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Frida Kahlo stands art world on its ear in Mexico City

An expansion at the Diego Rivera Studio Museum has given artist Frida Kahlo equal billing with her famed muralist husband. And justly so.

At Sotheby's spring sale of Latin American art in New York on May 31, an early Kahlo self-portrait sold for $5,065,750 (U.S.), setting a world record for Latin American art, a new record for the painter and a new record for any female artist.

Kahlo now gets star billing in Mexico City with the recent opening to the public of her former house and studio. It's located in the trendy San Angel district, next door to the long-popular Rivera museum -- which occupies the Mexican muralist's former home and workplace that he shared with Kahlo just after their marriage in 1929.

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The crucible of this talented couple's genius, their former homes-turned-museum, is considered the first example of avant-garde architecture in Mexico. Both three-storey houses were designed in Bauhaus style by artist Juan O'Gorman, a long-time friend of Rivera's. The second house, which was exclusively Kahlo's (Rivera liked lots of guests around; Kahlo preferred to work alone) has been closed for 25 years and was used primarily for storage. After extensive restoration, including an exterior coat of cobalt- blue paint trimmed in red to match Frida's Casa Azul, the Blue House, in Coyoacan, it becomes part of what has been known since 1958 as the Diego Rivera Studio Museum. The combined facility is now called the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Studio-House Museum.

The two houses are connected by a second-floor walkway. Their architecture illustrates the independence the couple maintained throughout their caring, but unconventional, union.

The museum is next to the San Angel Inn restaurant in the posh San Angel suburb. (Mexico's leading contemporary painter Jose Luis Cuevas lives only a few blocks away, as does renowned photographer Manuel Alverez Bravo.) The main building is preserved much the way it was at the time of Rivera's death. The floor creaks, the walls are covered with carved wooden masks, many with the price tags still dangling from them, indicative of a man too busy to remove them.

The cluttered studio is filled with tables and storage shelves covered with paint samples, plaster molds and mounds of pre-Columbian statues and pottery that avid collector Rivera bought by the kilo. Paintings, easels and paint brushes are everywhere. In the bathroom is a stack of old frames.

Off in a corner, a large denim jacket hangs on a coat rack, above a pair of paint-splattered shoes. Downstairs, space is devoted to changing exhibits by various artists.

When he designed and built the twin houses, O'Gorman went all out for his good friend Rivera. The buildings were ultramodern throughout with tables, chairs and furnishings made of polished steel. The cushions and upholstery were made of fine leathers, coloured in lemon-green pastels. The window frames were constructed of structured steel. The work studios faced north to obtain the best lighting. The bedrooms faced south. There was an exhibit and sales gallery downstairs. Everything was new, modern, glittering, all in colours only an artist could love -- Indian red, indigo blue, orange, yellow and parrot green.

Kahlo, of course, hated it. Her tastes leaned far more toward folk art and native Mexican designs. But she was a young bride and in love. The all-electric kitchen was too small -- who could cook with electricity anyway? -- so Kahlo had a second, more traditional kitchen installed where she could enjoy making meals for her celebrated husband.

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Says Blanca Garduno, director of the museum, "We did considerable research of the period when Diego and Frida lived here, and recreated the colours and furnishings. We're thrilled to have found nearly a dozen photos taken at the house, including one by Lola Alvarez Bravo and two by Nicholas Murray, one of Frida's early suitors who went on to become one of America's leading portrait photographers."

The German Bauhaus-inspired architectural style used by O'Gorman was known as functionalism. Its objective was to economize space, a plan that in hindsight seems almost redundant in Mexico, a country long used to cramped quarters and tight spaces. Rivera's small bedroom was also used as a changing room for models and a place to store pigeon food. There was also room for guests and servants, including Maria Hernandez, a maid who took care of the studio, and Sixto, the driver, busboy and helper, who slept on a straw mat.

Ruth and Guadalupe, Rivera's children from his second wife, Lupe Marin, were frequent visitors as was Marin herself who became one of Kahlo's closest friends.

In the centre of it all, between the tables, chairs, sofas and paint pigments, was that whirlwind of creativity known as Diego Rivera. Wrote Kahlo, "Always working, Diego does not live a life that could be called normal. His capacity for energy shatters clocks and calendars. Physically, he lacks time for the struggle, without rest, planning and constantly producing work."

While in Mexico City, I called upon one of Frida's former art students, Fanny Rabel, now a painter of considerable renown. "Frida cared for Diego as though he was her son," she told me. "I viewed Diego as a giant and Frida was fine, delicate and enchanting.

"But he treated her like the heavens and with protection that she needed as a woman with the impediments that she had. Really, she was a very fragile woman, very delicate."

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Rivera earned his reputation through mural painting but paid his bills with easel and portrait commissions. Some of his most famous works were completed at the San Angel studio, including Nude With Gannets, The Painter's Studio, Portrait of Dolores Olmeda, Woman in White and The Water Melons. It was also here that he painted family portraits that reflected love and tenderness. Some of Kahlo's more notable works done here were The Two Fridas, Self-Portrait with Monkey, The Fruit of the Land and Little Dead Dimas.

Rivera commissioned the buildings with money earned from the painting La Elaboracion de Un Mural in the U.S. The home became something of a mecca for intellectuals of the day -- writers Pablo Neruda, André Breton, John Dos Pasos and Waldo Frank, artist Henry Moore, photographers Edward Weston and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, celebrated actresses Dolores del Rio, Maria Felix and Paulette Goddard.

Among the many famous house guests was film star Edward G. Robinson and his wife Gladys. While Kahlo entertained Mrs. Robinson on the roof terrace of her house, Rivera, always his wife's biggest fan, showed the actor some of her paintings. Robinson bought four of them for $200 each, at the time Kahlo's most substantial sale.

It is difficult to imagine Rivera, who weighed more than 300 pounds (136 kilograms) when he and Kahlo were married, moving through the functionalist studio, which had only a small bedroom and bathroom and minuscule stairs.

The steep, winding stairs eventually proved too much for the physically impaired Kahlo to manage (childhood polio and a serious streetcar accident left her considerably handicapped), and the couple finally moved to her family home in Coyoacan. Rivera kept the studio as his workplace and, virtually bedridden during the last few months of his life, it was there that he died.

Rivera's daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe, continued to live in the house after Rivera's death, remodelling and making additions as they saw fit. The Mexican Government bought the property from them in 1986.

It is not surprising that the San Angel home would be unveiled as yet another Kahlo shrine. Interest in her life and work of late, a phenomenon known within art circles as Fridamania, has been nothing short of phenomenal.

"Frida was very beautiful and charming and funny," said her former student Fanny Rabel. "She had a good sense of humour. And this is an amazing quality for a person that suffered everything. Over 14 operations. I don't know how many things."

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Studio-House Museum, Diego Rivera 2, San Angel, Mexico City, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., daily (except Monday); admission: 7 pesos (about $1.10). Ron Butler is based in Tucson, Ariz.

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