Ever since I studied Frida Kahlo in class, I have been a fan. Self Portrait with Monkeys (1943) and The Broken Column (1944) always stood out in my mind from those years, the monkeys offering a protective symbolism, and the latter painting signifying a kind of strength through suffering. Like Kahlo, I enjoyed painting self-portraits, and I found it difficult to paint other faces with the same accuracy.
More of a conceptual artist myself, the stories behind visual art have always intrigued me. Whenever I visit galleries, my eyes are drawn as much to the text as they are the images. This is why the excellent biopic Frida (2002), starring Salma Hayek, made an enormous impression on me and it’s also why I knew that the V&A exhibition Making Her Self Up would be unmissable.
it is certainly worth remembering what Kahlo stood for, namely her rejection of capitalism.
Like other revolutionary figures – think: Che Guevara t-shirts – it has been argued that Kahlo has been commodified and made into a pop culture icon in a way that dissociates from her as an artist and a human being. Whilst I couldn’t resist a pair of Kahlo earrings from Mexican designers wajiro dream on a recent visit and own a tribute cushion cover from an Etsy store, it is certainly worth remembering what Kahlo stood for, namely her rejection of capitalism.
Kahlo was radical in her politics, and this extended into her personal life as a bisexual woman, her lifelong disability due to polio, the tragic accident in 1922, and her honesty about her experiences with miscarriage and abortion, which continue to be topics that are brushed under the carpet even today, 64 years after her death.
we can only assume her way of dealing with the hurt from his affairs (including one with her own sister) was to have her own, thus reclaiming her autonomy and sexual agency.
She suffered not only physically, but also emotionally. Her tumultuous relationship with fellow artist and communist Diego Rivera, is perhaps a historic example of how some politically progressive men can fail at upholding egalitarian and feminist values when it comes to personal relationships. The couple divorced, only to remarry, and we can only assume her way of dealing with the hurt from his affairs (including one with her own sister) was to have her own, thus reclaiming her autonomy and sexual agency.
The exhibition helps to tell Kahlo’s story, a story that has been told so often that it surprises me when people have not heard of her, or do not know about her life or her work as an artist. Yet, there is always more to discover, and the collection at the V&A allows us to learn yet more about her. Having been locked away for fifty years following Kahlo’s death, various personal artefacts and clothing are uncovered here for the first time outside of Mexico.
Inside the exhibition you will see photographs alongside some of her paintings, as well as artefacts that are more emotionally difficult to look at, such as the medical corsets she had to wear, some decorated by Kahlo. It was being bedridden that ironically created the works that we see today, with Kahlo having a mirror installed above her bed so she could paint her self-portraits more easily. There’s film footage of La Casa Azul (The Blue House), and incredible outfits on display that combine her signature long skirts and traditional shawls.
Kahlo, in both her portraits and real life, rejected traditional beauty standards by wearing her facial hair with pride, yet would always paint her lips and thread flowers and fabric through her hair. Whilst at times the exhibition seems to exhibit too many fine details from her life, and I’m wondering if we will see a spike in sales in her favourite lipstick, there is something to gain both for fans who are familiar with her work, and those just beginning to discover her world.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up has been extended until Sunday 18th November. Limited tickets can be bought on the day at 10am from the Grand Entrance on a first-come, first-served basis.
Featured photo credit: Carl Van Vechten (public domain)
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