Visual Culture

The Intimate and Iconic Photos Nickolas Muray Took of Frida Kahlo

Alexxa Gotthardt
Feb 11, 2019 6:27PM

In Nickolas Muray’s 1939 portrait of painter Frida Kahlo, a crown of purple yarn weaves in and out of her thick black hair, flyaways breaking loose from her braids. Her favorite shawl, a deep magenta rebozo, wraps around her shoulders, matching the warm flush of her cheeks and her painted nails—glints of red that call attention to the painter’s strong hands. She leans comfortably against a wall, gazing resolutely—if lovingly—at the camera.

“Nick darling, I got my wonderful picture you [sent] to me, I find it even more beautiful than in New York,” Kahlo wrote in June of that year, after receiving the portrait by mail from Muray. “Diego says that it is as marvelous as a Piero della Francesca. To me it is more than that, it is a treasure, and besides, it will always remind me [of] that morning we had breakfast together.”

Nickolas Muray
Frida with Granizo, Version 2, Coyoacan, 1939
PDNB Gallery

The portrait is one of almost 90 known images Muray took of Kahlo between 1937 and 1948, a period when the painter made her most celebrated canvases, solidified her personal image, and navigated a life of growing renown, chronic illness, and temperamental love. As friends and longtime lovers, Muray and Kahlo worked collaboratively to frame and compose the photographs, several of which appear in the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” which explores how the artist crafted her style and championed her identity. The images capture Kahlo’s legendary individuality and resilience, but also quieter, more vulnerable moments in the artist’s life.

Muray and Kahlo first crossed paths in 1931, on the photographer’s inaugural trip to Mexico. At the time, he was a renowned celebrity portraitist who was pioneering color photography in the United States. Following a contentious divorce, he traveled south with his best friend and fellow artist, Miguel Covarrubias. Covarrubias introduced Muray to Kahlo, then an upstart painter married to the behemoth muralist Diego Rivera. Uncharacteristically for Muray, no photos survive from the trip, but evidence of his burgeoning relationship with Kahlo exists in a small note she scrawled on a doily. Its most potent line reads: “I love you like I would love an angel. You are a Lillie of the valley my love.”

This trip marked the dawn of a passionate 10-year romance between the two artists, during which Muray intimately captured Kahlo in her studio and home; intertwined with friends and starcrossed lovers; wrapped in her signature ensembles; and in the throes of painting the searing, frank self-portraits that defined her life and legacy.

However, as far as scholars can tell, Muray didn’t photograph Kahlo until six years into their relationship, in 1937. During a lunch at Covarrubias’s home in Tizapán, he wielded his new Kodachrome slide film and took some of the first color images of Kahlo. In one, her gaze is soft, almost smiling, as she leans against a column, wearing her trademark look inspired by traditional Tehuana dress: an embroidered huipil blouse, a patterned floor-length skirt, and a bright cluster of flowers on her head. In another image from the same day, she stands in front of Covarrubias and Rivera: Both men gaze at Kahlo, the center of attention, while she stares intently at Muray’s lens.

The image seems to presage the recognition she’d soon receive. The following year, Julien Levy Gallery hosted Kahlo’s first New York solo show, and articles in Time and Vogue celebrated her as an artist in her own right—not just Rivera’s wife, as she’d been referred to previously. “Each of her paintings…has been an expression of a personal experience,” Bertram Wolfe wrote in the November 1938 issue of Vogue, pointing to the depths of emotion and autobiographical detail exposed on her canvases. “Even when she does not herself appear in a canvas she somehow pervades the picture.”

In New York and Mexico City, Muray framed Kahlo as she prepared for her exhibition. In some, she is contemplative, settled casually in front of the cacti that stipple her beloved garden, or cradling a burning cigarette. In others, she radiates exuberance and determination, such as in Frida with picture frame (1938), a playful nod to her guileless self-portraits. Taken in the intimacy of Kahlo’s home, she holds an elaborate frame over her head and neck, emphasizing her traditional Mexican jewelry, pronounced eyebrows, and tenacious gaze—characteristics she meticulously cultivated and would soon define her public persona. One of her canvases, Remembrance of an Open Wound (1938), hangs over her left shoulder, conveying her identity as a painter of self. It shows the artist sitting tall in Tehuana garb, skirts hiked up to reveal a bleeding gash on her left thigh that acknowledges her physical suffering (she endured two accidents in her youth that plagued her with chronic pain) and asserts her fortitude.

The painting in Muray’s image traveled with Kahlo to New York for her November show at Julien Levy, where it was on public display, along with 24 other canvases. The opening, which drew the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and Isamu Noguchi, cemented Kahlo’s reputation as an artist reshaping both Surrealism and the tradition of self-portraiture. “I do not know whether my paintings are Surrealist or not,” she stated in 1952, “but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself.”

It was several months after Kahlo’s New York debut in early 1939 that she entered Muray’s studio to create the “Rebozo” portraits. More formal than previous images, Muray used studio lighting and the somewhat-newfangled three-color carbo process to produce hyper-saturated, luminous photos of Kahlo that embodied the glow of her newfound recognition. But even these studio-crafted images didn’t lose their intimacy: Tenderness beams from Kahlo’s eyes, and Muray lovingly articulates the vivacity, strength, and self-determination of the artist through vivid saturation and detail.

Over the next nine years, Muray took a number of images of Kahlo’s life, even after their romance ended in 1941. Some, taken with a timer, capture the two lovers tucked close to each other or surrounded by friends. Others focus on the objects, creatures, and experiences that inspired Kahlo and emerged in her paintings. In Frida with Olmeca Figure (1939), she holds an ancient Olmec stone figurine, similar to figures embedded in the compositions of Self Portrait Along the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States (1932) and Four Inhabitants of Mexico (1938).

Muray’s photos are at their most intimate when documenting Kahlo’s physical struggles (she endured nearly 40 operations over the course of her life). In 1940, he visited her in the hospital where she underwent spinal fusion surgery. Frida in traction frames the painter’s pained but still resilient face, bound by bandages held precariously together by safety pins.

“I wish I had magic in my hands I’d pick you up and carry you above the clouds into the sun and have a talk with the guy who supposedly created…the cactus, and the world around, the little pigs, and Diego, and you, and me, and Miguel,” Muray wrote to her earlier, in 1939. “Maybe he would tell me the secret [of] how to make you well again so you could sing, and smile, love and play again as I have seen you before in the bright sun or in the dark night.”

In one of Muray’s last portraits of Kahlo, taken in 1946 on his Manhattan rooftop, her blue bows stand out against the sky and her brilliant red huipil puts the grey-brown New York skyline to shame. As a smile spreads across her face, she gazes at Muray affectionately—and triumphantly.

“Photography, fortunately, to me has not only been a profession but also a contact between people,” Muray once said. “To understand human nature and record, if possible, the best in each individual.” In Kahlo, he found his ideal subject—someone unafraid to be fearlessly herself in front of his camera.

Alexxa Gotthardt