalia Sedova boarded an oil tanker and docked in Tampico, Mexico on January 9, 1937. Rivera was sick, so Kahlo greeted them at the port, along with a troop of armed guards. In photos of the disembarkment, her Tehuana garb stands out among a sea of police uniforms and three-piece suits.
Friday Kahlo and Leon Trotsky in Mexico, 1937. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Kahlo and Rivera offered the Trotskys their second home, the now famed Casa Azul, equipping it with guards, barricades, covered windows, and alarm systems to ensure their political hero’s safety. Sedova recalled the beginnings of the trip fondly in a letter to friends: “We were breathing purified air…A motorcar…carried us across the fields of palms and cacti to the suburbs of Mexico City; a blue house, a patio filled with plants, airy rooms, collections of Pre-Columbian art, paintings from all over: we were on a new planet, in Rivera’s house.”
It wasn’t long after the Russian couple settled in that a romance developed between Kahlo and Trotsky. The politician’s secretary, Jean van Heijenoort, remembered the pair’s blatant flirtations under the nose of Trotsky’s wife. Sedova didn’t understand English, the language in which the lovers communicated. They met clandestinely at Kahlo’s sister’s house, and Trotsky slipped love notes into books he lent her. Kahlo and Trotsky’s meek attempts at discretion didn’t prevent Sedova from discovering the affair. She gave her husband a “me-or-her ultimatum,” as scholar Gerry Souter points out in her 2014 book on Rivera. It seems that Kahlo tired of the romance around the same time, and by July their physical liaison had fizzled. (For her part, Amy Fine Collins wrote in Vanity Fair, “[f]riends recall that long after Trotsky’s assassination Kahlo delighted in driving Rivera into a rage by humiliating him with the memory of her affair with the great Communist.”)
Despite their split, the two remained friends for some time, and on November 7th—Trotksy’s birthday and the anniversary of the Russian Revolution—Kahlo gifted the politician a vibrant, sensual self-portrait. In the painting, Kahlo stands between two curtains, recalling the theatrical style of traditional Mexican ex-voto panels, created for devotional purposes and often found atop Catholic church altars or makeshift home shrines. She stares resolutely at the viewer, presenting herself with self-assurance and strength in a bold peach skirt and a fringed rebozo shawl. Rouge swaths her lips and cheeks, and ribbons weave through her thick plaits of hair. She cradles a small but bursting bouquet while holding a letter that reads: “To Leon Trotsky, with all my love, I dedicate this painting on 7th November 1937. Frida Kahlo in Saint Angel, Mexico.”
Leon Trotsky and his wife arrive in Tampico, Mexico, surrounded by police and artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Photo by Keystone/Getty Images.
Trotsky displayed the portrait in the intimacy of his office. When Surrealist André Breton visited in 1938, he too fell for the piece, later gushing: “I have for long admired the self-portrait by Frida Kahlo de Rivera that hangs on a wall of Trotsky’s study. She has painted herself in a robe of wings gilded with butterflies, and it is exactly in this guise that she draws aside the mental curtain.” He continued, with a typically gendered reading of the work: “We are privileged to be present, as in the most glorious days of German romanticism, at the entry of a young woman endowed with all the gifts of seduction, one accustomed to the society of men of genius.”
The painting reveals two sides of Kahlo’s politics. On one hand, it denotes her allegiance to the international Communist movement and, in the moment she created the work, its Trotskyite faction. On the other, her devotion to Mexicanidad and Mexican nationalism is elucidated through the work’s allusions to ex-voto panels and traditional Mexican decoration, fashion, and even plantlife.
As Stalin’s power grew, Trotsky’s supporters dwindled and his enemies multiplied. In 1939, Kahlo and Rivera both switched camps, becoming Stalinists. Rivera and Trotsky had been moving apart politically for some time; Unlike Trotsky, Rivera supported General Francisco José Múgica in Mexico’s controversial election to replace Cárdenas, while Trotsky called Rivera “childish in politics” and derided him for his “political ambiguity.” Despite these differences, Trotsky attempted to resurrect their relationship, even writing to Kahlo for help in the matter; she didn’t respond.
By May 1940, fellow Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Trotsky (Rivera was an early suspect in the case). He wasn’t as lucky several months later. On August 20th, Ramón Mercader, an undercover agent working for Stalin, killed Trotsky with an ice pick. Kahlo had met Mercader in Paris the previous year, and was brought in for questioning by the Mexican police. She was released a day later, and soon after traveled to San Francisco, where Rivera was working on a mural.
The hammer and sickle emblem is draped over the casket of Frida Kahlo at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, 1954. Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images.
Despite her stint in jail, the incident didn’t dissuade Kahlo from continuing to embed politics into her paintings. In fact, references to Communism ramped up in her works from the 1950s. As scholar Andrea Kettenmann writes in her 1999 book Frida Kahlo, 1907-1954: Pain and Passion, the artist became “explicit in her last productive phase.” In 1950, Kahlo painted a hammer and sickle on one of the orthopedic corsets that supported her increasingly weak back, and in a diary entry from 1951, she worried that her failing health would restrict her from serving the Communist cause. “I want to turn [my work] into something useful; until now I have managed simply an honest expression of my own self, but one which is unfortunately a long way from serving the Party,” she wrote. “I must struggle with all my strength to ensure that the little positive that my health allows me to do also benefits the Revolution, the only real reason to live.”
Several years later, in 1954, Kahlo painted her most pointedly political work: Marxism will give Health to the Sick. (Its original title was longer-winded: Peace on Earth so the Marxist Science may Save the Sick and Those Oppressed by Criminal Yankee Capitalism.) The canvas metaphorically links Kahlo’s physical suffering with her allegiance to Communism. At the center of the composition, she holds a red Marxist book, while large hands (another symbol of the movement) embrace and uplift her corset-sheathed body. With Marxism to bolster her, she’s able to fling her crutches to the side. On one side of the painting, a dove, the universal symbol of peace, hovers above planet Earth. On the other side, a depiction of Karl Marx himself strangles a monstrous Uncle Sam/Eagle hybrid. The painting’s message seems clear: If Marxism can heal Kahlo, it can heal the world.
When the artist died later that year, a banner boasting a hammer and sickle swathed her coffin. Trotsky was long gone, but the painting Kahlo made for him—and her bold conviction in fusing politics and art—survived.