The V&A’s Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up Is A Strange Beast
The V&A’s Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up is a strange beast.
At the core of the exhibition is a collection of Kahlo’s personal items, her paintings are secondary here. It is an exhibition, however, about an artist whose art and legacy is dominated by her own image, an image she carefully curated in response to her body and her heritage. Accusations of queer erasure and simplified commercialisation have been aimed at the curators, and there is certainly evidence of both. The success of this exhibition is not unexpected nor, however, should it be diminished. The exhibition takes seriously the creative power of personal presentation, especially for those whose bodies’ define aspects of their lives. Despite some of the advertising, this exhibition gives Kahlo’s aesthetic the serious examination it deserves.
The exhibition is not simply the presentation of her clothes and makeup. It aims, through her “vibrant wardrobe”, to show how Kahlo “constructed and created her own image, informed by her mixed heritage experience of disability”. It is not only her “vibrant wardrobe” on show, however. The core of the exhibition is made up of the discoveries of 2004: a bathroom in their home which had been shut by Kahlo’s husband after her death in 1954 was opened for the first time revealing 6000 photographs, 22000 documents and a huge variety of clothes, makeup and medical paraphernalia. It is the inclusion of the last group which is the most interesting.
In a room full of miniature four-poster beds, Frida Kahlo watches. She is in bed, lying on her front, spine exposed, hair unplaited, rings on her fingers, nails painted and her eyes defying the camera. This is where Kahlo spent much of her time. After being involved in a bus crash as a teenager which fractured her lower spine, pelvis and foot and caused abdominal and vaginal injuries, Kahlo was bedridden for a year and would be again many times throughout her life. It was during this period she began to paint herself using a suspended mirror.
To try to relieve the pain of her injuries, Kahlo wore orthopaedic corsets, medical braces and plaster casts for much of her life. Along with her polio damaged leg, they informed her clothes and seemingly her understanding of herself. Her traditional wide tops with ruffled petticoats and floor-length skirts allowed medical devices to be swathed and disguised. Her distinct outfits also combined her father’s European heritage with her mother’s Spanish and Indigenous Mexican background. The corsets, braces and, later, false leg were a reality of her life and her art. In The Broken Column, Kahlo’s pierced body with an exposed broken spine is held upright by an orthopaedic corset. In another sketch, her clothes are rendered translucent to expose the brace holding them up. Kahlo’s physical condition was an inescapable aspect of her life and identity.
Her plaster corset gives a distinct insight into the relationship between her politics, her art and her body. They were created by wrapping wet plaster around her torso which she would then wear for weeks before they were cut off. On these, she often painted the hammer and sickle. The most poignant, however, is the corset on which she painted an unborn foetus over her stomach - she miscarried. The curation highlights the fact that Kahlo not only personalised but kept her corsets after they were removed, storing them with her clothes. Displayed alongside her huge collection of medicines and makeup, the room explores a woman whose body dictated much of her life and yet who used her artistry to create a version of herself she could control. Although Kahlo’s life was often determined by her physical condition, she did not allow it to wholly define her or deny her struggle.
The story, however, is often cramped. Even without the popularity of the exhibition, the first corridor-like space is impractical both physically and intellectually. Photographs, art and video give an overview of Kahlo’s childhood, nation and some aspects of her adulthood. Her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera - who she married, divorced and remarried - is mentioned but largely unexplained. Considering she described him as one of “two great accidents” of her life, the other being the bus crash, this seems reductive. Her Communism too is vaguely addressed. Video of Leon Trotsky at Kahlo’s home, Casa Azul, where he and his wife lived with Kahlo and Rivera for two years is interpreted in terms of Trotsky’s place in interwar politics and the relationship he had with Kahlo. Her own Communism is strangely absent. No opinion, either personal or political, of Kahlo’s on Trotsky’s assassination by the NKVD on the orders of Josef Stalin is offered, despite their romantic history, her political convictions or the fact she was briefly suspected of being involved in his death.
The interpretation of Trotsky’s role in Kahlo’s story is emblematic of a far wider issue in the exhibition. Although the curation portrays Kahlo as unapologetically sexual, rare for a disabled woman in popular culture, unfortunately, it is decidedly heterosexual. Her relationships with men are discussed, sometimes at the cost of her own opinions, but the women in her life are invisible. Romantically, French dancer and activist Josephine Butler, American actress Paulette Goddard, Mexican actress Delores del Rio and American artist Georgia O’Keefe have all been linked with Kahlo. Even platonic female relationships are strangely missing. Cristina Kahlo was incredibly important to Frida Kahlo’s life, both as a sister and as her husband’s mistress, and yet she appears only briefly.
Is Kahlo’s life and work only remarkable if we comprehend her as a woman alone amongst men?
There is almost always a problem of evidence when considering historic queer relationships as so much often had to be hidden but the radio silence is extreme in this case as it encompasses almost all interactions with other women. Even without exhibits attesting to Kahlo’s romantic relationships with women, this aspect of Kahlo, and how she viewed and represented herself, could have been acknowledged. Topless portraits of Kahlo, taken by her lover Julian Levy, are displayed - the ethics of their inclusion needs a far longer discussion - and yet her relationships with other women are excluded.
The exhibition is long overdue in as much as it is an exploration of a brown, disabled female artist at a major London cultural institution. The discomfort around her politics and sexuality is unfortunate and betrays some of the impressive ground the exhibition wins in other areas. The exploration of Kahlo’s self-creation is fascinating. Her self-image was a manifestation of her understanding of herself: her heritage and her body. Her created image allowed her to control a body which had been dictated by external forces. However, the exhibition’s discomfort, for whatever reason, around her queerness and her politics is a disservice to an artist who declared herself her own muse. Her art is herself.
At its best, however, the exhibition is revelatory: A desire to make a broken body beautiful is not to call it ugly. It is a statement of control, a reclamation of narrative. A desire to redefine what has been compromised, to celebrate what has survived. If the personal is political, Frida Kahlo’s creation of herself is revolutionary.