The V&A’s new blockbuster exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, paints an honest picture of Mexico’s most iconic artist. A woman who refused to allow herself to be defined by her gender, ethnicity, and even disability, Frida Kahlo was far ahead of her time – a thoroughly modern character in a firm 20th century setting. As our next issue (out 21st June) will explore the turbulent life of the controversial artist, we headed to the V&A for an exclusive sneak preview of the hotly anticipated exhibition.
For the first time, a selection of Frida’s intimate belongings will be displayed outside of Mexico. After her death, some of the rooms in her Casa Azul (Blue House) were sealed up for 50 years, as per her husband Diego Rivera’s wishes. When Frida’s bathroom was finally opened in 2004, a fascinating array of clothes, makeup, jewellery and medical equipment was discovered. Each item tells us a little about Kahlo’s life behind the scenes. “We met Frida for the first time, through this archive” says co-curator Circe Henestrosa, emphasising the deeply personal nature of these objects. The primary focus of the exhibition is her carefully choreographed wardrobe, which features garments from traditional European and Mexican styles.
Frida, aged 19, photographed by her father Guillermo Kahlo
© Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums
Frida, the child of a German photographer and a mestizo (mixed Spanish and Indigenous) mother, was never one to obey convention. Photographs lovingly taken by her father during her childhood show a young Frida wearing Spanish and German style children’s clothing, but during her teenage years she started experimenting with fashion. One photo shows a 19-year-old Frida dressed in a suit, playing with an androgynous style that openly defied expectations of femininity. She would also come to embrace her disability – Frida walked with a limp as a result of childhood polio, and her torso was badly damaged after a horrific road accident in 1925. It was during her rehabilitation that she began to paint, and developed a love of art that would last throughout her life. The exhibition contains a number of medical corsets and casts, which were technically there to keep Frida’s spine in alignment, but she used them as canvases onto which she painted colourful patterns that revealed her innermost thoughts.
On this corset, Frida painted a cracked spine – very similar to the one in her 1944 painting, The Broken Column
The artist was also highly political, an unusual (and often dangerous) thing for a woman to be in 20th century Mexico. The exhibition points out that when she was in her early twenties, Frida was one of the only women present at a march for left-wing artists on May Day, an international day recognising worker’s rights. She also famously had an affair with Leon Trotsky, a leading Russian Communist who fled to Mexico to escape Stalin’s wrath. Frida was an avowed Communist throughout her life, consistently including anti-capitalist imagery in her artwork.
(c) Modern Art International Foundation (Courtesy María and Manuel Reyero)
As a child of the Mexican Revolution, Kahlo grew up in an era of heightened national pride. Mexico’s unique history was championed, and a new national identity was propagated. Rooted in Mexico’s powerful pre-Columbian empires such as the Aztecs and the Maya, the nation underwent a sort of renaissance of Indigenous-style arts, crafts, and literature. Frida’s mother Matilde was of part-Indigenous descent, and Frida herself was fascinated by the concept of ethnicity. She took pride in her mixed heritage, and donned clothing from a variety of different Mexican tribes as an expression of pride in her mestizo identity.
The artist in traditional Tehuana dress, as pictured in 1938
© The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives
She particularly related to Tehuana women, who lived in the very far south of Mexico. Mexican intellectuals searched for evidence of Mexico’s distinct national character, and found the thriving Tehuana/Zapotec peoples of the Tehuantepec Isthmus to be ‘unspoiled’ by European colonialism. Their society is largely matriarchal, and women hold personal as well as financial/business autonomy. Frida loved this, and their unique clothing suited her style perfectly. They wore loose, boxy, yet colourful tunics on top – these were practical in the equatorial heat, and, conveniently for Frida, were large enough to fit over her body casts. Tehuana women were also known for wearing full skirts, complete with petticoats and lace trimmings. It was said that these women had a penchant for fancy European fabrics, and imported large quantities of patterned material from Manchester in England. So, these women fashioned their own identity by creating a unique blend of cultures. In adopting their style, Frida hoped to as well.
The geometric tunic was called a ‘huipil’, and the frilled skirt of this Tehuana outfit has distinctly European origins
© Museo Frida Kahlo
Frida was also curious about other cultures from around the world. During her time in San Francisco, she wrote to her father about the city’s Chinatown: “Imagine, there are 10,000 Chinese here, in their shops they sell beautiful things, clothing and handmade fabrics of very fine silk”. She adored shopping for glorious Chinese fabrics, which she fashioned into long skirts, true to her iconic style. The exhibition showcases one such outfit – and it’s clear to see how Frida has added her own personal touch;
The exhibition shows that Frida often wore Mexican shawls, known as ‘rebozos’, in this fashion
To her, Chinatown was a welcome respite from the USA’s overtly capitalist nature. The residents there had maintained such a distinct, strong, Chinese identity that it kept the community resilient to its American surroundings. Frida enjoyed exploring Chinese folk religion, Buddhism, and Hinduism, and began to incorporate certain religious symbolism into her work. She was particularly fond of the Yin/Yang symbol, which may represent the contrast and balance in her tumultuous life.
Frida’s creativity, even in the face of difficult circumstances, knew no bounds. After her right leg was amputated in 1953, she was given a prosthetic, which she emblazoned with a red boot featuring powerful Chinese motifs – such as the dragon.
Javier Hinojosa, Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives
The exhibition’s pièce de résistance is a display of Frida’s finest outfits. Much more than just clothing draped on mannequins, each piece of intricate clothing adds to the patchwork quilt of the artist’s complex life. Some have paint splatters, others have cigarette burns. Frida was a skilled seamstress, and frequently customised her clothing to suit her needs. One huipil, which were traditionally quite short, has been lengthened to fully cover her medical corsets.
Frida added extra fabric to the orange huipil on the right, so it would cover her medical corset.
The exhibition was put on with the help of the Museo Frida Kahlo, and has been carefully curated by Circe Henestrosa (Head of Fashion at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore) and Clare Wilcox, who has co-ordinated a number of the V&A’s fashion exhibitions, such as Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Wilcox notes that Frida “transcended pain” to become a “countercultural and feminist symbol”. Henestrosa, who hails from Mexico herself, admires that by painting her medical corsets, it seemed as if Frida “had explicitly chosen to wear them”. Certainly, this exhibition demonstrates Kahlo’s headstrong personality and individual agency well. If nothing else, the visitor leaves this thought-provoking exhibition with a better sense of who Kahlo really was – and how she used her look to express herself as a truly Mexican artist.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up is sponsored by Grosvenor Britain and Ireland and runs at the V&A from 16 June to 4 November 2018. All About History’s next issue (issue 66, on sale 21st June) includes a feature on the life of Frida Kahlo, as well as a full-page interview with co-curator Circe Henestrosa. Subscribe here or pick up your copy from most good newsagents.