To the Victoria & Albert Museum this week to view the press preview of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up which brings together 20o objects sealed in the bathroom of Kahlo’s place of birth and death the Blue House by husband Diego Rivera for over fifty years. The exhibit brings the Mexican surrealist artist back to life after her death in 1954 aged just forty-seven. And what a life!
My knowledge of Kahlo was purely based on image: the Revlon-painted unibrow, the flowers and jewels woven into her upswept hair, the elaborately embroidered and beaded tunics and floor-length pelmet skirts and the indigenous Mexican woven gold chain jewels embellished with freshwater pearls.
What I didn’t realise was the reason Kahlo painted herself as brightly as a butterfly’s wing and from whence her dreamlike magic realist style of portraiture came. As a child, Frida was bed-ridden with polio. Aged eighteen her body was shattered in a trolley car accident that confined her to plaster cast corsets that resembled instruments of torture. In later life gangrene deprived her of a leg. In short, the woman beneath the carnival clothing was at war with her body.
Kahlo’s tempestuous marriage to celebrated artist Rivera and numerous affairs – with French surrealist André Breton, sculptor Isamu Noguchi and Leon Trotsky to name a very few – psychologically complicated a life already blighted by physical pain. And yet the woman staring from fifty-five self-portraits depicts a Valkyrie of the Mexican Communist party who is as emblematic of South American dissidence as Che Guevara.
The pain is in the pictures and yet Frida Kahlo seems to transcend the tortures of her life. As she said of Rivera, ‘there have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst’. Pictures of Rivera in the exhibition display a bulldog of a man who matched his wife infidelity for infidelity even having an affair with her sister Cristina.
And yet Rivera seemed to instinctively know that after her death, Frida’s reputation as an artist would far exceed his own. She had modest success with exhibitions in New York, Paris and Mexico – and was the first Mexican artist to be acquired by the Louvre – but Frida’s work was seldom bought until after her death. Now of course her canvases are exceeding the $10 million mark, Madonna is a collector and Salma Hayek played her in a movie.
One only has to look at the gift shop at the V&A to see how effectively Frida transcended her own physical pain and mental anguish having divorced and remarried Rivera and miscarried of three children. There are gaily coloured paper rose hair ornaments, canvas bags printed with her photograph and Frida-inspired bold gold jewels.
Had the exhibition not taught one so much about this complicated woman, you’d have thought she was a goddess of fashion who had danced a tarantella through life. The exhibit pulses with life and colour. Even Frida’s used Revlon cosmetics, her empty bottle of Guerlain’s Shalimar and the prosthetic leg fitted with intricately embellished red high-heeled boots evoke a glamazon rather than a woman crippled almost from birth who fought with her own body her entire life.
The curators Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrona – not to mention main sponsor the Grosvenor Estates – tell a story of beauty being found in the darkest of places. The final room fitted with a huge vitrine of Frida’s clothing is as celebratory as a Mardi Gras parade. No artist before or since is so instantly recognisable from the identity Frida crafted for herself. Her story cuts so much deeper than the posturing of contemporary peacocks such as Gilbert & George or Grayson Perry.
I would predict that Frida Kahlo will inspire fashion collections in seasons to come. She was a master image creator and the collection of her personal possessions so much more magical for having disappeared for the best part of fifty years after Rivera sealed them in the Blue House.
The Victoria & Albert is so proficient in delivering these magnificent fashion-led exhibitions that they almost make it look effortless. Gift shop aside, what I appreciate most about the V&A’s work is the cultural connections they make with collections worldwide that bring such treasures to London’s feet. For sheer overwhelming impact, Frida is up there with the marvellous McQueen exhibit.