That the V&A’s Frida Kahlo exhibition is fully booked until the end of August says a lot about her iconic status today – and it’s not her paintings that people flock to see but the “iconography” of Frida: her clothes, her painted plaster corsets, her jewellery and her ephemera. Her striking countenance with its distinctive “mono brow” is as recognisable today as the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.
She was of course a remarkable woman. Strong and courageous, passionate, independent and talented, she refused to allow her physical limitations and disabilities – the result of childhood polio compounded by a horrific road accident when she was a young woman – hold her back. She started painting, from her bed, when she was recuperating from the accident and continued to paint throughout her life. Her art is honest, sometimes painfully so, compelling, vibrant and defiant. She celebrates Mexico’s culture and landscape in her paintings and uses the self-portrait to comment on her personal situation – emotionally and physically. She was married to A Great Artist, Diego Rivera, living in a house which enabled them to work in their own personal creative spaces and yet come together for all the little rituals of daily life and love, and she sought to create her own artistic identity that was separate from Rivera’s. Today she is better known than he is as an artist – and more highly revered.
The V&A’s exhibition seeks to celebrate the life of Frida Kahlo through a remarkable collection of personal artefacts, intimate belongings and clothing. Locked away for 50 years after her death, on her instructions, this collection has never before been exhibited outside Mexico. There is very little art in this show – only a handful of paintings and drawings which are directly related to the artefacts on display. This exhibition is about Frida the woman rather than Frida the artist and her remarkable creativity feels sidelined.
Photographs line the walls of the exhibition, including the beautiful iconic portraits of Frida by Nicholas Murray (with whom she had an affair) and Imogen Cunningham, which now grace tote bags and scarves galore in gallery gift shops and beyond, while the rest of the exhibition space is taken up with glass cabinets of Frida’s possessions. There is a touching display of her make up and perfume bottles, but I could have done without another cabinet full of empty medicine phials and details of the drugs she took for pain relief. In another her prosthetic leg is displayed with all the reverence of a holy relic – and her plaster corsets and body braces, which she had to wear to support her fragile spine, are given equal veneration, almost ghoulishly so. Visitors crowd around these highly intimate items, speaking in hushed tones…
The highlight of the exhibition is the display of her colourful clothes. She favoured the traditional clothing of the indigenous people of Mexico, in particular the long flounced dresses of the Tehuana women. This was not because she was making some kind of deliberate Grayson Perry type statement about her identity (as suggested by the exhibition’s tag line – “Making Herself Up“), but for more practical and prosaic reasons: the long, flounced skirts covered her legs, one of which was thinner than the other due to polio, and could be worn comfortably when she was forced to use a wheelchair; while the square-cut tunic (Huipil) fit loosely over the special orthopaedic corsets and back braces she had to wear.
Throughout her life, Frida Kahlo wanted to be recognised as an artist in her own right, not as the wife of Diego Rivera. She did not seek to create her own personal “brand” or iconography through her clothes, shawls, jewellery and hair decorations; nor did she capitalise on her suffering to draw attention to herself and her art. Yet the V&A exhibition dwells inordinately on her pain, including the use of a strange febrile soundtrack – a claustrophobic, migraine inducing single-note hum – which plays continuously throughout the galleries (must everything be accompanied by a soundtrack these days?). With her art relegated to second place, this exhibition presents Frida Kahlo as fashion icon first and foremost, and as such I found it cultish and subjective.
Needless to say, the exhibition gift shop is stuffed with Frida memorabilia and spin offs, from tasseled earrings to tin votives, and more…. The cult status of Frida shows no sign of diminishing.
Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up continues at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 4 November 2018.
(Header image: Frida Kahlo photographed by Nicholas Murray)