Perspective | Kahlo dedicated this self-portrait to Trotsky less than three years before his assassination

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The 20th century can almost seem wonderful when you remember that Frida Kahlo had an affair with Leon Trotsky.

It wasn’t wonderful, of course — it was a century you wouldn’t wish on anyone. But it did toss together some powerful personalities. And of all the unlikely collisions of culture and politics, perhaps none was more mind-bending than Kahlo’s love affair with Trotsky.

Trotsky — readers of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” know him better as Snowball — was the Soviet leader and intellectual who founded the Red Army and worked closely alongside Vladimir Lenin. Things got a little hot for him after Lenin’s death in 1924, and in the ensuing power struggle he was outmaneuvered by Joseph Stalin.

Expelled from the Politburo, then the Communist Party, he endured a period of internal exile before finally being forced out of the Soviet Union. After short spells in Turkey and France, he went to Norway. The Norwegian government worried about Soviet retaliation if they gave Trotsky permanent asylum. So Kahlo’s husband, the celebrated painter and muralist Diego Rivera, pleaded on Trotsky’s behalf with the Mexican government.

The result was that, on Jan. 9, 1937, Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, arrived in Mexico.

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Trotsky’s vision for art and culture was more liberal than Stalin’s: He believed good art was inherently revolutionary and should never be subordinated to party politics.

His vision of love life, at least in Mexico, was similarly permissive. He quickly warmed to Kahlo, who had greeted the Russian couple when they arrived at Tampico. She acted as their guide and arranged for them to move into Casa Azul, or the Blue House, in Mexico City, where they stayed for about two years. (Kahlo and Rivera were living in nearby San Ángel.)

Kahlo warmed to Trotsky, too, and the pair soon embarked on a passionate, if short-lived, love affair. Trotsky separated briefly from his wife in July. But less than a week later Kahlo met with him privately, and the two agreed to end the affair.

In events echoed by the recent death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico by one of Stalin’s henchmen in 1940, after several failed attempts. The murderer infamously used an ice ax; Trotsky died in a hospital the next day.

Kahlo painted this self-portrait — one of the highlights of Washington’s newly renovated National Museum of Women in the Arts — in the aftermath of her affair. She gave it to Trotsky as a birthday present in 1937.

Painting in oil on Masonite, Kahlo shows herself standing as if on a stage framed with white curtains. These may allude to the White Russians that Trotsky had fought, preventing them from overturning the Russian Revolution. Likewise, Kahlo’s red lipstick and fingernails, the yarn decorating her woven hair and blouse, and perhaps even the high blush of her cheeks are thought to symbolize her Communist sympathies. In her clasped hands, she holds a bunch of flowers and a letter that says (in Spanish), “For Leon Trotsky, with all love, I dedicate this painting on November 7, 1937.”

As always with Kahlo, we’re struck by her intense, monobrowed beauty, her daunting self-possession and the work’s compact, jewellike charisma. The painting invites the same kind of close attention that was required in its creation — so go to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. You’ll be richly rewarded.

Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky” (1937), oil on Masonite, 30 x 24 in. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Honorable Clare Boothe Luce; Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society; Image by Google.

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