Frida’s Commie Comet
Mexico. The color, sounds, and art of this country are truly inspiring. A highlight to any visit to Mexico City must include a day trip in the beautiful Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City to find Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s “Casa Azul” (Blue House).
As a mosaic enthusiast, I was excited to find a rare example of the motif of the ‘sickle and hammer’ in mosaic, designed as a comet emblazoned across the ceiling of their patio. Diego and Frida were ardent communists and they incorporated this philosophy into their lives and artwork. In fact, Leon Trotsky was their neighbor and shhhh, Frida’s lover.
Here’s a short video (1.54 min.) showing Rivera and Kahlo, with Trotsky and his wife, having a friendly hang around the compound.
Diego Rivera included a controversial portrait of Lenin in his 1933 Rockefeller Center mural in New York to such an uproar, that it was chipped off the wall the following year. But in their own home, they had no such limitations. Their mosaic is made of grey and white local volcanic lava rock, as is the entire exterior of the house.
I asked the Casa Azul docents who made the mosaic, but no one knew.
Could it have been created by their friend, architect/painter/muralist Juan O’Gorman, who championed this style of fitted stone mosaic in Mexico? Mr. O’Gorman’s most prominent and well known work can be found at the Central Library of the UNAM campus, Universidad Nacional Autónomo de México, in Mexico City.
Between 1949 and 1951 O’Gorman designed and directed the construction of the Central Library, a building covered with a mosaic of natural stones, covering an area of 4000 meters square. The mosaic was set onto pre-cast concrete slabs, each measuring one meter square. An iron grid was constructed onto the facade of the structure, and each completed slab was hoisted and bolted into place. This was a ground-breaking construction technique of the time. Some of the best background I’ve found on the murals, their meaning, history, and construction methods can be found on the University’s website (in Spanish), here.
The following year (2006), while on another trip, I discovered this fantastic mural in Oaxaca, while driving with a friend to her son’s piano lesson. Pull over!
As is often the case, many apprentices are trained on a large job like the UNAM library. I suspect the artist who made this mural had worked with O’Gorman, then went on to do this work for the city of Oaxaca. The subject of the mural is legal reform, and it is dated 1963. The materials reflect the UNAM and Frida’s comet: a wide variety of local colorful stones, perhaps even leftovers from the UNAM job? In the center of the mural, a beautifully carved bas relief depicts the eagle eating the serpent in a modernist, almost art deco, style.
The construction method is also similar to UNAM, with the stones set into a slab, set into a smaller, but regular grid framework. A muscular, graphic approach accented with contrasting outlines identify the rather blocky subjects from the background.
Diego Rivera’s travels and commissions in the United States during the 1930s had lasting impact on US muralism. His interaction with many artists employed through the WPA Federal Arts Program can not be underestimated. O’Gorman’s herculean effort at UNAM marked technological breakthroughs for the use of mosaic in the architectural setting.
Mexico is rich with mosaic work made from a variety of media, stone, smalti, and even seeds.But for today, just a small example of some unique and beautiful work from my mosaic archives and travels.
¡ART FOR THE PEOPLE !
more on Frida and Diego’s politics here