Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the Victoria & Albert Museum
Our arts editor Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou considers the woman behind the paintings and elaborate dress in the V&A’s smash hit show, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up.
Rarely does the image of an artist threaten to supersede his or her own work. Picasso, Matisse and Dali remain recognisable, but it’s their art – the emblematic dove, the coral-shape cut-outs, the melting clocks and Lobster Telephone – that comes into view before they do. With Frida Kahlo, this is different. At the sound of her name a Mexicana form appears, goddess-like and knowing, complete with perfectly primed uni-brow and plaited hair. This is the Frida that has come down to us; first the blazingly bright and beautiful woman, then the artist. And googling her merely serves my point. Type her name and the search engine trips into a tumult of photographic technicolour: carnivalesque Fridas, chic black and white Fridas, nonchalant cigarette-smoking Fridas flood the screen, leaving the odd painted portrait lost to the real thing (interestingly enough when one types Picasso, Matisse and Dali, images of their work, not them, dominate).
With Frida-mania reigning supreme over the popular and fashionista imagination, Kahlo’s image has been replicated, imitated, commodified and consumed at an unusual rate. Purses, tote bags, t-shirts, earrings – oh, and who can forget that bracelet worn by Theresa May – have all been stamped with her striking stare and ruby red lips; whilst haute couture designers, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Rei Kawakubo, have adapted her trademark look for the catwalk with a parade of strutting Fridas, again boasting that idiosyncratic brow and hair. But does her ubiquity and our obsession with it eclipse her paintings and artistic identity? Does all the Frida fan-art, paraphernalia and celebrity homage (Beyoncé famously “Fridafied” herself for Halloween in 2014) get more press than her considerable repertoire of work? And is this a familiar pattern that female artists continually fall prey to; one where appearance, body and life-story upstage that of artistic success and output?
The Victoria and Albert Museum’s powerful new show, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, not only answers such questions, but masterfully unites the woman to her work. Bringing together hundreds of photographs, drawings, objects, outfits and several of her famous paintings, the V&A presents the first major UK-based exhibition devoted to Kahlo’s iconographic look and all that went into ‘making’ it. Co-curated by Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa, who curated the original 2012 exhibition Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe for the Museo Frida Kahlo, the V&A’s show not only demonstrates how her self-fashioning influenced and featured in her work, but also how it came to be a form of art in and of itself.
It is the ‘Making’ – the professional and personal self-construction, the creative extemporising, the ritualistic act of applying make-up – that is central to this exhibition. For many of the objects, outfits and work belonging to Kahlo were sealed-up in her bathroom – a place, if there ever was one, devoted to the making, remaking and unmaking of appearances – at her childhood home Casa Azul, under Diego Rivera’s orders following her death in 1954. In 2004, after 50 years, the Museo Frida Kahlo broke such seals and stipulations, finding a hoard of previously unseen and still-intact items. Shoes, clothes, cosmetics, orthopaedic corsets and braces, a prosthetic leg, photographs, precious watercolour drawings and an extensive cache of letters between Kahlo, her doctors and successive lovers all saw the light of day to dazzling effect. This discovery, a belated gift from Kahlo to the museum and scholars of her work, has altered the narrative around her life, art and look. The V&A show is, therefore, a continuation and exploration of this changing narrative. Spotlighting much of the precious contents from this treasure-trove of a bathroom, curators Wilcox and Henestrosa rewrite the myth around Kahlo.
One find that emerged from the Blue House only to break the Kahlo myth were some childhood photographs. Taken by her father, the German-Spanish Guillermo Kahlo, these images show the child Frida amongst beloved family members, posing wistfully like a miniature bride for her first communion, looking cheekily at the camera in her father’s studio and then steely eyed and determined as an adult. In each photograph we see a child, a teen, a young woman who looked at life head-on; in each portrait we see an individual unafraid of the lens, confident, sure, even comfortable before the camera. These photographs contain the seeds for Kahlo’s future occupation and self-representation. They reveal a woman interested in fashion and the myriad forms of masquerade and camouflage that come with it, as evinced in a photograph of the teenage Kahlo dressed in a man’s suit or in later portraits where she is beginning to deck her hair in ribbons. They betray Kahlo’s fascination with her own mixed heritage and the indigenous Mexican garments belonging to it, as evidenced in the Tehuana ceremonial dress, an item Kahlo’s maternal family and mother wore in several photographs. It was this fashion, particularly the Tehuana ceremonial headdress from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region in Southern Mexico, that Kahlo adopted for her 1948 self-portrait shown at end of the exhibition. These photographs dismiss the prevailing belief amongst scholars that Kahlo wore such clothing to please Rivera. Instead, Guillermo Kahlo’s portraits and their photographic antecedents reveal a woman who embraced her ethnic and cultural identity before meeting her communist husband. They show a woman alive in her own skin and in control of her own becoming as captured by the camera.
Walking through this corridor of childhood images, one is struck by how much Kahlo absorbed from her father’s profession. Not only did she sit for portraits, but she assisted him in his dark room and outdoors whenever he had an assignment. Thus his fascination with and passion for portraiture significantly influenced her own. One such photograph, taken by Guillermo Kahlo in 1926 when Frida was 21 years old, betrays this connection and is the photographic forerunner to Kahlo’s painted self-portraits. Sitting in a three-quarter pose, Kahlo stares fixedly at the lens with a determined yet enigmatic expression. Her uni-brow, which has been accentuated with black kohl, and upper lip hair are visible, and she wears a polka dot blouse with a silk neck scarf. A considerably refined and controlled look, Kahlo is seemingly stripped of that glamour and fiesta-style colour characteristic of her later wardrobe and paintings. Nonetheless, her arresting gaze, her proud presence, her charismatic stance is all there, soon to be found in her renowned auto-portraits. Despite her father being the one behind the camera, Kahlo appears to be directing it, compelling the viewer to look.
