Art can be, and is, appreciated for its own aesthetic value. Frida Kahlo’s paintings are works of art in their own right, smooth serene self-portraits imbued with traces of surrealism and magical realism. However, it is clear that in her almost obsessive interest in painting the self, and the ways in which that ‘self’ is presented, lies a story. The V&A’s retrospective, Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, narrates the life and motivations of the pioneering Mexican artist through a collection focused upon the possessions of Kahlo herself, discovered in 2004 in her home in Mexico where they had been locked up since her death fifty years before. The exhibition proves the age-old adage ‘art imitates life’ to a startling degree: the way in which Frida Kahlo presented herself, her clothes, hair, jewellery and make up, in her paintings tell a personal story of heritage, politics, heartbreak and pain.
Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo Calderon was born in Mexico in 1907 to a German father and a mother of Spanish and Italian descent, and this blend of heritage and culture, evident in her full name, was to have a profound influence on her style, both sartorial and artistic. Although she wore garments which reflected her parents’ nationalities, her preferred style, which reached iconic status through her paintings, was Tehuana costume, the dress of a tribe from the Oaxaca region in Mexico. The style formed the basis of her wardrobe for her entire life, and in the sartorial symbol of the matriarchal Tehuana society Kahlo found appropriate metaphor for her own sense of independence.
The statement was not only social however, but also political. Her husband was celebrated US artist Diego Rivera, and during the height of his fame, she dabbled in contemporary American fashions. However, when Diego was sacked from his commission decorating the walls of the Rockefeller Centre, New York, in 1933 for including a representation of Lenin in his mural, Frida firmly and irrevocably reverted to traditional Mexican dress in defiance of the political slight. In the final room of the V&A exhibition, twenty shop-dummy Fridas, complete with plaited hairstyle and high cheekbones, model the artist’s outfits. It is a riot of colour and pattern, yet the essential composition, of short sleeveless blouse and full skirt, remains the same throughout. Photographs, sketches and paintings by the artist line the walls, echoing the exact same outfits displayed.
Frida Kahlo’s clothes were not only about the messages they exhibited, but also the pain they obscured. She suffered from Polio as a child, and the disease left her leg deformed and gangrenous. This she hid underneath her full skirts and with shoes with heels of different heights. When her leg was amputated in 1953, she had a prosthetic leg fitted (displayed in the exhibition with a high red leather boot, embroidered with green dragons, still laced on.) Such ostentatious footwear would hardly have been glimpsed under her skirts, yet similar approaches to under garments can been seen in her corsets.
These were moulded out of plaster and fitted to her body, designed to hold together her spine, shattered by a near-fatal crash in 1925 which also crushed her pelvis and impaled her womb. The thick white straps can be seen in her tortured self-portrait, The Broken Column. The loose Tehuana dress hid these structural necessities from the world, yet Frida decorated them intimately. Flowers and Soviet symbols (Kahlo was a lover of Trotsky’s during his exile to Mexico) adorn the plaster busts, and, most heartbreakingly, an unborn foetus, a tragic reminder of Frida’s miscarriage in 1933.
A friend once described Kahlo with the words ‘she lived dying’, and her fashion choices are testament to this pain. She took to painting during her recuperation after her accident, lying on her back and painting her reflection. She remained bedridden for intermittent periods throughout her entire life, and had a mirror fitted into the canopy above her bed so she could continue working: her invalid condition became her subject matter, and her body her canvas. Her pride in her appearance remained unaltered, and she always dressed elaborately even if confined to bed.
She distracted from the visible manifestations of her polio and broken bones with heavy gold jewellery, several rings on every finger, and elaborate hairstyles, plaits piled high on her head and interwoven with bright flowers. Her rings and earrings are on display in the V&A, alongside her favourite Revlon lipstick and black eyebrow pencil, which she used to emphasise her iconic monobrow. Her style was a curious blend of femininity and androgyny, something she noticed early on, admitting ‘in general, I have the face of the opposite sex.’ In an early family portrait by photographer father Gustav Kahlo, she appears amidst hordes of sisters and grandparents dressed in a sharp suit, masquerading as a young man.
Photographer friend André Breton once described Kahlo, in a throwaway comment, as ‘a ribbon around a bomb.’ Viewing the intimate and powerful collection at the V&A, which so successfully combines biographical material such as photographs, films and letters, with Frida’s own clothes and jewellery and their direct pictoral representations, the statement takes on new meaning, speaking of hyper-femininity and androgyny, flamboyance and concealment, beauty and pain. It communicates the vast importance of Kahlo’s life experiences and the extent to which they dictated her style and appearance. In turn, such choices directly and completely impacted her emotive and intimate work.
Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up is on at the Victoria Albert Museum, London, from 16th June until 4th November