Frida Kahlo’s Jewish Lover

In the Stu­dio and Out of It, the Artist and Her Pho­tog­ra­pher Nick­o­las Mu­ray Had a Quite In­ti­mate Re­la­tion­ship.

Forward Magazine - - Culture - By Michael Kaminer

Star­ing out of more than 50 por­traits spread across a sprawl­ing third-floor gallery, Frida Kahlo’s in­tense gaze greets visi­tors to the Textile Mu­seum of Canada in Toronto. But an un­seen face on the other side of the cam­era looms just as large. Nick­o­las Mu­ray was the Hun­gar­ian-born Jew who pho­tographed Kahlo for over a decade in New York, Paris and Mexico City.

And as “Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nick­o­las Mu­ray” makes clear, he was also her lover, sound­ing board, in­tel­lec­tual spar­ring part­ner, and moral — and oc­ca­sion­ally fi­nan­cial — sup­porter.

“It was an open se­cret dur­ing the time they were off-and-on in­ti­mate,” Mimi Mu­ray- Le­vitt, the pho­tog­ra­pher’s daugh­ter, told the For­ward by email from Utah, where she now lives. “When Frida di­vorced Diego [Rivera] in 1939, my fa­ther thought Frida would marry him. But when she re­mar­ried Diego in 1940, he ended their in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship and con­tin­ued with her as friends.” Mu­ray, who had been mar­ried and di­vorced, met and mar­ried his fourth wife, Peggy Mu­ray, in 1942.

The ex­hi­bi­tion’s gen­teel sur­face — it pairs Mu­ray’s por­traits with Mex­i­can tex­tiles typ­i­cal of the pe­riod — hints at the pair’s tor­rid in­ti­macy, ac­cord­ing to Mu­ray-Le­vitt.

“In 1938, at the height of their af­fair, Kahlo painted ‘Xo­chitl,’ which in the Nahu­atl lan­guage means ‘flower’ and ‘ some­thing del­i­cate,’” said Mu­ray-Le­vitt, the man­ager of the Nick­o­las Mu­ray Photo Ar­chives, which li­censes the late pho­tog­ra­pher’s im­ages. “It is a paint­ing of a flower com­posed of a styl­ized vagina re­ceiv­ing a penis from above. Mu­ray’s pri­vate name for Kahlo was Xo­chitl, which he used in letters to her and she, re­fer­ring to her­self, in letters to him. In­ter­est­ingly, Kahlo’s most fa­mous por­trait was made by Mu­ray, and Mu­ray’s most fa­mous por­trait is the same photo.”

Ar­tis­ti­cally, the cou­ple gen­er­ated equally in­tense heat, ac­cord­ing to Sarah Quin­ton, the Textile Mu­seum of Canada’s cu­ra­to­rial di­rec­tor and a cu­ra­tor of the show. “In terms of his bring­ing out her drama, the theater in how she wanted to be pre­sented, her pres­ence it­self as a work of art — that’s where they brought each other out,” Quin­ton said. “He as a wiz­ardly por­trait pho­tog, she as an ex­quis­ite spec­i­men. That’s where there were sparks.”

Nick­o­las Mu­ray was born Miklós Mandl in Szeged, Hungary in 1892, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial Nick­o­las Mu­ray web­site. “Although his name ap­pears in the Book of Birth Reg­is­tra­tion of the Jewish Com­mu­nity, he was not given a Jewish name,” the site notes.

Two years later, in 1894, Nick­o­las Mu­ray’s postal worker fa­ther Samu Mu­ray moved the fam­ily to Bu­dapest in search of work and ed­u­ca­tion

op­por­tu­ni­ties. But the move proved harsh for young Nick­o­las. “Re­peat­edly hu­mil­i­ated by ram­pant anti- Semitism, he re­sented be­ing de­nied, for be­ing Jewish, op­por­tu­ni­ties given other boys,” the site notes. “He de­cided as a boy that he would one day see the world, and never be con­fined to the lim­i­ta­tions im­posed upon him by an un­fair so­ci­ety.”

Le­vitt-Mu­ray said her fa­ther never talked about that ex­pe­ri­ence, but it seemed to scar him; Jewish­ness was largely ab­sent from his adult life for fear “that Nazism would ar­rive in Amer­ica. He feared for my mother and his chil­dren,” she said.

Mu­ray em­i­grated to the U.S. in 1913, “armed with $25, a 50-word Esperanto dic­tionary, and an un­re­lent­ing de­ter­mi­na­tion.” Set­tling in New York, he man­aged to land a job do­ing en­grav­ing and color sep­a­ra­tion at a Brook­lyn print­ing plant; in the mean­time, he took English classes at night — “ea­ger to leave be­hind any trace of his ac­cent” — and de­clared him­self an athe­ist.

Mu­ray’s life in New York quickly be­came a charmed one. Af­ter set­ting up his own photo stu­dio in Green­wich Vil­lage in 1920, his big break came al­most im­me­di­ately in the form of a com­mis­sion from Harper’s Bazaar.

Sought af­ter as a fash­ion and com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­pher, Mu­ray be­came a so­cial pow­er­house. His leg­endary Wed­nes­day night liv­ing room sa­lons at­tracted the likes of Martha Graham, Langston Hughes, He­len Hayes, Paul Robe­son, Gertrude Van­der­bilt, Eu­gene O’Neill and Jean Cocteau.

“As a child, I re­call sit­ting on the stairs lead­ing to our liv­ing room in NYC, and watch­ing the ac­tion and think­ing it was very ex­cit­ing,” Mu­rayLe­vitt re­called.

He also be­came a cham­pi­onship fencer who rep­re­sented the U.S. in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, build­ing on a pas­sion he be­gan pur­su­ing in his teens. Ac­cord­ing to the West Coast Fenc­ing Archive, Mu­ray trained in Hungary with Italo Santelli, “the fa­ther of mod­ern sabre fenc­ing.”

In New York, Mu­ray con­tin­ued train­ing with U.S. Olympic coach Gior­gio Santelli, the master’s son, hon­ing “a tech­nique, speed, and bril­liance sur­passed by few,” ac­cord­ing to the Ar­chives. Mu­ray ended up de­sign­ing cham­pi­onship medals for the Am­a­teur Fencers League of Amer­ica, which named an an­nual tour­na­ment for him.

One of Mu­ray’s A- list cir­cle, the Mex­i­can-born artist Miguel Co­var­ru­bias, in­tro­duced him to Kahlo while on a trip to Mexico City in 1931.

Hand­writ­ten letters be­tween Kahlo and Mu­ray, many on dis­play in public here for the first time, doc­u­ment their sub­se­quent af­fair that took place over the course of a decade.

While Mu­ray’s pro­file has risen in re­cent years, and his iconic por­traits have come to rep­re­sent Kahlo in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, the pho­tog­ra­pher’s name has largely faded from mem­ory. A PBS film, “The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo,” didn’t even

‘Mu­ray is counted among the top 20 Amer­i­can fencers of all time.’

men­tion Mu­ray as one of the “peo­ple in Frida’s world” on its web site.

Iron­i­cally, a book called “I Will Never For­get You…” com­piled Mu­ray’s stun­ning color photos of Kahlo in 2005. But un­til the Textile Mu­seum’s ex­hi­bi­tion, Mu­ray’s role in Kahlo’s life hadn’t re­ceived the same at­ten­tion as her other paramours and part­ners.

Mu­ray’s photos, how­ever, con­tinue to rise in value; Mu­ray- Le­vitt sells color-car­bon prints of the Frida por­traits for thou­sands of dol­lars through the web site. She also spends much of her time fight­ing im­age pi­rates. Unau­tho­rized use of the por­traits “is a huge prob­lem, and I’m sure that sites like eBay and Etsy are only the tip of the ice­berg,” she said. “I spend hours ev­ery month go­ing through and alert­ing peo­ple that the im­ages are copy­righted.”

Mu­ray died of a heart at­tack in 1965 while do­ing some­thing he loved: fenc­ing. “As a fencer, he is al­ready fa­mous, counted among the top 20 Amer­i­can fencers of all time,” Mu­rayLe­vitt said. “I would like my fa­ther to be re­mem­bered as a self-made man, a man for all sea­sons, an artist and a gen­tle­man. He was a pi­o­neer in color pho­tog­ra­phy in the United States, pro­duc­ing the first nat­u­ral color ad­ver­tise­ments in Amer­i­can mag­a­zines. As a celebrity pho­tog­ra­pher, he pho­tographed ev­ery­body who was any­body.”

“Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nick­o­las Mu­ray” runs through Septem­ber 7 at the Textile Mu­seum of Canada in Toronto.


The Artists With their Muses: Frida Kahlo with Nick­o­las Mu­ray in her stu­dio, Coyoacán, 1941,

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