Guillermo Kahlo’s photographic portraiture certainly shaped his daughter’s self-presentation, but the defining images of Frida were taken by lovers and friends. It is these photos by the likes of Edward Weston, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Toni Frissell, Tina Modotti, Giselle Freund and Julien Levy that have preserved and documented Kahlo’s idiosyncratic look. And it is these images that loom large on one’s computer screen, decorate notebooks, inspire fancy dress and support a whole industry of “Fridafied” goods. None do this more so than the portraits made by her on-again off-again lover, the Hungarian photographer Nickolas Muray. Included in the exhibition, Muray’s photographs have a ubiquity all of their own and cast Kahlo in a light reminiscent of his usual celebrity subjects. Seductive, eye-wateringly colourful with their own kind of classicism, Muray’s portraits “paint” Kahlo again.
In Frida on the bench (1939) we encounter her looking straight at the viewer, seated on a white floral bench in front of a bright floral backdrop. Flowers proliferate outwards from her headdress and skirt, to the bench and material background. In this portrait Muray achieves a sort of trompe l’oeil unseen in Kahlo’s own work, but redolent of her appreciation for pattern and detail in her dress, home furnishings and drawings. Or, as in the equally charming Frida Kahlo with Olmec Figurine (1939, see above), Muray captures her using a contrasting palette reminiscent of Kahlo’s own paintings. The effect is a veritable celebration of her Mexicana-inspired self-construction, with a nod to her heritage using sculpture and Mayan-inspired jewellery. This is the ‘making up’ echoed in the exhibition title; but it is not so much Muray as a photographer fashioning her, but Kahlo and her work informing and transforming his photographic art.
Muray’s photos, gorgeous in their layering of colours, material, makeup, jewellery and pattern show the potent presence and essence of Kahlo. A Kahlo who forever ‘is’, not was. A Kahlo forever flowering into being. Even more telling of these brilliantly composed photos is not what they show, but what they hide. Or rather, what all her gloriously elaborate and performative outfits conceal: her disability. On the outside Kahlo was ritualistically decked and dressed in ribbons, Mayan gold chains, immaculately applied Revlon lipstick – ‘ironically named ‘Everything’s Rosy’ – and beautifully crafted cotton huipil tunics, sourced from different regions of Mexico. Such an exterior was politically, professionally and personally poignant. But beneath the woven and bejewelled embellishment was extreme pain caused by polio at the age of 9, then a traumatic bus accident at 18. It is this extra strand of the Kahlo narrative, one which is all too often glossed over, that the V&A draw out more. And they do this using the very material items Kahlo would have used and worn on a day-to-day basis.
This is what forms the core of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up: an unveiling of the extreme suffering underneath it all, suffering that informed her art as much as her wardrobe and self-stylisation. Enclosed in specially designed glass vitrines – those museological cases that both distance and draw close – Kahlo’s orthopaedic corsets are suspended on a metal pole that shoots up from a white mattress-like base. For me this form of display was all too indicative of her fractured spine, the impalement from the bus accident and her bed-bound days. Made of plaster, these corsets were worn by Kahlo under her loose fitting tunic-tops and billowing skirts. Usually concealed, she would paint onto them such details as a small hammer and sickle; or a fresco-like version of a cracked column surrounded by flowers, fruits and other surrealist squiggles suggestive of her famous painting The Broken Column (1944). One corset shows a tightly curled-up foetus and no doubt refers to Kahlo’s miscarriages. Painting on these items was a way for Kahlo to incorporate them into herself, to fold the visible, material signs of her disability into her body and look. By marking her corsets, she was owning her pain, defining her disability for herself and realising her own reality. Encasing and physically circumscribing her, these corsets did not limit her creativity. If anything they became another surface, another canvas, another medium through which she could process, synthesise and recreate her identity.
Of course, exposing her personal belongings to the public doesn’t come without its problems. Looking at the glass vitrines, which were designed to look like her bed and contained some of her most intimate items, my response was mixed at best. Peering into one, vials of medicine and a doctor’s report can be seen; in another, make-up and perfume are found, thus juxtaposing two different material takes on Kahlo’s distinctive look. But do we, the public, have a right to see this much of her? Is this an invasion of privacy that even she, so certainly giving and palpable in her work, would object to in life? In gazing at such items are we akin to catholic pilgrims straining to glimpse a miracle-inducing relic beneath a glass coffin? Are we curios collecting precious specimens to analyse and classify when completing our Kahlo Kunstkammer? Or are we voyeurs, not content to have Kahlo on her own terms in painted and photographic form, but in morbid need of stripping her down to her list pill bottle?
Walking around this section, it felt like the vitrines and their contents were a necessary part of her story and one that couldn’t be ignored. “Artless” self-construction, whether on the page, canvas, plaster corset or body, is artful; that is, it requires effort, energy and a tremendous amount of passion – and, in Kahlo’s case, I mean passion in its original etymological sense: pain. Seeing Kahlo’s wonderfully decorated prosthetic leg or her altered boots, one of which had a raised heel and a toe cut out for her gangrenous foot, brought home both the immense physical suffering she experienced, but also her determination to live, to revel in the colour of life as her glorious outfits reveal in the closing room, and to craft the world in her own terms. Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up celebrates this maker of art and self-image; it continues her legacy of self-creation and artful self-contemplation; and it leaves us feeling moved by the passion of an artist and woman determined to ‘paint her own reality’.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up is at the V&A from 16 June until 14 November 2018, sponsored by Grosvenor Britain and Ireland. For more information, click here: www.vam.ac.uk/FridaKahlo