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How a Frida Kahlo Love Letter Inspired Patti Smith

Patti Smith
LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

Patti Smith gives an interview on Dec. 3, 2015 in Paris.

What's more endearing than reading a love letter from one artist to another? How about reading a love letter about a love letter, especially one written by rock icon Patti Smith

In an essay for Smithsonian magazine, inspired by a letter from Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera contained in their Archives of American Art, Smith writes about the effect that the relationship between Kahlo and Rivera had on her throughout her life, from the time her mother gave her a Rivera biography for her 16th birthday to the profound partnership she would later form with photographer Robert Mapplethorp.

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"All of the relationships Diego Rivera had were so interesting, but Frida Kahlo was by far the most compelling and enduring one," writes Smith. "I loved her. I was taken by her beauty, her suffering, her work. As a tall girl with black braids, she gave me a new way to braid my hair. Sometimes I wore a straw hat, like Diego Rivera. In certain ways, they were a model for me, and they helped me really prepare for my life with Robert."

Smith was seen performing in Paris with U2 this past December and continues to tour the U.S. in honor of the 40th anniversary of her legendary album Horses. Last fall she released her second book, The M Train, following her much-lauded memoir Just Kids, which focused on her complicated but deeply life-shaping relationship with the late Mapplethorp, who died of complications due to HIV/AIDS in 1989.

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Though she notes that Kahlo and Rivera were no "models of behavior," as their famous infidelities can speak to, Smith writes movingly of how "their identities were magnified by each other," which is a feeling she describes sharing with Mapplethorp. "This letter from Frida to Diego -- scrawled on an envelope she had once used to store valuables during a hospital stay ... is a testament to why they lasted. They didn’t have a passionate relationship that dissipated and was gone. They had an earthly human love as well as the loftiness of a revolutionary agenda and their work."

"As artists," she notes, "every scrap of paper is meaningful. This is brown, folded. He saved it. Somebody kept it. It still exists."

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