Moviegoers saw her home, Casa Azul, in “Frida,” the film biography of Mexico’s most famous surrealist painter. The family house where she grew up is in Coyoacan, a suburb just south of Mexico City. Today it is Museo Frida Kahlo, and though wandering the house and Frida’s studio is an exceptional experience, there are great ideas outside in the garden, too.
Frida kept all her pets — the hairless dogs and monkeys, birds and fish — in the grand courtyard of Casa Azul. The living spaces are separated by lava-lined planting spaces that support narrow, tall trees. Cooling pools, the deep green canopy, lava-lined beds and her collection of pre-Columbian gods are physical reminders of Aztec life in the Valley of Mexico.
The curious garden has changed since she died in 1954. If you study photographs of Frida there in the day, you’ll notice the garden was more open and sun-filled; today it is totally shaded.
This transition from full sun to eventual shade happens in all landscapes with trees. They begin in sun until canopies mature, then as shade increases sun-loving species die out and shade plants replace them.
The corner house in Coyoacan was first a colonial one,later a studio and bedroom wing were added by Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera in a simple modern style. Newer construction used indigenous stone, simple lines and large windows that illuminate the studio and look down over the garden.
Between the studio and bedroom is the hallway to the garden door where Frida’s bed remains today. She asked that it be moved there toward the end so she could look out and see the flowers and animals.
A painter’s transformation
The original house was not blue; we know this from childhood photos taken by Kahlo’s photographer father. Painting the house blue was done later, when she and Rivera lived there.
Today it still features that color, known as “azul anil,” believed to prevent evil from entering. Since then even more colors have been added, giving the space a more festive overall appeal.
Canary yellow furniture
Today the courtyard is used for visitors after they’ve toured the house. The traditional painted Mexican furniture is bright canary yellow, a color that is complementary to the blue, so it really pops. Imagine your own garage sale finds painted like this against a blue background.
Few flowers bloom at Casa Azul now because of the tall tree canopy.
The current gardeners have preserved the Madonna lilies that grow all over Coyoacan like weeds. They also exploit impatiens, our shade garden annuals, which grow large and lacy in that mild winter climate.
Other plants are grown in pots along the many low walls. Spider plants and sansevieria, both frost-tender, are common here, as well as a series of leatherleaf bergenia in terra-cotta pots.
Rivera and Kahlo were avid collectors of pre-Columbian statuary and architectural pieces uncovered in the early excavations of Aztec ruins. Much of her chunky jewelry came from actual finds in the diggings. The reverence for the history of Mexico prior to Hernan Cortez demonstrates the strong nationalistic fever of the day that drove so many of Rivera’s mural subjects.
It takes a lot of guts to paint anything azul anil because it’s such a potent color, but once it’s there as a background, the entire space changes. It did so in that old colonial with the modern expansion. Then with color and artifact and stone, the garden evolved from a creative woman’s oasis into a sanctuary that now can be felt by everyone visiting the “place of the coyotes” to experience firsthand the place she called home.