by Catriona Mitchell
At the time of writing this, on July 6, it is Frida Kahlo’s birthday, and a new exhibition on the Mexican artist – known for her forward-thinking artistic, political and sexual attitudes, as well as the tragedies and traumas that ran through her life and work – is on show at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Making Her Self Up displays some of Frida Kahlo’s most intimate belongings: from a prosthetic leg to corsets, traditional costume to velvet shoes, perfume bottles to sunglasses, hair combs to her favourite lipstick.
The exhibition is based on the remarkable discovery in 2004 of her clothing and personal possessions in the Casa Azul (Blue House), her life-long home, which became a museum. This is the first time the objects have been shown outside of Mexico.
The exhibition underscores the strong connections between Frida’s life and art, by forging direct links between her intimate objects and paintings, drawings, photographs and letters. The accoutrements also drive home the enormous amount of pain Frida lived with on a day-to-day basis, and her astonishing courage in the face of it. Of course we know about Frida’s tragic life-story, including childhood polio, a streetcar accident, multiple surgeries, and infidelities by her husband Diego – all made famous by the film about her starring Selma Hayek, and the definitive biography by Hayden Herrera, published in 1983 – but these personal objects drive her agonies home in a new way.
For instance, on display as part of the exhibition is the corset Frida wore in real life, constructed of brutal-looking straps and buckles, and depicted in The Broken Column.
The Broken Column (1944)
In 1953, one of Frida’s legs was amputated up to the knee because it was infected with gangrene. Frida was devastated, but agreed to the surgery, and drew an image in her diary before the operation of her severed feet on a pedestal. Accompanying the sketch are the words, “Why do I need feet if I have wings to fly?” Making Her Self Up displays a pair of mid-calf red leather boots, embroidered with dragons: one is laced into the prosthetic leg that Frida had to adopt, post operation.
Frida’s red boot
The sketch in her diary, pre-amputation (1953)
I have often wondered what it is about Frida Kahlo that has such explosive and enduring mainstream appeal. Perform any Google search on her, and you’ll see not only her paintings, but a vast array of merchandise from lurid mobile phone covers to handbags and cushions bearing representations of her works.
Is it the profound emotional truth that runs through each piece, chiming with every viewer, regardless of age, nationality, background…? (Madonna, accounting for her purchase of five of Frida’s paintings, has claimed, “I identify with her pain and her sadness.”)
The reason for my own appreciation is her inimitable talent for transmuting pain into beauty; her tendency to go straight towards her suffering, no matter how grisly, to take full ownership of it, and to imbue it on canvas with a mythological quality.
Self-Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico & the United States (1943)
Frida lived from 1907-1954, not a time when the open expression of grief, disability, trauma, or gender fluidity for that matter, were encouraged. Frida used these as fuel for her art with neither shame not apology, baring the bloodiness of childbirth, the brutality of abortion… even enhancing the thickness of her ‘monobrow’ to exaggerate her personal masculine qualities.
And yet, she painted using a distinctly female visual language. André Breton called her work ‘a ribbon tied around a bomb.’
The visceral transmission of suffering, her emotional nakedness, her unflinching depictions of the female body… all this has become a beacon for women who feel that the feminine experience – and particularly the portrayal of ‘feminine darkness’ – has been marginalized in art and culture. Her candour has established her as one of the most influential women artists of all time.
Making Her Self Up runs until Sunday, 4 November 2018 at the V&A in London, UK.