One doesn’t have to be a devotee of Frida Kahlo to recognize her paintings; her style is one of the most distinctive in the long history of portrait artists, full of deeply personal symbolism. Every bit as iconic as the colorful dresses she painted herself wearing, the flowers in her hair and backgrounds and hands were deliberate expressions of her own life.
Certain plants appear over and over in her portraits—Elephant-Ear leaves are often her backdrops, and viejo cactus shows up again and again. Both of these native Mexican plants and many more filled the gardens of her family home in Coyoacán, on the outskirts of Mexico City. It was her father’s home first – he bought it in 1904. When Kahlo married Diego River in 1929, they lived together in the same house and filled it with art and antiques and built the garden until it was all but a jungle. Visitors to Mexico City can still tour it – it has been kept intact in her honor. But for those less able to travel, there is still a way to walk among Kahlo’s inspirations.
Inside a conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden, art students and botanists have collaborated to build an homage. With walls painted the precise blue of ‘Casa Azul,’ that original house, the exhibit centers around a courtyard filled with the plants among which Kahlo lived and painted. Central to the exhibit is a tiered pyramid painted in bright colors, bearing dozens of potted flowers and cactuses. The original pyramid, one of Kahlo’s own garden features, was built to showcase Riviera’s collection of ancient Aztec sculptures.
Among the trees and plantings in the exhibit, twelve original works by Kahlo are on display, including several of her still-life paintings of fruit. All of her subjects were locally grown, either in her own garden or bought at local street markets.
Tucked away in the greenery, there is one last treat for visitors of the garden – a recreation of Kahlo’s workbench at Casa Azul, with paint and brushes all left as though she had just stepped away from her work, perhaps to walk among her own plantings seeking that last stubborn hue of inspiration.
“Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life” will be open at The New York Botanical Garden, New York City, until November 1, 2015.