Art was one of the numerous enticements that drew us to Mexico. And while they may seem obvious choices, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were the brightest beacons. For the time-poor tourist, there is a clear challenge as to which of the many museums and galleries should be at the top of the list, and even in a week we still didn’t get to all of them. But we managed to visit most of the ‘biggies’ dedicated to the work of these national heroes.
Sated with a breakfast of the tasty local specialty, chilaquiles, our driver, Ricardo (arranged by our hosts at The Red Tree House) took control and we headed south to the suburb of Coyoacán. All the drivers who work for the RTH have good knowledge of their city and surrounds and converse in excellent English, so we sat back and enjoyed the ride and company, knowing we were in capable hands.
Museo Frida Kahlo
Ricardo timed our arrival perfectly at the Museo Frida Kahlo (‘The Blue House’). As the RTH had booked and printed our entry tickets online the night before, we didn’t have to join the long line gathering outside. Instead, we simply strolled up to the much shorter line of ‘ticket holders’ as the museum opened and went on in.
Walking through this vibrant house was a surreal experience, particularly because of its familiarity from the 2002 Salma Hayek film Frida. There were so many photographs of Frida throughout, and I had previously had no idea how striking she actually was – not quite what her pain-filled self-portraits show. And what a painful life it was! This was even more apparent with the temporary exhibition of her corsets and braces, contraptions that allowed her movement, even if it meant agony. To have survived all she did and still have ‘Vive la Vida’ as her personal motto is quite extraordinary. What a woman! Her clothes and jewellery were also on display, showing a passion for the colours and styles of her culture that she wore throughout her life, from Mexico to Paris and New York.
I also didn’t know that at first she was more famous overseas than in Mexico. But now, her and Diego are so loved by their country that they are on either side of the 500 peso bill. This single visit to ‘The Blue House’ has me completely hooked on this phenomenal woman, her work and her life, and I am hungry for more!
Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky
A couple of blocks from ‘The Blue House’ is the Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky. While I knew that Trotsky had been assassinated in Mexico, I didn’t know of his relationship with Kahlo and Rivera (for a while Trotsky and his wife lived with the artist couple in their house, apparently Kahlo and Trotsky had an affair). When things got too heated personally and politically, it was thought better for all if the Trotsky’s moved. The visit to this museum was another fascinating learning experience. Price of entry included an English-speaking guide, which certainly provided more insight than if we had only a pamphlet or guidebook.
The first assassination attempt on Stalin’s enemy was a failure. Twenty hired assassins stood in a row along the front of the narrow house and fired their rifles into the house. The only injury sustained, even though over 200 shots were fired, was by Trotsky’s grandson who got a bullet in the foot. That same grandson remained living at the house until it was converted into a museum. The second attempt was successful, carried out one day by Ramon Mercader, a Spanish communist who had infiltrated the inner circle years before his fatal attack with the ice pick handle. In the fortified walled garden contains a tomb where Trotsky’s ashes lie, marked by a plinth and bust engraved with a hammer and sickle.
The museum is set up as Trotsky left it, with books on the shelves, his smashed glasses on the desk and the bullet holes from the first attempt on his life. It is virtually the only memorial to Trotsky in the world, and feels more than slightly incongruous amongst the prosperous homes of the bourgeois suburb of Coyoacán.
Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacali
The next stop on our Diego and Frida pilgrimage was the Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli. Had no idea about what we were in for with this place – we just added it to the list cause his name was in the title, so it was a bit of a surprise. Rivera’s love of all things pre-Hispanic was so great that he designed and had a Mayan temple-inspired building created (in consultation with Frank Lloyd Wright) of black volcanic stone. This place is filled with original Mayan artefacts from Rivera’s private collection, as well as some Mayan-inspired work of Rivera’s own. Striking juxtapositions to this Mayan theme are some weird, yet funky, contemporary pieces that are some sort of homage to Rivera’s work – such as the fluff and bling-covered old tyres! Bizarre, but kind of cool. Work on the building itself began in 1933 and continued sporadically, but wasn’t completed until after his death (it opened in 1963).
We were very lucky that the kind ticket collector at the museum pointed out that our ticket would include entry to ‘The Blue House’. When we said that we had just been there, she checked our original ticket and gave us our money back on the entry we just purchased – nice!
Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino
The highlight of our Rivera/Kahlo experience was the museum south of the city centre – Museo Dolores Olmedo Patino. Dolores Olmedo was a wealthy patron, friend and sometimes model of Rivera. The museum is housed in the 17th century hacienda mansion that was once Olmedo’s home, and sits amid beautifully tended gardens where peacocks pose and a small pack of the hairless pre-Colombian dogs that Kahlo kept as pets are still in residence…or at least their descendants are! The collection itself is varied with over 130 of Rivera’s works and 24 of Kahlo’s on display, and with such a delightful setting, it is clear why this museum is a favourite of many art lovers.
Saks in San Angel
On our drive back towards the city centre, we stopped at San Angel’s Plaza San Jacinto markets. As it was getting late in the afternoon and we hadn’t eaten, food became a more pressing priority than shopping (it was 4pm by the time we got lunch). Our driver, Ricardo, dropped us in the centre of the busy market area and pointed out a beautifully restored ochre-coloured building that housed numerous shops and restaurants as being a “nice place” to eat. We wandered into Saks in San Angel for our first experience of fine dining Mexican.
The service was impeccable from the moment we entered the stone arched doorway. Our sommelier asked whether we wanted Mexican or Spanish for our vino tinto, and when we hesitated she brought us both to try – we went with the Mexican. To begin the meal was the bread, a common enough opening play in a good restaurant, but this gift was beyond our other wheaty-carb experiences. The basket contained a dark brown flat lavash-looking crisp bread, plus pairs of slices of 4 other bread types (tomato, dark seeded, sour dough and something else equally delish). This came with 3 dishes of whipped colour to dip or spoon onto the bread – wonderful hommus, an avocado and green chilli dip and a spicy tomato salsa. We were half way through the bread basket when they whipped it away and replaced it with a fresh one without us noticing. Damn them! Too. Many. Carbs!
For ‘real food’ we ordered two dishes to share: a Saks Salad – a pair of mini-artichoke hearts, palm heart, goats cheese, cherry tomatoes, avocados, olives, asparagus, ginger, mushrooms, sprouts, spinach, arugula, served with traditional Turkish dressing; and a serve of 3 cheese enchiladas with green salsa. A wonderful meal on all counts.
We then tried to make the most of the remaining afternoon by wandering the stalls of the Saturday markets, but a lot of them were packing up. So we headed home and spent the evening in a pleasantly extended happy hour chatting to other guests before heading up to our room – no need for more food!
Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo
As our next day of Diego and Frida admiration was less spread out in geography, we didn’t need a driver for the day. Instead we took a taxi to Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo in San Angeline, which is the very modernist house/s that they shared before moving to the blue house. It is actually two separate houses – his is red ochre and hers is bright blue (and smaller), and they are connected by a walkway between the roofs, whereby she used to take him his meals. Rivera’s house was quite large, with the most wonderful studio area – double height ceilings and windows that filled an entire wall…great light. I know that Kahlo was of a diminutive frame, but her house was positively tiny – especially the ‘cupboard’ that she used for a bedroom. Ridiculous.
In the third building of this museum there was an exhibition of Mexican artist José García Narezo. His work spanned 35 odd years and it was fascinating to see the changes in his style as he was influenced by other artists – Rivera, Picasso, Miró, Gaudï, Dali, and others. There were quite a few I could’ve happily brought home for my own walls!
Ministry for Education
Popped into a relatively unknown spot on the Rivera trail – the Ministry for Education. This was recommended by our hosts at The Red Tree House, and is often skipped by visitors who go for the more popular and famous sites that showcase the artist’s work. But this spot is a gift – free admission, hardly any people, and an abundance of Rivera. The walls of the central courtyard and balconies of this public office showcase some particularly fine murals of his. And I think the Ministry for Education is a very fitting home for art that fights for equality and mocks the establishment.
There is more of Rivera’s work in the Palacio Nacional, which we visited on another day. To read more of that and see more photos of the work, go to the Centro Historico post.
Our Mexico City story continues…
Read our full Mexico City story here:
Part 2 (current): Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo
Part 3: San Angel to Coyoacan
Part 4: Centro Historico
Part 5: Teotihuacan
Mexico City Accommodation: The Red Tree House