Could there be a better time for a show about Frida Kahlo? The vision presented at the V&A is a female icon who documented her self, and her suffering. A third of her paintings were self-portraits; she posed for her father’s camera from a young age. An art star for the selfie age.
Her face is her fame. And it’s now emblazoned on all sorts of tat, from tote bags to mugs to earrings. Some of this stuff is for sale in the V&A shop, for once you’ve been sufficiently inspired by the exhibition – Making Her Self Up – featuring Kahlo’s clothes, jewellery, cosmetics, and many photographs.
We can now all buy into the Frida style, with everyone from Roland Mouret to ASOS claiming her as muse. Her perfume is being relaunched to tie in; there are Mexican cocktail-making workshops at a nearby pop-up. There’s a Frida Snapchat filter. A Frida Barbie.
And that image is just so now! Those flower crowns; those big brows. She even, turns out, used ‘Ebony’ Revlon eyebrow pencils to enhance them. In an age of YouTube make-up tutorial megastars, we’re naturally all agog to know what kohl Kahlo wore.
Are we though? Are we really? The exhibition also features one of Kahlo’s red silk boots, strapped round a prosthetic leg. I imagine it twitching in its vitrine, wanting to give all this commercialised, consumerist nonsense a firm kick up the backside.
Because we might rather see her paintings. And the show is a bit short on them.
This is not joyless snobbery. Of course fashion can be art (the McQueen exhibition here proved that). Of course there is creativity and power in how you present yourself. Kahlo clearly knew this. Too often this stuff can be unfairly diminished as mere feminine fripperies.
See also: women making work about their suffering. They can be hemmed in as indulgent or narcissistic when men get to be profound. Kahlo has often been sniffed at by the art world.
Kahlo lived in pain: she was left with a limp after having polio as a child and in 1925, aged 18, was in a horrific tram accident, that left her severely injured and unable to conceive. There is gut-clenching poignancy in seeing the plaster corsets she was bound in: she decorated them, even painting a curling foetus on one following a miscarriage. It is profound.
And, oh, there is joy here too: the last room, stuffed with Kahlo’s traditional Mexican clothes, is a gorgeous swirl of yellow, turquoise, pea green, the hottest of hot pinks. They’re lovely things, in and of themselves. And they’re a vision of confident, female self-assertion, even standing empty. Kahlo must have been a force, and her clothes were part of that force.
But she was not only a clothes-horse – she was a painter. And here, the woman overtakes the work; the accessories become the main event rather than, well, accessories. Given Kahlo is arguably already better known as a cool Halloween costume (Beyonce once ‘did a Frida’), it jars.
There’s a genuinely cracking story behind the show, however. When Kahlo died in 1954, her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, ordered her things to be shut away for 50 years. In 2004, “the locked wardrobe” at Casa Azul, her home outside Mexico City, was opened – inside were over 6,000 photos, 22,000 documents, and 300 ‘personal items’.
There is a whiff of fairytale here. The show revels in writing the next chapter of the Frida myth. Still, it’s a stunning curatorial haul, and this is the first time any of it has been seen outside of Mexico.
And there are certainly insights thrown up by her clothing choices, her androgynous approach to facial hair, her decision to use Ponds Cold Cream… alright, maybe not that last one.
Her look was carefully curated, and it spoke volumes. Kahlo adopted the dress of Zapotec women of Tehuantepec, in the Oaxaca province: long skirts (enagua), embroidered squarish tops (huipil), and colourful shawls (rebozos). She wore heavy, pre-Columbian jewellery.
This has been interpreted as being to please her husband – or as a canny bit of self-promotion (when she went to America in 1930, they did go nuts for her style). But one thing fascinatingly revealed by the show is how practical these garments were: they’re darned, paint-splattered, cigarette-burned. She wore them day-to-day.
These garments were also political for Kahlo, a member of the Communist party: a visible celebration of Mexico’s pre-Colonial identity. She was far from alone in this – after the Mexican Revolution of 1910, a mood of surging optimism often foregrounded indigenous traditions; the left wing avant garde were especially enamoured.
Wearing these garments was also personal: newly discovered family photographs now reveal other women in her family dressing up in Tehuana clothing – suggesting a matriarchal tradition that predated Rivera.
Once her international reputation was blooming, her distinctive look was surely a handy brand – albeit one that she’d probably be shocked discover is quite so endlessly floggable today. Because this look, finally, also stemmed from practicality, comfort, and a desire to conceal.
Those long skirts hid her limp. Those loose tops could sit over her orthopaedic corsets and braces. The iconic, swooned-over Frida style is shaped by disability.
This show is a useful reminder of the pain beneath the petticoats, the tenacity it must have taken to produce work. Not for nothing did Kahlo used to sign her letters “The Great Concealer.”
The adoption of this ‘look’, then, was “both distracting and purposeful” explains co-curator Circe Henestrosa, “a complex combination of her communist ideology, her Mexican-ness, constructed from her personal traditions and as a reaction to her disabilities.”
Her outfits brightly celebrate certain parts of her identity – her Mexican-ness, her femininity – while seeking to hide another – her disability, her vulnerability.
Yet the work itself surely never seeks to hide this: her paintings viscerally stage pain and loss (look at The Broken Column, in which she stands defiant yet weeping, the back brace on display) just as unabashedly as they stage political strife, the battle in the soul of a nation coming to terms with colonisation, revolution, modernisation. (see her divided self in The Two Fridas, or the life-in-a-bathtub of What I Saw in the Water).
That plaster corset, that she painted the foetus on? Above it, she painted a hammer and sickle. The personal and political, right there on the body.
Who Frida Kahlo is – and how she is ever split and torn and bloody, politically, culturally, physically, emotionally – is her subject, and she never hides that in her paintings. She exposes herself, and in doing so, tussles with questions of female, post-colonial, disabled identity that still chime today.
Yet now, this can be short-circuited by spending £245 on a silk flower Frida ‘inspired’ head band. She’s been so co-opted by capitalism Theresa May recently wore a Frida bracelet at the Tory party conference.
“The cartoon characteristics of Frida-mania so easily become parody, obscuring the intelligence underpinning the work,” points out art historian Oriana Baddeley in an accompanying essay. “It remains important to remember that it was Kahlo who first created Frida.”
She’s right. And Making Her Self Up shows exactly how Kahlo went about creating Frida. But the why? That’s in the work – not in her lipstick.
‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’, V&A, London, 16 June to 4 November (020 7942 2000)