Get to know the real Frida Kahlo at the V&A Advertisement

Get to know the real Frida Kahlo at the V&A

Disabled, fiercely Mexican and a lover of Trotsky, this artist was so much more than an image for a quirky pillow cover

By DAISY MURRAY  June 18th, 2018

After seminal artist Frida Kahlo died in 1954, her possessions were kept under lock and key by her muralist husband, Diego Rivera, in their “Blue House” in Mexico. Her wardrobe and make-up were left unseen for fifty years, whilst her icon status rose to Marilyn Monroe proportions.

In 2001, a year prior to Salma Hayek’s cinematic biopic, the sealed room housing the 20th Century’s most famed female artist’s possessions was opened, and its contents put on display at her Blue House.

Frida Kahlo

Now, the Victoria and Albert Museum have scored a real coup, becoming the first museum to borrow Kahlo’s intimate items.

“We were tremendously excited to think that the Blue House would allow Kahlo’s costumes to travel outside of Mexico for the very first time,” said Claire Wilcox, Senior Curator of Fashion at the V&A and exhibition co-curator. “This exhibition has brought together dress historians, art historians, jewellery and photography curators to show how Kahlo controlled and constructed her identity, her singular strength in the face of illness and adversity and the artistry with which she presented herself to the world.”

Opening on Saturday, the V&A will host Making Her Self Up for the summer, which will no doubt match the museum’s recent David Bowie and Alexander McQueen exhibition successes.

Whilst Kahlo’s fashion and wardrobe are something to behold in and of themselves, some have argued how sanitised our view of the rebellious, surrealist artist has become.

As her image is disseminated across pillows, Barbies and even on the arm of Theresa May, it’s important we look to the depth of the Mexican’s personal identity, which was bound in her sometimes controversial politics.


A Disabled Icon

A childhood bout of polio and a teenage bus accident meant that Kahlo was permanently disabled. Living with a limp and being in constant pain were essential parts of Kahlo’s story.

Not only did her weakened leg set her apart as a child, but the injuries from the accident left her bed-bound for two years, with only an easel and mirror atop her four-poster for entertainment, and infertile and in chronic pain for the rest of her life.

From her bed she began to express her vision of the world though painting, always tainted with her ever-present chronic pain. Kahlo’s ascension to fame and recognition despite and because of her disabilities makes her an icon for an entire section of society so often overlooked.


Kahlo’s Rebellion

As a school student, Kahlo became interested in indigenismo — a movement encouraging Mexican pride in the face of Eurocentricity. Despite being half German herself, she embraced her Mexican heritage, eschewing fashion trends and wearing traditional clothing until her death.

Kahlo’s perceived “exotic” dress sense was revered in its time — appearing in fashion magazines in America. However, Kahlo herself could barely stand the United States where she went to sell her work, reportedly calling it “Gringolandia”. She apparently said, “I don’t like the gringos at all. They’re very boring, and they’ve all got faces like unbaked rolls.”

The artist also had a strong anti-capitalist agenda and was literally Trotsky’s bedfellow, between 1937 and 1939, when herself and her husband housed the exiled communist and his wife in the Blue House.

Some have accused the use of Kahlo’s image on totes, phone cases and the likes a disservice to her rebellious life.


The Personal As Political

A woman of conviction, Frida Kahlo expressed her identity and beliefs through her wardrobe and cosmetics. Her art, often made up of surreal self-portraits (and occasionally painted with her own nail polish), are an extension of this vision — hammer and sickles, traditional dress and her proud, strong brow all encompass who Kahlo was and is.

Of course, Kahlo’s empowerment through self-representation speaks to us now more than ever- non-celebrities and celebrities alike are reclaiming the male gaze through self-portraits on social media.

As her image continues to be proliferated and appropriated, hopefully an intimate look at 200 of her possessions will shed greater light on the difficult and sometimes contradictory truth of the world’s most prominent female artist.

See all the items above and more at the V&A’s Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, 16 June- 14 November. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland.