In Mexico City, visitors to the museum dedicated to the memory of her husband, Diego Rivera, foremost of Mexico's fresco painters, are greeted by a "Crazy about Frida" exhibition. This contains row upon row of Frida Kahlo T-shirts, and eight of her tiny, brightly coloured shoes. In San Francisco there is an annual Frida Kahlo lookalike competition which is taken seriously by the participants and prominently covered by the regional media.
Reproductions of her paintings, which combine European surrealism with Mexican fantasy, doctrinaire communism and Aztec symbolism, are everywhere. They have come to stand for a woman's courage in the face of constant physical pain and the unhappiness of marriage to a self-centred and emotionally violent husband. A childhood case of polio had left her with a withered leg which was not correctly treated, and she was singled out for ridicule by companions and nicknamed "Pegleg". As a young woman she had a serious road accident which meant that she was partially crippled, doomed to a lifetime of spinal operations and, by her own account, barren. Almost every one of her numerous self-portraits might have borrowed Munch's title "The Scream".
One of the questions most often asked is why did Frida Kahlo paint herself so often? Was it because she was an automaniac, driven to self-obsession by the constant pain? Most of us have little patience with other people's pain, which we quickly regard as both threatening and boring. But Kahlo managed to illustrate pain and to make those illustrations interesting, even beautiful.
One gets a more tranquil impression of Frida Kahlo's personality by visiting the house where she was born and where she died in the leafy suburb of Coyoacan. The Casa Azul is the most important of the numerous shrines to her memory. The rooms overflow with warmth and colour and show that this artist, who could battle with years of illness, devote herself to an outstandingly difficult husband, lead a tumultuous private life and play an active role in national politics, as well as rank among the leading artists in Mexico, could also find time to paint her house in colours which seem to suck in all the available light, so that even on an overcast day they glow. But the gaiety of this house is completely at odds with the suffering in her paintings.
Now, with the publication of a facsimile edition of Kahlo's diary, there is more evidence to unravel this mystery. For the first time it is possible for anyone to examine the volume which was among Hayden Herrera's principal sources and a cornerstone on which her image of the artist was constructed.
The Diary, which covers a period of roughly ten years before her death in 1954, turns out to be more of an artist's notebook, a riotous succession of paintings, sketches, surrealist automatic writings, word lists, love poems and automatic or "found" drawings which sometimes set out from an ink blot that has soaked through from the preceding page. This edition, which comes with a translation and editorial commentary by Sarah M Lowe as well as an introduction by Carlos Fuentes, is so well printed that one can easily make out the shadow of the characters on the page to come.
The Diary is a wonderfully chaotic jumble which includes practical information, such as Diego's recipe for tempera, and eye-witnessed memoirs of fighting in the Mexican revolution. But it is also interesting for what it leaves out. There is no direct mention of Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, Trotsky or Tina Modotti, all of whom she counted among her friends and admirers. Nor, despite her fierce commitment to communism, does it contain any reference to current events such as the end of the Second World War, Hiroshima or the Nuremburg Trials.
Nor, despite her feminism, are there any complaints about the all-male medical teams which had failed to treat her childhood polio, infected her with gangrene and, one occasion in New York, fused the wrong spinal vertebrae. Despite all these misadventures, her surgeons remained her heroes. She was an outstanding example of the now outdated surgical adage that "the most grateful patients are invariably those with the most cause for complaint".
Traditionally the sceptical biographer's first question of any document is, "Why am I being told this?" But with a journal intime the question is partly redundant because one is not being "told" anything. One is, as Sarah M Lowe puts it, committing "an act of transgression" by reading on. No message is intended to be sent by "a private record written by a woman for herself", and it may not be possible to break the code connecting the objective sense conveyed and the subjective sense recorded. But there is at least one passage in Frida Kahlo's Diary where the message is very clear. Four years before her death, she wrote: "I must have been six years old when I lived the intense experience of an imaginary friendship with a little girl - of more or less my own age - I told her all my secret problems ... It has been 34 years since I lived that magical friendship and every time I remember it, it comes alive and grows more and more inside my world."
This passage is followed by a sketchy painting of a child blowing on a window pane and drawing a door through which she will enter her imaginary world. And she wrote it to explain one of her supposedly surrealistic self-portraits, "The Two Fridas", which she painted in 1939 when she was in the process of divorcing Diego Rivera. These pages, which describe a fairly common childhood experience, suggest that Frida Kahlo never entirely left that imaginary world. When other children were growing up and abandoning their imaginary friends she was thrown back on her own resources, and when she became a young adult starting an independent life the road accident cut her off once more.
