It’s the exhibition that everyone I know has been excited about since it was announced last year (me included). The news that a sealed room containing Frida Kahlo’s wardrobe and personal artefacts, had been discovered and would be exhibited, seemed like a strange fairy story. The room contained Kahlo’s clothes and personal items she wore in her daily life. Will we uncover her secrets if we look long enough at her belongings? Kahlo has become one of the most famous women artists and icons of the twenty-first century despite being professionally over-shadowed by her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera, during most of her lifetime.
Indeed, it seems everyone has their own ‘Frida’: Feminist icon, Mexican folk artist, Surrealist, Communist, style icon, Barbie doll. Twice-married to Rivera, disabled by childhood polio and sustaining horrific injuries as a teenager in a serious traffic accident, Kahlo was haunted by medical procedures and operations throughout her life, and this traumatic history runs alongside stories of lovers taken by both her and Diego during their thirty-year relationship and their professional and political lives. The detail of her life and the mythology that has grown up around Kahlo, engulfs the artist and today she is known perhaps more as an icon than for her work.
Recently the subject of a legal battle over rights to her image after Mattel produced a whitewashed Frida Barbie doll without the permission of Kahlo’s estate. The artists’ image has long been appropriated and re-appropriated with little interest in what the artist may have wanted or believed in herself.
Making Herself Up explores how Kahlo created her own image, yet seems to overlook why we’re interested in her. Despite some of her work being exhibited here, the paintings appear as a supporting cast. Kahlo said: “The most important part of the body is the brain. Of my face, I like the eyebrows and eyes.” It is her body that takes centre stage in this exhibition.
But Making Herself Up is not intended to be a retrospective. This is about what the woman wore and how events shaped her biography. And because of this, it buys into the mythological aspects of the artist. On show are her prosthetic leg with hand decorated boots, a body cast/corset with a painting of a foetus on it, and then one with a hole where the foetus was, after her miscarriage. We can look at the corset immortalised in her work The Broken Column. Fetishising her accidents, miscarriage and painful operations, the largest image is a disturbing wall size photograph taken after her accident, of her in pain, crying, which dominates a room full of her medical equipment and make-up. Which feels gruesome, although there are hints that Kahlo perhaps didn’t feel this way, as she drew over her corsets (a communist hammer and sickle) and decorated her crutches, boots and prosthetics.
We move through over 200 artefacts of her life exhibited alongside a selection of her artworks. As in the V&As Bowie exhibition, it’s fascinating to see the clothes set against the performance, or in this case, selected paintings. But there’s something ghoulish about walking through a dead woman’s personal possessions, with an emphasis on endurance.
Museums have seen extensive cuts to budgets which puts sponsors in an elevated position. Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, pointed out that without the sponsorship of Grosvenor Britain & Ireland this show may not have happened. They are also are also behind the innovative idea of covering Mayfair and Belgravia in flowers as part of ‘Frida’s Belgravia in Bloom’. One wonders what Kahlo, a communist who took Trotsky as a lover, would think to a property developer in bed with the V&A for her show.
All images credit: Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 16 June – 14 November 2018. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland.