The V&A exhibition follows Frida Kahlo’s personal life and belongings through discovered documents from the Casa Azul (Blue House) where she lived until she died. The dark rooms, full of silent bodies peering closely at intimate photographs from Frida’s life, create a highly emotional setting in which to view these never-before-seen items. It’s a journey through Kahlo’s lifetime suffering but also homage to her endurance and reflectiveness in her art and sensibility. Besides having polio as a child, she had a life-defining bus accident that caused her physical pain until her death – but also inspired her art, and her outward presentation of herself.
Considering Kahlo, ones mind almost immediately fills with colour, foliage, flowers, textiles, birds, exotic fruits, love, art, politics and poetry. Gisele Freund, a friend of Kahlo, describes the Casa Azul: “We enter the garden full of trees and tropical flowers. Cactuses wrap around statues and pre-Cortesian sculptures. A fountain flows into a small pool in which ducks bathe. Pigeons fly in the air.” Although mostly the rooms are of black and white photographs and portraits of Frida, her family and lovers, this notion of colour and love so clearly comes through.
Take your time, don’t rush; bathe in this incredible, immersive, visual collection. Each image, painting, object, and garment deserves your attention. The small details are often surprisingly poetic and easy to miss – empty perfume bottles filled with tequila, her body covered in gold leaf in the accident that impaled her and caused her life-time pain and infertility, lipstick kisses to sign off notes (this is specially for the back of your neck – she wrote to Nickolas Muray) and on photographs of those Kahlo loved, a pair of crescent earrings and paired birds, a piece that may have been from a jewellery shop where Frida’s parents met and a photograph of Kahlo wearing them shortly after her Mother’s death.
The final room of the exhibition puts together all the pieces and collects several of her exquisite garments, pulling together the styles she incorporated into her daily wear from pieces that would have been hand-woven on treddle looms or back strap looms, delicate embroidery and machine stitching, her rebozos – hand woven scarves that were the most valuable items in her wardrobe. She wore a lot of Tehuana costume from Isthmus of Tehuantapec as well as collecting from markets and Oaxaca; her long skirts, flounces and tunics distracting from her ailments. This allows the viewer to understand with clarity why Frida adorned herself the way she did. ‘Her costume was her camouflage, hiding mismatched limbs, a crumbling spine and a medical corset that barely kept her body intact.’
This room is also the one for textile aficionados; it takes us through Frida’s wardrobe and gives an historical and cultural background to the pieces in her collection. Beautiful printed cotton Huipiles (tunics) – Tehuana women were fond of printed cotton, and large quantities were imported from Manchester in England; a coat on display made with intricately-figured cloth woven in two panels on a draw loom – the Kekchi community in Alta Verapaz used gauze and brocading techniques in another tunic of Kahlo’s including rows of maize, figures and animals; a hand-woven ikat shawl in magenta – one of Kahlo’s favourites; a piece with dense embroidery of glass beads in flowers, foliage, birds and Aztec dancers – the beaded panels would be reused and passed down as heirlooms.
Even before the unveiling of her wardrobe in 2004, Kahlo’s sense of fashion was regarded as unique, while the subversive nature of her art spurred André Breton to describe it as ‘a ribbon around a bomb’. Today, she remains an object of fascination, embraced both for her fierce individuality and her defiance in the face of adversity. Above all, she is renowned for her self-made image; for making herself up.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up extended by popular demand until the 18th November