After a zippy subway ride uptown and a short but scorching walk through the busy Bronx streets, we arrived at a deep blue (a unique blue reminiscent of my T-Anthony luggage) home in Coyoacán, Mexico. The walls beautifully lined with rows of marigold sunflowers, magenta dahlias and bristly cacti, and the air laden with the scent and weight of dense humidity.
Destination: Casa Azul at the New York Botanical Gardens, where the sanctuary for all things horticulture embraces the beat of Latino salsa and merengue. For the summer, the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory is home for the colors, textures and smells of Frida Kahlo’s native Mexican casa.
Frida Kahlo, the bohemian woman who lead nothing short of a non-conformist life – attributing many of her works to the feminist movement, having multiple affairs with both men and women, being encapsulated by the metaphysical underworld… - is known for her thick bushy uni-brow, the colorful dahlia crown woven in her hair and cotton Puebla blouses. But her relationship to nature, her love for horticulture and plant symbolism should not be overlooked.
During my visit to the Botanical Gardens, I walked through a gallery displaying about a dozen of Frida’s lesser known works, a few of which startlingly caught my attention. Yes, she painted using only the brightest of colors, and subject matter that is seemingly banal, yet each object painted is carefully considered and deliberately placed.
Vanitas still life paintings, which originated with the seventeenth century Flemish artists, take a tropical spin adding fruits like caymitos, papayas and sapotes. The allegory similar to those of ancient times – the ephemerality of life, sex, fertility, femininity and death, but she paints using the pallet and flavor of Mexico.
The walls, floors and planters of the Conservancy paid a beautiful tribute to the interconnection between Kahlo’s painted expression and the planted one. In the center of the exhibition is a scale version of the terracotta colored pyramid at Casa Azul, where Diego Rivera displayed his collection of pre-Columbian artifacts (many of which Kahlo also painted). But here in New York, the steps are lined with pots of brambly catci – more varieties than you could have ever imagined – share their prickly glory.
Walking through the exhibit, it was hard not to feel the presence of Frida Kahlo. Your senses were enraptured by the vibrant colors of flowers, the diversity of plants and the weight of humid air.