The exhibition Frida Kahlo “Making Herself Up” at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London focuses on how Mexican painter Frida Kahlo crafted her identity and created her own personal brand.
“It is her construction of identity through her ethnicity, her disability, her political beliefs and her art that makes her such a compelling and relevant icon today”, says co-curator Circe Henestrosa.
Frida Kahlo’s tragic biography has been extensively written about. As a child she survived polio and was left with one leg shorter than the other. Then in 1925, at the age of 18 years old, Frida Kahlo was involved in a bus crash that left her with lifelong disability and pain.
Described as “a ribbon around a bomb” by contemporary French photographer and friend André Breton, Frida Kahlo remained bedridden for intermittent periods throughout her life. She had a mirror fitted into the canopy above her four-poster bed so that, lying in her back, she could continue to paint her own reflection.
As a result of the accident, the artist had multiple operations throughout her relatively short life and died at the age of 47, just one year after her leg was amputated.
Until 2004, under instructions of her husband muralist Diego Rivera, the artist’s intimate possessions were locked away in the Blue House in Mexico City, the home where she lived and died. Among these intimate treasures were her extravagant wardrobe, iconic jewelry, cosmetics, medicine and some 6.000 personal photographs that now, paired with key self-portraits, finally see the light of day.
The exhibition at the V&A Museum in London extensively displays objects that include Kahlo’s jewelry, make-up, medicines, medical corsets and prosthetic leg.
Critics see this exhibition mostly as a “problematic retrospective” and a “shrine to that pain”, which “overwhelms Kahlo’s living legacy with its excessive adoration of a dead woman’s stuff” Jonathan Jones highlights for The Guardian.
Despite the physical limitations, Frida always took pride in her appearance and dressed elaborately. The artist proudly wore the traditional Mexican dresses combined with striking jewelry pieces, which included pre-Columbian jade beads unearthed during archaeological excavations from the 20s and 30s in Mexico and modern silverwork.
Frida Kahlo on a Bench, carbon print, 1938, photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives.
“Exploring Kahlo’s highly choreographed appearance and style”, the exhibition “includes 22 distinctive colourful Tehuana garments; pre-Columbian necklaces that Frida strung herself; examples of intricately hand painted corsets and prosthetics […] alongside film and photography of the artist as a visual narrative of her life” reads in the press-release. Next to the physical and lifestyle consequences of her accident, some of her subject matters included her Mexican roots, heritage and the political context that followed the Mexican revolution (1910-20). The artist purposefully painted and decorated her medical corsets with tragic imagery related to her miscarriages, religious and communist symbolism. In this way, Frida Kahlo transmuted these medical aids into highly individual statement pieces full of character and emotion.
Frida Kahlo empowered herself through her art and dressing. The artist’s construction of identity seems to be a complex mix of biography, mixed heritage and political stances. These disparate themes not only fed and shaped Frida Kahlo’s style but also gave it depth. Frida Kahlo is long seen as a fashion icon and, in light of this exhibition, this is the complex result of her personality, compelling life story, ideas and art.
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Image Sources (from top to bottom):
Frida Kahlo with Olmec Figurine, 1939, Photograph Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives.
Frida Kahlo in Blue Satin Blouse, 1939, Photograph Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives.
Frida Kahlo on a Bench, Carbon Print, 1938, Photograph Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives.