Think of many creative individuals, and a standard uniform springs to mind, allowing their work to speak for itself. The fashion designer emerges from behind the catwalk, dressed smartly, in black, whilst the painter has a palette in hand and a white coat to protect their clothing. But one creative defies these conventions, entwining both art and reality into their own personal image. Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist and revolutionary, most notable and memorable for her mono brow, her piercing eyes, and her dreamlike, emotional artwork. A V&A exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, reinforces this colourful depiction by delving deeper into the personal possessions that helped to define an icon.
For the first time outside of Mexico, Kahlo’s life is laid before you. Her possessions locked away for 50 years after her death by Diego Rivera, her husband and celebrated artist in his own right, are revealed. What has emerged since these were discovered is a plethora of personal items, which include photos, clothing and orthopaedic devices, that both shock and absorb the viewer, demonstrating how her unique approach to her appearance was both the source and subject of her bold art.
This is no more true than when coming face to face with an exquisite red leather, embroidered lace-up boot, with bells on, worn by Kahlo after her leg had to be amputated in 1953. This creative outlook succeeds in disguising the pain that Kahlo endured, firstly after contracting polio as a child, and then as a result of a horrific bus crash at 18, which necessitated multiple operations throughout her life. So too, do the full long skirts worn by Kahlo which expertly hid her damaged right leg.
This style, along with rebozos (shawls) and huipils (square-cut tunics), was fully embraced by Kahlo in her 20’s and is inspired by the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, Southern Mexico. On display in this exhibition are vibrant magenta rebozos and deep, embroidered hems featuring all manner of patterns. This traditional Mexican clothing even includes a mention of Manchester. At that time, the Tehuana women were fond of printed cotton, and large quantities were imported from Manchester until the 1930s.
But alongside the early photographs and the sumptuous garments, her illnesses and accident are brutally depicted. The physical and the painted ailments displayed in all their glory (or gory). But, as good an artist as she so undeniably was, seeing the physical manifestation right before one’s eyes, not only gives the paintings further meaning, but it enables them to become alive. Decorated corsets, painted from her hospital bed, moulded to her body and often worn for long periods of time, were like a second skin to her. They are exquisite in their uniqueness, as is much of this exhibition. Having been labelled a Surrealist -
“They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality”
- these possessions reveal that, although her paintings may have a dreamlike quality, her pain was real; this was Kahlo’s reality.
Even given the hordes of visitors flocking to this exhibition, Making Her Self Up is still an intimate, and uncomfortable, exploration into a fascinating, ground-breaking individual. It isn’t simply about a woman and her belongings. It delves into the psychology of individuals; it is medical, methodical and deeply emotional.
Above all else it demonstrates that, after her many painful operations and much heartbreak, Kahlo displays the strength to inspire anyone who has ever suffered. As Edward Weston, photographer, described her:
“Petite, a little doll alongside Diego, but a doll in size only, for she is strong and quite beautiful.”
Translations of clothing synonymous with Frida Kahlo:
Rebozo: shawl, hand-woven
Huipil: square-cut tunic, without fastenings, stitched at the sides with an opening for head and arms
Holán: frill, flounce
Tomicotón: sleeved top worn by indigenous men and women
Until 4th November 2018
For further information click HERE
About Our Author: Katie Calvert's background is in fashion and textiles with a first class honours degree in Fashion Communication and Promotion and experience in trend, PR and events. She decided to take the plunge back into education in 2015 to complete a Master of Arts in Multimedia Journalism. Using these newfound skills and her love of fashion and culture, Katie has been freelance writing for over a year.