Frida Kahlo may be one of the most recognisable figures of the 21st century. If you are unfamiliar with her work, you’ll probably still recognise her striking image. It is an image that has continued to gain traction and fame throughout her life, death and the modern day. Her image, work and name have become ubiquitous with self-expression, defiance and womanhood, and are still present and prominent to this day. This month is her 111th birthday and there has been an explosion in exhibits, events and articles surrounding her ongoing legacy of art, fashion and feminist politics. Fittingly the V&A’s ‘Making Herself Up’ exhibition – combining photographs, art, personal effects and important pieces from her illustrious wardrobe, some never before seen together – marries the art with the artist for a fuller portrayal of that legacy.
Kahlo was born to a German father and Mestiza (Mexican and Indian) mother in 1907, in Mexico City. At a young age Kahlo contracted Polio, this left her with one lame leg that was shorter than the other. When she was eighteen years old, Frida was in a terrible accident that changed her life forever, she was in an accident on a bus with her boyfriend at the time – Alex Gómez Arias. There is something mystical and tragic in the way Frida suffered in this accident, as Arias recounts: “Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packed of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her, they cried ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer.” Frida’s body had been pierced by a metal hand-rail and it was later discovered that it had shattered her spinal column. She barely survived and the injury derailed her promising medical career. Kahlo spent most of her life in pain, in and out of surgery – and the event inevitably colours her work, both in terms of its illustrious severity and because the focus was usually on herself. As Kahlo famously stated: “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best”.
Although Kahlo’s fame as an artist and icon is greater than it is has ever been, in her lifetime her success was overshadowed by that of her husband, Diego Rivera. Rivera was also an artist and he supported her work, organising Kahlo’s first solo exhibit in New York in 1938 alongside André Breton (Kahlo met Rivera when she joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1927, and her political beliefs and tumultuous relationship with the USA is a prominent theme in many of her works).
Kahlo’s short, tumultuous life is one that is difficult to unpack. You could spend hours reading about her before even touching on her politics, art or fashion. The Victoria and Albert Museum strives towards – and mostly succeeds in constructing – a cohesive picture of her life. The exhibit consists of several areas each dedicated to certain facets of her life, in a loosely linear fashion, starting with a brief history of her early life and some context of the place and era she was born in, mostly explored through photographs, information and a few visuals. These take on a somewhat objective view, displaying rather than providing commentary on her early years.
In the following sections of the exhibition we see some of her first personal effects and clothing, as well as being introduced to some of her early work and her residence, La Casa Azul. The move to these areas from the first seamlessly blends two different periods of her life and provides interesting information on the formative years of her career. But it’s the latter two sections, the largest parts of the exhibit, that are truly breathtaking. It was difficult to not be in awe of the collection of art, possessions and clothes, and the intimacy of seeing instantly recognisable items from photographs and paintings – the artefacts of an icon.
When we consider icons, there is a tendency of disassociation, to find it hard to grasp that figures of such importance were living, breathing people. To see Kahlo’s things in person – her famous plaster-body-casts, her prothesis, even her lipstick – humanises her. To stand face to face with these things, to stand shoulder to shoulder with mannequins bearing her resemblance and outfitted in her clothing captures something of her legendary charisma. The V&A does an excellent job of show casing these items in a way that allows you to feel this, and there is a level of intimacy to these displays that closes the gap between consumer and creator. In part this intimacy is achieved by the decision to only really display Kahlo – little is said of her influence on others or her posthumous impact on culture.
Though there is attention paid to those who wrote about her and photographed her during her lifetime, the real focal point of the exhibit is Frida’s own fashioning of her self and work. This works tremendously well and really brings us that much closer to Kahlo, capturing something of her as an individual; one who was conflicted, complicated and at times contradictory. It would by hard for anyone to walk out of this exhibit not feeling as though they now know her in a much more personal way. The display really is centred on Frida – not just her art or her fashion, but on her as an individual. Information, items, paintings and photographs are all displayed within close proximity to one another, to establish the context of the association with a particular piece on display and Frida’s life at the time.
These include some of the most magnificent photos of Frida, perhaps the most striking being the portraits of her early years. These black and white photographs are a stark contrast to most of the exhibit as we see a younger Kahlo, not yet flourished into her now instantly recognisable, striking, colourful aesthetic. A case in point is Nickolas Muray’s ‘Frida with Idol’, a photo that almost seems candid, depicting Frida uncharacteristically looking away from the lens to an idol she holds aloft beside her face, summoning up questions of personal identity and cultural perspective.
One excellent painting by Frida on display is ‘My dress hangs there’ (1933) – an usual piece by way of her absence from it. In lieu of depicting herself, she paints one her most famous traditional Mexican dresses framed by a chaotic, decaying New York City (at least partially emblematic of her conflicted relationship with America and Mexico). Later on in the exhibit, in what must surely be one of the greatest displays of her wardrobe ever shown, we see that very dress similarly framed. It’s this sort of curatorial attention to detail that really helps bring the reality of Frida’s life and her near-mythic reputation much closer together.
‘Making Herself Up’ does an excellent job of laying bare the life of an iconic figure, and to go to this exhibit is to see Frida in a way few will have ever seen her. The V&A’s display allows Kahlo’s possessions, photographs and work to speak for itself by objectively presenting it to its audience and the message of defiance, individualism, and unapologetic, unconventional femininity rings as clearly as ever. It will leave you in no doubt as to the truth of Diego Rivera’s poetic words on his wife : “I recommend her to you, not as a husband but as an enthusiastic admirer of her work, acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly’s wing, lovable as a beautiful smile, and as profound and cruel as the bitterness of life”.
‘Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up’ is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 4 November 2018. You can find out more here.
Words by Elliott Bonnell
Images Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums