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August 21: Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

August 19, 2015

diegofridaWorld-renowned leftwing Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were married for the first time on this date in 1929 (they separated in 1934, divorced in 1938, and remarried in 1940). Rivera’s mother was a converso. Although he was not raised as a Jew, he knew that he was Jewish and was proud of it. In 1936, he illustrated a book by Yiddish poet Isaac Berliner. In 1933, Rivera created a Rockefeller-commissioned mural for Rockefeller Center. When he refused to remove the little Lenin he included, the commission was terminated and his beautiful mural destroyed. Kahlo’s German-Mexican father, Carl Wilhelm Kahlo, was not Jewish, though she claimed he was her entire life. Of her 143 paintings, 55 were self-portraits, often depicting her sufferings, medical (polio, streetcar accident, gangrene) and otherwise. She and Rivera lived in two separate residences, connected by a skyway. Her parents referred to them as “the elephant and the dove.” In their open marriage, Rivera had affairs with Frida’s younger sister Cristina and various other women, while Kahlo had affairs with Josephine Baker and an exiled Leon Trotsky, as well as other men and women. (Trotsky and his wife Natalia lived with the activist couple in Mexico City for two years under armed guard.) In a love letter to Rivera, Kahlo once wrote that “Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain.” One time, when the couple was staying in a Detroit hotel that they found out barred Jews, both declared themselves to “have Jewish blood”, threatening to stay elsewhere unless that rule changed.

“My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work.” —Diego Rivera

“I suffered two grave accidents in my life. One in which a streetcar knocked me down... The other accident is Diego.... Being the wife of Diego is the most marvelous thing in the world... I let him play matrimony with other women. Diego is not anybody’s husband and never will be, but he is a great comrade.” —Frida Kahlo

Our thanks to Dan Brook, who teaches political science at City College of San Francisco, which houses Diego Rivera’s magnificent Pan American Unity Mural, for this JEWDAYO entry.