I only really became aware of Frida Kahlo when I bought a brooch from the brand Baccurelli a few years ago. Since then I’ve read a few articles, largely prompted by the new exhibition at the V&A, which I was lucky (and quick) enough to get tickets to.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up was made possible by the collection of the artist’s work that was found in her home in 2004, locked since her death fifty years previously. The exhibition focuses on her life and her self-expression, featuring her clothes, makeup, jewellery, accessories and self-portraits. While I would like to explore more of her art, I feel that her life is so fascinating and was so central to her work that I don’t think the exhibition’s focus is misplaced.
Frida was born in 1907 to a Spanish-Indian mother and a German immigrant father. Her mother, Matilde Calderón y González, and her father, Guillermo Kahlo (he changed his name from Wilhelm when he immigrated) was a photographer. Frida often accompanied her father on his assignments and developed a fascination with photography and the way it could be used to explore the self. Many of the photographs in the exhibition, both those taken by Frida and those made by others, show how she played with and shaped her identity, in one picture donning a male suit, in another photographing her and her mirrored reflection (reminiscent of her painting The Two Fridas), with others showing off her love for traditional Mexican dress.
Aged twenty-three, she went to Mexico’s most famous painter, Diego Rivera, to ask him his opinion on her art. The two fell in love and married, beginning a lifelong relationship, despite several affairs on both sides. Though they divorced once, they remarried again the next year. They set up home in La Casa Azul, Frida’s former family home, filling it with Mexican folk art and inviting many distinguished visitors to stay. Among these visitors was Trotsky (with whom Frida had a brief affair). As Communists, much of the couple’s work was related to workers’ rights, but while Diego tended to create large dramatic murals, Frida’s work was usually smaller and more intimate in tone. The pair made many trips to the USA, which Frida loved despite disagreeing profoundly with the US on many issues.
Frida experienced health problems throughout her life. Aged six, she suffered from polio, leaving her with a damaged right leg which many years later had to be amputated. At eighteen, an accident left her with further life-changing injuries, putting a stop to her studies and dreams of being a doctor. Disability and illness shaped her life, and Frida was often in great pain, but she worked to overcome it and not to be defined by it. Bedridden for many months after her accident, she painted lying down, using a special contraption created by her mother. Frida spent large portions of her life in bed, recovering from illness or operations, and transformed these experiences into art: in one picture, she has painted herself lying curled up on a hospital bed, while next to her another version of herself stands triumphant, bearing a Mexican flag.
One room particularly demonstrates the various ways in which Frida moulded her image in both compliance with and defiance of her circumstances. She frequently wore stiff fabric or plaster corsets to help support her spine, and often decorated these with symbols and drawings. She also wore flowers in her hair, weaving ribbons into her plaits in a traditional Mexican style, and used cosmetics, particularly pink and red lipstick and nail varnish from the US brand Revlon. The brightly-coloured shawls, tunics and long skirts she wore served the double purpose of allowing her to embrace her Mexican heritage and hide her corsets and damaged limbs. Many of these are displayed in the final room, some dotted with paint splashes reflecting how they were an integral part of Frida’s identity, not worn as a costume. Even when she was bed-bound, and not expecting any visitors, Frida still wore her bright clothes and put on her makeup. Her jewellery, too, was important to her: she wore large, striking necklaces, earrings and rings made of precious metals in traditional Mexican designs, as well as jade beads taken from Mayan tombs.
The video clips in this exhibition show Frida’s beauty and charisma. She is smiling and laughing, showing no signs of pain or suffering, although as she makes clear in her art and her personal journal, what is on the surface is not necessarily a reflection of what is inside. Her art is important, but after seeing this exhibition I feel like her life was also a kind of art, which she shaped with integrity and courage.