Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

Victoria & Albert Museum
London, UK
Until 4 November 2018

The V&A explores how Frida Kahlo (b. 1907), one of the most recognised and significant artists and women of the 20th century, fashioned her identity. Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up is the first exhibition outside of Mexico to display her clothes and intimate possessions, reuniting them with key self-portraits and photographs to offer a fresh perspective on her compelling life story. We present an unparalleled insight into Kahlo’s life revealing some objects that have never been on show before.

Working in close collaboration with Museo Frida Kahlo, displays more than 200 objects from the Blue House. Kahlo’s personal items including outfits, letters, jewellery, cosmetics, medicines and medical corsets were discovered in 2004, 50 years after being sealed in the Blue House by her husband Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist, following her death in 1954. Exploring Kahlo’s highly choreographed appearance and style, these include 22 distinctive colourful Tehuana garments; pre-Columbian necklaces that Frida strung herself; examples of intricately hand painted corsets and prosthetics which are displayed alongside film and photography of the artist as a visual narrative of her life.

Included in Kahlo’s make-up selection is her eyebrow pencil ‘Ebony,’ still within its original packaging, which she used to emphasise her signature monobrow, a defining feature of her self-portraits and her favourite lipstick, Revlon’s ‘Everything’s Rosy’ and red nail varnish. Her vividly-coloured cosmetics are striking in the celebrated portraits by photographer Nickolas Muray which show her wearing many of the clothes on display.

The exhibition reimagines Kahlo’s home, the Blue House, located in Coyoacán, on the outskirts of Mexico City, where she was born, lived and died. It explores her life as a child with her family up to her marriage to Diego Rivera including an album of architectural church photographs by her German father
Guillermo Kahlo, early paintings and photographs of Kahlo and Rivera together and with their influential circle of friends including Communist leader Leon Trotsky.

Kahlo empowered herself through her art and dress after suffering a devastating near-fatal bus crash at the age of 18, which rendered her bed-bound and immobilised for protracted periods of time. Self-portraiture became the primary focus of her art at this point and she began to paint using a mirror inset into the canopy of her four-poster bed. Much more was understood about Kahlo’s accident after the discovery of the objects in the Blue House. The exhibition also illuminates this story through items such as her medicines and orthopaedic aids. Kahlo possessed many supportive bodices and spine back braces and on display will be some of the corsets that she painted with religious and communist symbolism and tragic imagery relating to her miscarriages.

We also explore Kahlo’s Mexico and her sense of cultural pride following the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). An enthusiastic desire to embrace a national identity led to her interest in the art and traditions of indigenous people of the country. Kahlo used her striking appearance as a political statement, crafting her identity to reflect her own mestizo (mixedrace) identity and allegiance to Mexican identity.

Mexico flourished in the 1920s and 1930s as a liberal destination that attracted foreign artists, writers, photographers and documentary filmmakers, in what became known as the Mexican Renaissance. Photographs of traditions in clothing, architecture and the popular arts taken by Edward Weston and Tina Modotti in the 1920s that made an imprint on the Mexican imagination and its perception abroad are also on display as well as, a wall of ex votos, from Kahlo and Rivera’s collection. These small votive paintings of popular art, made mainly in tin, offered to a saint or to a divinity in gratitude for the fulfillment of a miracle, informed Kahlo’s paintings.

In addition, garments showcased from her collection are: rebozos, a traditional Mexican shawl, huipiles, an embroidered square-cut top, enaguas and holanes, long skirts with flounces, and jewellery ranging from pre-Columbian jade beads to modern silverwork highlighted by the resplandor, a lace headdress worn by the women of the matriarchal society from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region in Southern Mexico, is paired with a self-portrait of Kahlo wearing it.

Image:
Frida Kahlo on a bench, carbon print, 1938
Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge Nickolas Muray Photo Archives