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

They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”  Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up is a brilliantly worthy exhibition at the V&A that brings together art and personal objects, many of which have never been seen out of Mexico.

Modern state-of-the-art design, combined with light and dreamy soundscapes come together to guide you through the life and times that created Frida Kahlo. You are greeted by family photographs of little Frida in bows posing with her family. We can see she came from a comfortable middle class family.  Frida, like many Mexicans, was a blend of indigenous and European ancestry. She was the daughter of Wilhelm Kahlo, a German immigrant of Jewish and Hungarian ancestry, and Matilde Calderón y Gonzalez, a Catholic and a native born “mestizo” Mexican, daughter of  Spanish and Mexican/Indian parents.

As a Mexican woman in the art world, I’d like to think I know quite a bit about Frida Kahlo, her life, her work and her impact on both art and popular culture. I have been to her Iconic Blue House; I have seen lots of her art and artefacts – but never like this. The V&A have put together a not-to-be missed experiential exhibition.

Many of us are drawn to Frida Kahlo and her story, that of overcoming insurmountable obstacles and creating art that touches the soul. There is a Mexican proverb that comes to my mind when I think of Frida, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”  Her story is one of triumph.

Frida Kahlo, c. 1926. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums.

Frida Kahlo’s background

Frida’s father was a photographer, and as such Frida was raised behind the lens of his cameras. It is perhaps here where she first learned to go beyond posing for a picture to crafting an identity, carefully conducting what the viewer sees. She was a master in showing us what she wanted the viewer to perceive, today this has evolved into an artistic genre exemplified by iconic contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman. Portrait photography is a perfect medium to explore identity. Amongst the black and white photographs there are hints that she was destined for a different path fairly early on, for example a family photo, taken by her father in 1926, showing 17-year-old Frida in a three-piece menswear suit, standing at once amongst and apart from her sisters and family with a bold confidence that has driven her artistic life and work. Despite hardship throughout her life, Kahlo was able to take this confidence and with it hone an identity and voice true to her experience and self.

Mexican culture is a rich and colourful tapestry of faith through adversity and tragedy. Frida was much inspired by Mexican “Retablos”, or “Votive paintings / ex votos”  small paintings as religious offerings depicting stories of miracles or tragedies. The viewer can see the very influences that shaped Frida’s narratives in her art. Struck by Polio by age six, Frida grew up learning to cover her withered leg under long flowing skirts. In this exhibition you can see great photographs exemplifying that she was a master of crafting appearances. In once such photo, she sits poised looking at you from the past, in a silk dress with a book on her lap, a perfect beautiful young woman.

She was destined to become an artist. At age 18 she was involved in an accident riding in a bus (with her then boyfriend, Alex Gómez Arias) that collided with a trolley car. This accident resulted in numerous injuries to her spine, collar bone, ribs and pelvis, her right leg, and right foot. These injuries led to a lifetime of operations, which in turn led to her spending much time confined to a bed with her pain and imagination. It was in fact while confined to bed, that her mother brought her a small lap easel and a mirror hung overhead in the canopy of her bed so she could use herself as a painting subject. She was a self taught and became the main subject of her paintings, her suffering. During her life she painted 55 self portraits. She said she painted self portraits because she knew her self best. For her, love and pain were often intertwined.  She painted her pain whether physical or emotional; another frequent theme of her work was the story of her and Diego. She was twice married to famous Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera.

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America, Frida Kahlo, 1932 (c) Modern Art International Foundation (Courtesy María and Manuel Reyero)

Making herself up: style and colour

Frida Kahlo today is known as a style icon. To be Mexican is to be surrounded by bright colours. She exuded vibrant colours in her work and herself. She created her persona through her unique mix of brightly coloured indigenous costumes and western fashions, she challenged social mores of gender and race. Frida freely expressed herself revealing that she could be feminine and delicate as well as androgynous and fierce.  Her portraits proudly depict a mestiza (‘mixed race’) woman with her signature unibrow and refusal to remove the faint moustache above her red lips. She painted herself wearing traditional Huipil (tribe) Mexican garments, period western dresses and even menswear. The curators have laid it out for us to see: makeup; painted medical braces; her favourite “rebozos” (Shawls); culminating with an impressive display of 19 bespoke Frida mannequins adorned with her complete outfits. This exhibition gives the viewer a first-hand immersive experience of everything Frida created to become art herself.

Frida on the bench, 1939, © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida on the bench, 1939, © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

 Frida was a woman who persevered no matter what. She was a testament to the human desire to love and live. She expressed her anguish, her heritage, her passion, her views, her loves unapologetically, in vibrant technicolour. She shows us the way.

The V&A exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up runs until 4th November 2018.

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