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Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A

16 June 2018 Emily May

When you think of Frida Kahlo, for many, what immediately springs to mind is her renowned self-portraits populated by tropical wildlife and multi-coloured hues. But, upon entering the V&A’s latest exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, you are instead greeted by a multitude of black and white family photographs, many of which have been taken by her father, German Mexican photographer Guillermo Kahlo. This monochrome beginning signifies the tone of the majority of the exhibition. This is not the fantastical world of Kahlo’s paintings, this is the cold, anthropological reality of her life. In fact, her paintings are hardly featured at all...

This being said, the V&A’s approach is very informative and enables you to learn a lot about Frida’s life that you may not glean from her artwork. Family photographs teach you a lot about her complex heritage, (which she was fascinated by and prompted her occupation with Mexican traditions in both her fashion and art styles), as well as giving you details about her lifelong health struggles, including polio in her youth, her near fatal bus crash at the age of 18, and later miscarriage. You also discover about her fierce communist views, which come to light through her relationship and subsequent marriage to famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (there is a small representation of his mural Ballad of the Proletarian Revolution which features Frida wearing a shirt with a communist star), and of course her affair with Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who stayed with her at her home, the Casa Azul (Blue House) whilst seeking refuge from Stalin’s Russia.

Image Credit: Frida Kahlo: Making her Self Up (16 June 2018 - 4 November 2018).

In 2004, a room that was originally concealed in the Casa Azul was opened, to reveal a vast collection of Frida’s intimate possessions, including medicines, her orthopedic aids and of course her collection of traditional Mexican dress for which she was renowned. Now on show at the V&A, this is the first time these items have been seen outside Mexico. The most interesting object on display is one of her orthopedic corsets, which she painted herself, becoming a colourful second skin that is tinged with a sense of escapism. Aside from this, the other cabinets filled with medicine bottles and cosmetics, metamorphose Frida into more of a celebrity figure than one of artistic genius. The value of the objects seemingly deriving from their contact with the artist rather than their actual significance. The display of her prosthetic leg feels particularly uncomfortable, especially considering Kahlo ordered these items to be concealed upon her death.

Image Credit: Javier Hinojosa. Museo Frida Kahlo. ©Diego Riviera & Frida Kahlo Archives.

You are eventually met with the burst of colour you’ve been craving when you hit the final room, where a host of Frida mannequins take centre stage, adorned with a plethora of garments from Frida’s traditional Mexican wardrobe (she particularly admired the dress of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec) including rebozos (shawls), blouses, skirts and headdresses, upon which the exhibition is priding itself. Curator Claire Wilcox emphasizes their interest by drawing attention to the small paint pigments still evident on many of Frida’s clothes, and enthusiastically states; “we know these clothes already from photographs… and self-portraits. And now here they finally are.” However, it is a shame that there are not more Kahlo paintings on display to directly compare them too. Yes, there are many photographic portraits to reference, but considering the title of the exhibition “Making Her Self Up”, it’s puzzling that the exhibition displays so much work by artists who have captured Frida, rather than her infamous self-portraiture in which she created the iconic image of herself as one of Mexico’s foremost female painters.

Image Credit: Frida Kahlo: Making her Self Up (16 June 2018 - 4 November 2018).

Claire Wilcox also compliments the exhibition design during her press view speeches, and granted, there are some interesting touches. For example, the glass cases in which Kahlo’s medicines, makeup and plaster corsets are displayed, are encased with wood to make them appear like beds, which are in fact modelled off the artist’s own bed. However, when you consider the wealth of inspiration in Kahlo’s work that should have been a designer’s dream, it’s quite disappointing to be met by subdued colours, and a few vamped up glass boxes, especially when exotic Frida themed wall paper, monkeys and parrots could have been on the cards. Whilst it is understandable to adopt a more somber décor when discussing the tragic events of Kahlo’s life, Frida Kahlo created the effervescent pseudo reality of her paintings to cope with these experiences, as she said herself “I paint my own reality”. It is therefore baffling that the V&A have opted to only reference this in a factual, journalistic way, rather than recreate it artistically through the exhibition design for its visitors, especially when they’ve done this so well in the past (it’s a stark contrast to the immersive, other worldly experience of the museum’s Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains exhibition last year). Hopefully the V&A’s upcoming, associated Day of the Dead event in November, with traditional Mexican dance performances, crafts and a “Frida altar” will offer the vibrant atmosphere that was lacking in the exhibition itself.

Image Credit: Frida Kahlo: Making her Self Up (16 June 2018 - 4 November 2018).

As you make your way out through the museum shop, you are met with a plethora of Frida memorabilia to purchase. And as you peruse the mugs emblazoned with her face, you may sense a slight incongruity between the capitalistic trinkets, and the staunch communist ideals of the artist that you’ve just learnt about. Would the woman who once had an affair with Leon Trotsky be happy for her face be immortalized on a bright blue tote bag costing £8.50? Maybe not.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up runs at the V&A until from 16 June - 4 November 2018.
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