In her short life, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, (6 July 1907 – 13 July 1954) became world famous in her own right. The V&A exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up takes the artist’s fashioning of her own image as its starting point and shows how Kahlo’s autobiographical work could blend realism, folk art and surrealism in its stylistic references. Kahlo was fiercely independent from a young age, and seemingly fearless in her work, although her private letters, of which there were few on display in the exhibition, give a different view of her life.
After overcoming childhood polio, and a catastrophic accident in 1925 that would see her endure 32 surgeries, and many more surgical procedures, in 1929 she married Diego Rivera. Of the relationship, Kahlo is said to have reported to a friend: ‘I have suffered two serious accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar ran over me….the other accident was Diego.’ When they married, he was 42, had already been married twice and had four children, and she was 22 years of age. The recent V&A exhibition, curated by Circa Henestrosa and Claire Wilcox, presents an extraordinary collection of personal artifacts, paintings and clothing, plus a few key works. When Kahlo died, Rivera, whom she had married twice by then, insisted that her collections be locked away for 50 years in a bathroom/ storeroom after her death, so this exhibition has never before been seen outside Mexico.
Kahlo and the Gaze
In many of her small, intense, and painfully celebratory autobiographical paintings Frida Kahlo looks out at us, while we look at aspects of her, and her life. Is she watching us, are we watching her or is the gaze mutual? For an artist who painted her own image so regularly, and forensically, Kahlo makes herself much less attractive in her painted work than she was in life. With her prominent monobrow, downy moustache, and contorted, sometimes smashed, body we are encouraged to see the beauty in the humanity, not an idealized self-image. Compare the paintings with the photographs and we can see that from the many images taken of her as a child by her father that she was a compelling, mysterious, and fearless subject for the camera. As an artist, Kahlo is therefore using the painted media to tell us about her interior life, and her image is a metamorphosis, open to constant reinterpretation. It is a subject about which we have been fascinated for some time.
In 2005 jjheritage was fortunate enough to travel to Mexico City through work and to visit Museo Casa Azul, Kahlo’s birthplace and final residence, in the quiet residential area of Coyoacán in Mexico City. The Museo Casa Azul has been opened as a museum since 1957, the year of Rivera’s death. It remains today between similar still-private homes built around the turn of the 20th century.
Close by in Coyoacán, is the Museo Casa de León Trotsky where he was assassinated with an ice pick, and remains a major tourist draw, with his bathrobe still on the hook where he left it. Trotsky and Kahlo were said to have been lovers and, both she and Rivera had multiple relationships outside marriage. Their houses were centres for artists, intellectuals and political thinkers and the couple were Communists; housing Trotsky for two years before he had his own home. Kahlo was also bisexual and her female relationships were reflected in paintings, photographs, fine and folk art.
Finally, while in Mexico City jjheritage was able to visit the first marital home of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the House-Studio Museum, in San Angel. Designed by the couple’s friend, the architect and artist Juan O’Gorman, it is actually two house-studios joined by a bridge. When the couple divorced in 1939, Kahlo moved back to the Blue House. When she and Rivera remarried, he moved to join her there, though he kept the San Angel studios to work.
Exhibition Methodology: Frida Kahlo and her personal effects
The premise of the exhibition is to showcase Kahlo’s artistic output, heavily contextualized by everyday objects such as her clothes, accessories, many medicines, surgical corsets, and even the prosthetic leg she embellished after her leg was amputated shortly before her death. Is this the correct methodology, rather than focusing primarily on her art? There are obvious benefits in that visitors can observe how indomitable a human spirit informed the art-works. As is demonstrated by the part of the exhibition that focuses on the medical treatments Kahlo endured, which is set out on white beds, in place of exhibition displays, it would have been very easy to have been overwhelmed by pain, suffering, and depression. Kahlo’s diary and letters contain some of her doubt, fear, and despair such as her need to have an abortion due to medical complications and a miscarriage that was almost fatal. She was to live and die without her own children, and the contrast with Rivera haunted her. But we can see this in the paintings. Where these objects complement the art works, for those who are familiar with them, is the impulse to be creative from small paper dolls to elaborate hairdressing, using scarves and flowers. Such is the variety of artifacts, that it seems almost that Kahlo is compelled to create.
My reservation about the artifact-heavy exhibition is that, for those who are not familiar with the work, the life becomes primary to the art. We know that Rivera was much more famous in his life, as a leading force in the Mexican Muralist movement, using large scale work to make political points about social equality. By making Kahlo’s artwork secondary to her own life, her own wider political purpose becomes perhaps undermined to the commercial exploitation of her image. Certainly, the array of merchandise in the V&A gift shop indicates that Kahlo’s wider social message has become personalized, individualized and, ultimately, less impactful. It is to be hoped an exhibition of her paintings follows in the UK soon and that it tells of her concern to shape, and influence wider society through embracing both traditional folk identity and modern political thought, rather than to focus solely on her own history and heritage.