The picture she refers to, "The Two Fridas", a double self-portrait in which the two figures are linked together by a bleeding vein, is displayed today in the Museo del Arte Moderno in Mexico City. It has been placed at right angles to Diego Rivera's equally large portrait of his massive first wife Lupe, who glowers across the polished floor at the double image of her supplanter. But in the legend of Frida Kahlo "The Two Fridas" is not linked to the artist's childhood. As Hayden Herrera wrote in another book, Frida Kahlo: The Paintings, the Diary "says that (this picture) had its origin in her memory of an imaginary childhood friend. But the double portrait's split identity seems more charged than that reading would allow and Frida admitted to a friend that it recorded her unhappiness at being separated from Diego...".
Herrera went on to suggest that the portrait showed the Frida Diego had loved and the Frida Diego no longer loved, that it also stood for Frida's European-Indian dual heritage, and that it might also refer to Frida's love for women since "each woman has one hand in her lap near her genitals".
We are of course all free to find what we want in a work of art. But it seems unusual to describe a hand resting on a full-skirted lap as being "near the genitals". Herrera is clearly right in relating this picture to Frida's divorce from Rivera because the right-hand Frida is holding a tiny childhood picture of her (briefly ex-) husband. But in 1939, when this picture was painted, Frida was not only divorcing Diego. She had also just finished an affair with Trotsky, had just finished an affair with Trotsky's male secretary, had briefly resumed an affair with the photographer Nickolas Muray and had enjoyed a "very intimate" relationship with Madame Andre Breton, the painter Jacqueline Lamba, with whom she had spent several months in Paris and to whom she had subsequently written a love letter - to name but four.
It seems that several readings are possible, but to give an interpretation which mentions dual racial identity, lesbian love, pain in love, inner turmoil, self-enclosure, solitude and self-division, while barely mentioning the artist's own statement that the origin of the picture is an imaginary childhood friend, is bold to say the least.
There are other passages which raise questions about the conventional view of Frida's life. In his introduction Carlos Fuentes quotes Diego as saying, "The more I loved her the more I wanted to hurt her", which is very much the received view of that marriage. But in the Diary Frida writes in a poem addressed to Diego, "In our delirium I ask you for violence and you ... give me grace, your light and your warmth" - apparently a less brutal and more complex account of the state of play.
The problems faced by a biographer are not always simplified by direct documentary evidence. Herrera mentioned that the Diary contained frequent references to Diego Rivera. Nevertheless the reader may be surprised to find that the intimate journal of so complex a woman contains so many conventionally affectionate references to her husband. Her love for Diego is the major refrain of the Diary, a repeated litany "Diego - the name of love ... Diego my child, my mother, my father", even at one point "Diego equals Me". So can one assume that these are poems written to her husband?
Not according to Dr Saloman Grimberg, a Dallas psychiatrist and freelance Frida scholar who claims to have unpublished evidence that many of the love poems apparently addressed to Diego really refer to another, unnamed, lover who is still alive, a Spanish painter who was "the love of Frida's life" and whose existence was kept secret from Frida's unfaithful but jealous husband.
This interpretation raises the possibility that the Diary was not really a journal intime at all. Why should anyone bother to address a love poem to one man which was in fact inspired by another? One answer would be to reassure the named man, Diego, her husband, of her undying love. There is some textual support for this theory, since the Diary seems to have had at least one unauthorised reader. There are passages where words are struck out of the text, not with a single line but with dozens of tiny black pen marks which make the words crosshatched completely illegible.
On another page a love poem ends and at the bottom of the page in huge characters is DIEGO, written later, perhaps to catch the eye of this unauthorised reader as his huge, pneumatic form bent over the little volume and directed his searching glance through the scrawled pages. If this were the case, would Diego have been deceived? After 20 years of a marriage in which both parties had been so frequently and publicly unfaithful? At least his honour would have been satisfied. The Diary of Frida Kahlo invites readers to play these games with the text and to attempt their own decoding. But, as even Dr Grimberg confirms, Frida Kahlo's love for her husband was more than genuine, it was "obsessive", both the governing emotion and the framework of her life. Demon lovers aside, he was "her stability".
Carlos Fuentes mentions that despite everything Kahlo is most frequently remembered by those who knew her as a happy, even joyful, woman whose belly laughs and obscene language expressed her high spirits. Nor did she let pain get in the way of her pleasures. In San Francisco in 1940, just before re-marrying Diego after their brief divorce, she conducted a passionate affair with a young male admirer from her hospital bed. And in Mexico City, while hospitalised, she saw her consultant talking to a pretty nurse and said, "When you've finished over there send her up to me. I'll smoke that one myself."
The Diary confirms the existence of this multi-coloured personality, whose stoicism usually made her capable of provoking laughter among her friends. Last year in Mexico, her step-daughter Guadalupe Rivera Marn said: "Frida was a very enthusiastic person ... very cheerful. In reality she had nothing to do with the current image people have of her." One can well imagine such a personality painting the walls of the Casa Azul.
! 'The Diary of Frida Kahlo', with an introduction by Carlos Fuentes, is published by Bloomsbury at pounds 25Reuse content