29 Jun Frida Kahlo – Making herself up
I’ve never been sure about Frida Kahlo. She divides opinion often along gender lines. So much of that is because of her story rather than her art, and in that regard she’s more of a woman’s woman, if you like. I went to this exhibition at the V&A not quite knowing what to expect.
It’s a clever title. Make-up and medication, clothes and jewellery, prosthetics, photographs, votive paintings collected by Kahlo, notes and drawings she penned, a medley of private and public artefacts and accoutrements are on display with some of her art. The materials she used to make herself up sit alongside photographs and paintings of the made-up person – self-portraits that have made our image of her.
But what exactly is that image? The front cover of the V&A magazine (Summer 2018) carries the title ‘Finding Frida’ above a photograph of her in one of her colourful huipils (a traditional Mexican tunic-blouse), heavy gold necklace, ornate pendant earrings, flawless skin, carmine lips, hair parted in the middle and woven into a red scarf, her deep, melancholy gaze fixed on you, the onlooker. It feels familiar in the way that iconic images do when they ease into the everyday, become the vernacular of celebrity. Kahlo’s image is multi-layered: strong, vibrant, revolutionary, talented, mistreated, misunderstood. Perhaps, above all, colourful – in every sense of the word.
Do you find Frida here in the darkened galleries of the magnificent V&A? The personal possessions on display lay tucked away in Kahlo’s house in Mexico City, undiscovered until 2004 – 50 years after her death. Will all this help us find Frida – a woman perhaps we think we know or, at least, recognise? Or perhaps the question should be: Which Frida will we find? For she represents so many things to so many people: style icon, artist, feminist, radical, bisexual, disabled woman, married (twice) to Diego Rivera, a man of towering talent, ego and unfaithfulness. Where do you start to look for Frida among the artefacts and identities here? Or among your own preconceptions, or prejudices?
I took away three things.
Firstly, and overwhelmingly, her pain. Much has been made, and with justification, of the prosthetic leg she had made with its elegant laced boot, platform heel, inset dragon pattern and little bell that would sound out each step. It’s a thing of craft and ingenuity and seems to say something about Kahlo’s response to disability – that it’s not a bar to beauty and self-expression. The amputation necessitating the prosthetic came late in her life, just a year before her death. However, she endured pain for almost 30 years after suffering devastating trauma to her spine, abdomen and right leg in a bus accident when she was 18. It was the body sheaths, themselves sheathed in glass display cases, that spelt it out for me. Like armour, adorned with paint and imagery, coloured-in carapaces, these are the things that enclosed her, held her upright, held her together, and revealed the ghastly, unremitting reality of her suffering. What was it like to wear such a thing, day in, day out, year after year?
On a wall in the same room, some of Frida’s words: ‘I am not sick, I am broken’.
Many of the artefacts express her preoccupation with her broken body. The votive paintings from her collection present episodes of injury; apparently, she ‘edited’ some of these to show accidents involving wounds to the legs and spine. The necklace she made of milagros (Mexican religious folk charms used as votive offerings) is a circle of arms and legs she had carefully fashioned from silver. The decorative blended with the starkly autobiographical; petitioning for a cure. This mixing of folk custom, ritual and religion is fascinating in a woman known for her radical communism. Such contradictions make her desperately human.
Her art plays a relatively minor role in this exhibition, second string to her possessions. A small self-portrait carries the words: ‘I paint myself because I am so often alone’. And this is the second thing that struck me. Looking at all these possessions you come to grasp a little the limitations on her life imposed by her injuries; she must have spent much of her time alone. Making herself up, dressing up to go nowhere or perhaps spend the day in bed. Let yourself consider this and it breaks the heart. This sense of her aloneness emanates from photographs and especially from her self-portraits. There is a quality to her aloneness, her singularity. Her eyes speak of sorrow, a sad beauty radiates from deep inside. When she paints herself she does so in a way that seems to both reveal and conceal Frida.
And this is the third thing, this enigmatic quality, her utter individuality. She embraced the Mexican side of her heritage (her father was German), but reinvented it for herself, fusing different elements to suit her own needs. For example, the huipil– traditional, so easy to wear, to put on and take off – embellished with patterns she chose, designs from her own imagination. Her colourful and ample long skirts, that concealed her uneven legs and adapted shoes, combine different fabrics to create a unique, almost quirky style. They are things of great beauty but aboard lifeless mannequins they tend to become a study in textile and colour rather than temperament and personality. A wall displays some of her rebozos, gloriously fine, hand-woven shawls that were her style signature along with the dramatic fresh flowers or jewellery wrapped into her hair. The jewellery is showy and splendid, even more striking than the clothes. Solid gold chains and pendants, necklaces made from huge pebbles of onyx of a weight and girth that must surely have burdened her fragile back, extraordinary rings and earrings, hair clasps and combs.
She made herself up, for sure. Here we have the tools she used and an intimate glimpse into the life of an extraordinary woman. The show is criticised (The Guardian) for ‘excessive adoration of a dead woman’s stuff’ while underplaying her ‘artistic brilliance’. On the other hand, it’s applauded for its celebration of the ‘beautiful, empowering duality between design and disability’ (FT). So, it’s business as usual in the sense that we all want a piece of Frida, we’ll find in her what we’re looking for.
Can we find her here? I’m not sure we ever will. But this exhibition made me look harder at the detail and think more deeply about the back story. It makes Frida even more intriguing.