If you’ve managed to miss all the preamble and palpable excitement surrounding the opening of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A, let me break it down for you: this exhibition presents an extraordinary collection of personal artefacts and clothing belonging to the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Locked away for fifty years after her death, this collection has never been exhibited outside Mexico.
And there is so much of the personal on display here, on loan from her famous Blue House in Mexico City, that it really does feel like you are treading on private property. Over 200 items, in fact – her restrictive medical corsets designed to keep her spine stable are shown alongside copies of her diary, her prosthetic leg shares space with her blusher and lipstick. And a vast vitrine houses many of her iconic rebozos and traditional Mexican skirts.
In many ways I’ve always considered Frida a performance artist, a pioneer or precursor to a genre that would follow after her death in 1954 (though not linked to it). I mean that in the way that her life and her work were inextricably linked, a relationship that was almost symbiotic.
Her fashion and appearance were a statement – a political and a feminist one – with full traditional Mexican dress worn always and the famous monobrow and moustache never plucked. She considered her experience an extension of her politics and her art. And this all fed into her paintings, which also vividly drew inspiration and grief from her litany of medical issues and injuries. This was art as catharsis, and catharsis manifested as art.
Given my expectations of the show, and that it was held at a museum famous for its focus on fashion and design, I was amazed with how many of Frida’s paintings were included. A real treat, from an early self-portrait – monobrow and moustache defiantly in place – to later works where she is stricken with grief or dressed as a Tehuana. There must have been about a dozen paintings drawn from museums and private collections around the world. In fact, they were the highlight for me.
But I must also give a special mention to the photography that has been brought together for this exhibition. From Edward Weston’s black and white images of Mexico to Imogen Cunningham’s glorious portrait photography of Frida in New York, from Frida and Diego’s wedding photograph to an intimate and sensual series of Frida plaiting her hair whilst naked when from the waist up.
And it’s this underlying potent sensuality that was my main takeaway from this show. Frida was ferociously independent and fiercely brave in her showdown with Western beauty standards and commercial fashion – we know this – but there is an intoxicating, simmering sexuality to her that cannot be denied. This was feminist beauty on Frida’s own terms and it is a wonderful thing to observe and appreciate, even all these decades later.
But for all the magnificence, that’s not to say that this show isn’t without its issues. And that hits you most explictly as you exit through gift shop. To juxtapose such a passionately communist artist with such a WHOPPING shop decked out with Frida’s instantly recognisable image on just about every piece and type of merchandise you can images is… Well… Yikes! It feels fraudulent and it is a sobering reminder of the extent to which Frida’s image has been commodified by a capitalist system she loathed.
Add to that… I don’t know. Am I being generally pernickety when I feel awkward that an institution as white and as British as the V&A is making money of a woman who stood for the absolute opposite of that? That’s not to say the V&A should consider such shows as out of bounds, but that shows of artists so explicitly anti-colonial and communist as Frida must be treated with care and strolling through TWO giant shops loaded with Frida goods in a gallery that is very white just feels very, very wrong.
And if the context of the show feels awkward, there are issues within the show itself.
If you did not know much about Frida’s life or work prior to this show, you could be forgiven for coming out the other side of this show seeing Frida as a very heterosexual woman. That, obviously, was not the case and I couldn’t help but feel that there was an erasure or ‘straightening’ of her sexuality here.
That might not have been intentional but having so much photography and objects centred around her life with Diego, with no reference to any other love in her life, it does define Frida through omission. And misleadingly too. Frida’s fluid sexuality was a critical part of her identity and her rejection of her orthodoxy. To overlook and/or marginalise that is not great.
There’s also an increasing atmosphere of deification around Frida these days and there’s the risk that some of these deeply personal possessions can feel like saintly relics – instead of Jesus’s shroud we have a corset, and why get a cut of fabric from the Virgin Mary’s shawl when you can have Frida’s Revlon nail varnish bottle instead?
It’s a fine line but, to give the V&A credit, they have steered the display of these objects firmly into the creation of Frida’s identity which not just shaped her life but also her work. For example, it was a great segue from Frida’s make up and rebozo into an explanation and demonstration of how Frida brought the magenta in her lipstick, nail varnish and rebozo together to carve out an aesthetic where the palette had been clearly thought out and designed.
So for the excitement that surrounds this show – and its few problematic points – it is the brilliance of the woman and her unique vision and artwork that is the true wonder of the show. I was mesmerised and thrilled. And given all the hype that surrounds this show, that demonstrates how remarkable the woman and her work was.
Victoria & Albert Museum, London, from 16 June to 4 November 2018.
Tickets £15 (concessions available) but many time slots are already sold out (I think June has gone completely) so do book in advance.
1 Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939. Photograph Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archive
2 Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holán (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo; and, Prosthetic leg with leather boot. Appliquéd silk with embroidered Chinese motifs. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives
3 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)
4 Self-portrait, Frida Kahlo, 1941 (c) The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection