Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up
The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 16 June – 4 November 2018.
To say that the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up was hugely anticipated is somewhat of an understatement: algorithm focused advertisements and press releases had been circulating near enough a year in advance of its opening. At the time of writing, the show was sold out in monthly chunks. And with good reason: the show is a display of art objects and personal affects that were kept under lock and key for over forty years in the Casa Azul – the house where Kahlo (1907-1954) was born, spent most of her life, and eventually died. Her husband, the late and fêted father of Mexican muralism, Diego Rivera (1886-1957), had kept her personal belongings – over two hundred of which form the V&A display – in a sealed room after her death in 1954. A makeshift archive propelled by mourning, it was not to be opened until after his death, which it was in 2004, with its contents making a first appearance in Mexico. In the lifetime of the artists who owned them, not all of these objects were perhaps intended for display. As a result, their showing at the V&A has been lauded as wildly compelling, but also criticised as uncomfortably intimate.
The show’s title plays on a pervasive notion of self-fashioning behind Kahlo’s now iconic image. Yet, the oscillation of ‘self-fashioning’ and ‘fashion’ is complicated by this exhibition: make-up artists, Instagram ‘influencers’, and fashion glossies have been the loudest voices in the show’s reception. But how far away is Kahlo’s curated ‘self’ – all Tehuana patterns and hot pink Revlon lipstick matched to the flowers in her hair – from the woman who painted lying prone in her bed in aching isolation and with a shattered spine (‘I paint myself because I am so often alone’)?
We are first introduced to Kahlo through photography, and with it her own preoccupation in cultivating her self-image from an early age. In a family portrait – a sepia photograph taken by her father – the teenage Frida’s hair is worn in a severe centre parting in a challenge to the soft, fashionable curls of her sisters. Her defiance went hand in hand with her self-consciousness – at nineteen she takes to hiding her leg in a photograph from 1926. A year later she produces her earliest painting: a self-portrait of herself as ‘La Adelita’ – the folk heroine of the Mexican Revolution – with echoes of the sun-hit Surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). Kahlo was very much influenced by the artistic forays of her parents: her father was a photographer of German descent who captured Mexico’s drive for modernity as well as Frida’s own mother also posing as ‘La Adelita’ in 1897. Frida experimented with photographic self-portraiture in her father’s studio, and as such photography had an enduring impact on her painting. It is photographs that emerge as some of the most compelling displays. She made herself up as the soldadera as well as a smartly dressed young boy in her father’s suit, playing with both her feminine strength and the masculine potential of her appearance.
The Casa Azul remained a hub for Mexico’s political, artistic and cultural elite. It was a house filled with talismans of the Aztec past and Catholic religion: archaeological finds and votive paintings. The garden was full of apricot, orange, and pine trees, roses and violets. Kahlo was called Xochitl (the Nahmati/Aztec word for flower) by her friends. In photographs by Ida Alvarez Bravo, we can see the gardens were also full of mirrors. An awareness of self-image was never far away. In films recorded in the 1940s by one of Kahlo’s many lovers, Nickolas Muray (1892-1965), Frida turns and smiles to him whilst sat in a chair that is pulled up to canvas. She is painting a picture of Stalin. In another, she shows Trotsky (another lover) around the garden. Later, she puts flowers in her hair and is caressed by her husband Diego as she again meets the camera lens directly, and through it the eyes of her lover behind it. Frida, ever aware of her allure, kept her romantic threads tangled. It was always Diego, however, that she loved most fiercely. The pair married twice. Of their relationship, she said, ‘I suffered two accidents in my life: one was the bus crash [in 1925, where she suffered near fatal injuries] and the other was Diego’.
Perhaps too much space is taken up by the contents of Kahlo’s medicine cabinet, and these enormous but sparsely filled display cases feel more voyeuristic than her nearby prosthetic. Certain items, though, provide beautiful nuances. Her eyebrow pencil, used to emphasise her monobrow, a so-called flaw, is captioned with an explanation that Kahlo used to sign her correspondence with a sketch of two birds in flight – a reference to her brows as ‘magnificent bird wings’. Her neon pink lipstick (the Revlon shade ‘Everything’s Rosy’) is transferred across a picture of Rivera: she was prone to kissing images of the people she loved. This all still informed her art: not only did she match her lipstick colours to the flowers in her hair, but she mixed and matched pigments on both her canvas and her body, something illustrated again by a necklace that still bears evidence of an attempt to colour match the turquoise beads. In photographs by Julien Levy (1906-1981), we see Frida carefully laying out items in order on her dresser in direct correlation to the combination in which they will be woven into her raven mane. Although her wardrobe is the colourful crescendo of this exhibition, it is perhaps her hair that is the most integral site of her self-expression. In Self Portrait with Braid (1941), a painting that coincides with her second marriage to Rivera, her tightly bound beribboned hair is fashioned into an elaborate crown similar to the ones worn by Mexican nuns when they take the vow to become the bride of Christ. In another self-portrait from the same year, black yarn is braided into a thick up-do in an act of mourning for her father.
Described by André Breton (1896-1966) as ‘like a ribbon around a bomb’, Kahlo was built from both petal and steel, from the metal of her spinal scaffold to the flowers with which she crowned herself. In the face of illness and adversity, her femininity has become mythologised: she is the paradigm of a strong woman, a model of the bohemian artist. Young women have attended the show in their droves sporting hot pink floral garlands in their hair. The response of certain critics who have found the display of her prosthetic leg and decorated back braces ‘uncomfortable’ has only raised questions as to why assistive apparatus can’t be easily considered as aesthetic objects. At an even baser level, where schoolchildren may ease the discomfort of a broken arm with humorous sketches and well wishes on the cast, although with a considerable difference in finesse, is Kahlo’s drive to extend her art and philosophy into objects that put her back together not an intrinsic part of making herself up? These are the tensions that arise from this exhibition: of the display and consumption of female suffering, of the aesthetic response to disability, and of a woman able to ‘make herself up’ whilst still being taken seriously.