The exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up is currently at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and we recently took the chance to visit. This unique show gives a detailed overview of Kahlo’s life: her family and heritage; her politics; her relationship with mural painter Diego Rivera; the near-fatal accident that caused her a lifetime of pain; and most importantly, how she constructed her image and the way in which she lived her life.
Upon Kahlo’s death in 1954, her husband Rivera locked up her most valuable possessions in the bathroom of the Casa Azul (The Blue House, their home in Mexico) and instructed that it not be opened until 15 years after her death. In 2004 this bathroom was opened, and the contents of the room went on display at the Casa Azul as a museum dedicated to her life. These objects are what now fill the exhibition space at the V&A, carefully shipped thousands of miles to be shown outside of Mexico for the first time.
The exhibition begins with old photographs of Kahlo and her family, some of which are adorned with Kahlo’s handwritten notes. Some simply label family members, whereas others are more personal: for example, on the back of Kahlo’s Communion photo she has scrawled “¡IDIOTA!” as she renounced Catholicism later in life.
The show continues through a series of rooms to Kahlo’s accessories: heavy jade necklaces; crescent earrings featuring paired birds, which are traditional of Mexican jewellery; and hand-woven ‘Rebozo’ shawls and ‘Morrale’ sack bags. These items highlight Kahlo’s pride in her Mexican heritage.
We then move on to Kahlo’s possessions, perhaps one of the most personal parts of the exhibition. Intimate items are on display such as used lipsticks and empty medicine bottles accompanied by letters to and from her various doctors.
Kahlo’s suffering due to childhood polio and a car accident at the age of 18 lies at the foundation of some of these objects. For most of her life she wore uncomfortable corsets to help support her back and alleviate pain, some of which were made of plaster and decorated with painting as Kahlo used them like a canvas.
Finally, the main feature of the exhibition is a stunning display case of Kahlo’s clothing. Kahlo is renowned for her combinations of indigenous garments from different regions of Mexico, and she was photographed in such outfits many times. To see them up close in real life is breathtaking.
Detailed embroidery is present in most of the outfits, from complexly shaded flowers and birds to cross stitch to traditional Chinese embroidery (due to Kahlo’s fascination with Chinatown when she moved to the USA with Rivera). The exhibition gives details of her most striking outfits, describing how she was followed by children when in the USA, who asked “Where is the circus?”.
There are some of Kahlo’s paintings – mainly self portraits as she used herself as a subject when painting from her bed – but the exhibition mainly focuses on Kahlo’s items and how she presented the complex layers of her identity within her life. It states that her wardrobe was not staged: she dressed up even when she wasn’t expecting visitors, and even when she was in bed rest.
Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up is a bewitching and intimate exhibition. The items on display are fascinating, and through them the personal details of how Kahlo naturally lived an artistic life – despite her misfortunes and pain – are revealed. A must-see for anyone interested in textiles, and anyone interested in Frida Kahlo’s complex and inspiring life.
Purchase tickets at the V&A website here.
Written by Laura Hill