Art NewsMiscellaneous

Cache of long-lost photos found in abandoned bathroom reveal secrets of Frida Kahlo’s life


They are images that shed new light on the private life
of the world’s most famous female artist.

But hundreds of photographs belonging to Mexican
painter Frida Kahlo, on show at the Bendigo Art Gallery from this week, almost
never saw the light of day.

The photographs are part of the artist’s personal
archive, the existence of which only became known in 2004.

Until then they were stored haphazardly inside
bathrooms at La Casa Azul, or the Blue House — Kahlo’s lifelong home in the
Mexico City neighbourhood of Coyoacán.

“At the beginning we didn’t realise what we had in our
hands,” Frida Kahlo Museum director Hilda Trujillo said.

Ms Trujillo was among the first people to lay eyes on
the contents of the bathroom.

She likened the moment of their discovery to the
opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Secret buried for decades

After Kahlo’s death in 1954, her husband, the muralist
Diego Rivera, gifted the house and its contents the Mexican people.

Fearful his wife’s legacy would become politicised
during another volatile period of upheaval in the country’s history, Rivera
asked his friend and patron, Dolores Olmedo, to keep the works private for 15

Motivated by her jealousy of Kahlo, Olmedo instead let
the collection sit idle until her own death.

“It is likely she did not want to deal with Frida’s
memorabilia because it was particularly Frida’s memorabilia,” Ms Trujillo

An unlikely discovery

From when the haul was first uncovered, it took four
years to catalogue and restore the 6,000 photographs, 300 dresses and 20,000
personal documents that were inside.

Some staff even proposed that the worn clothing and
faded photographs be discarded.

Even if the value of the photographs was not
immediately clear to its guardians, Ms Trujillo said Kahlo treated them like
living objects.

“She cherished them as substitutes for the people she
loved and admired,” she said.

The surface of one picture in the Bendigo exhibition
still bears the lipstick marks left there by the Mexican artist.

Others were defaced after Kahlo fell out with the

Some were cut up to fit into the small compartments of
wooden boxes she used to store keepsakes.

Comfortable with the camera 

Kahlo’s exposure to photography began in childhood,
when she was tasked with accompanying her photographer father, Guillermo, to
work, in case he suffered an epileptic seizure.

She conducted only the most rudimentary of experiments
with photography, with just a handful of images known to have been taken by

In one, she used a rag doll and toy horse to recreate
the bus accident that left her in need of more than 30 operations and reliant on
a wheelchair for much of her life.

But familiarity with the camera inspired her own
artistic style, especially the fixed gaze she painted in her

“Frida Kahlo is always looking at the viewer directly
in the eyes, because she was posing to herself as if posing to a camera,” Ms
Trujillo said.

Photographs were useful stand-ins for live models when
discomfort prevented her from standing or sitting up to work.

On those occasions, an easel was tied to her bedhead,
holding a canvas above her head and parallel to her prostrate body.

A love for life

She also became a favourite model of photographers,
many of whom were artists drawn to Mexico after its revolution, in which Rivera
was a central figure.

“They came for Diego Rivera, but they stayed for Frida
Kahlo, because she was so charismatic,” Ms Trujillo said.

Ms Trujillo said her appearance in front of the camera
could even be describes as “coquettish”.

“Even if she suffered, she only expressed that on the
canvas,” she said.

“She didn’t like to say to people she was ill, because
she loved people: parties, tequila, mariachi.”

Bendigo Art Gallery curator Leanne Fitzgibbon believed
visitors to the exhibition would leave with a better understanding about who
Frida Kahlo was away from her easel.

“It’s an amazing revelation about her personal life and
motivations,” Ms Fitzgibbon said.

“The photographs allow you to get up close and personal
with Frida Kahlo — I feel like I know her intimately now.”

Face off

In the markets of Coyoacán, just metres from the Casa
Azul’s doorstep, the likeness of Frida Kahlo adorns the surface of every
conceivable souvenir.

The commercialisation of Kahlo’s
 is a phenomenon with which Ms Trujillo is

She said it is something outside the control of the
museum, which is entrusted with the preservation of her art, home and

But she comforts herself knowing it is the Mexican
masses who were first to widely use Kahlo’s image — not the upper classes that
once spurned the artist for her unusual dress sense and fluid

Ms Trujillo said if footballers and singers can rise to
superstardom, then why should Kahlo not enjoy the same status?

“I think it’s more interesting to have passion for the
artist,” she said.

Frida Kahlo, her photos is on display at the Bendigo
Art Gallery until February 10, 2019.