A new retrospective at the Victoria & Albert museum offers a look at the style and belongings of the Mexican artist, a woman who had a clear and innate understanding of the power of appearance
Artist Frida Kahlo's exhibit opens in London on June 16
When Mexican artist Frida Kahlo died in 1954, at the age of 47, her husband Diego Rivera ordered that her room – and everything in it – be sealed, with instructions for it not to be opened again until after his death. Although Rivera, who was a painter himself and helped set up the Mexican mural movement, died three years later, it was not until 2004 that Kahlo’s room was finally reopened. Within lay a near-perfect time capsule of her life, from her distinctive clothes to her favourite make-up.
Now, for the first time, this extraordinary collection is being shown outside of her native Mexico, at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Entitled Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, the exhibition is a look not only at Kahlo’s possessions, but also at how she used them to create the unique and powerful image she presented to the world.
An artist famous for works inspired by nature and Mexican artefacts, as well as brutally honest self-portraits, Kahlo’s experience was one of extreme creativity marred by intense personal tragedy. Born in 1907 in Coyoacan, Mexico City, Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon was a bright and spirited child, who understood the power of appearance from an early age. Family photographs show a teenage Kahlo wearing a man’s suit (complete with shirt and tie), with her famous monobrow untouched and her hair slicked back in a masculine manner. Amid her sisters, who are dressed in fashionable American-style clothing, Kahlo is striking in her uniqueness.
A childhood bout of polio meant she had to endure months of bed rest, but despite being left with a deformed right leg and months of missed education, Kahlo was active and sporty, and became one of the few girls allowed to attend the renowned National Preparatory High School.
In 1925, however, when she was 18, Kahlo’s life was altered completely, when the bus she was travelling on collided with a tram, plunging a steel rail through her abdomen. With a severely damaged spine, leg and pelvis, she was lucky to survive, and spent weeks in hospital in a full-body cast. Her injuries left her in constant pain for the rest of her life, and she would endure close to 35 operations, including spinal taps and botched attempts to fuse her vertebrae, to try to repair the destruction.
It was during her long recovery that Kahlo began to paint, channelling her pain into art. Unable to move, she painted her own portrait. She later explained: “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” Painting became Kahlo’s focus, and a medium for exploring and confronting the painful personal journey that she now found herself on.
Once she could walk again, Kahlo dressed herself not in the fashion of the time, but in traditional Mexican clothing. In particular, she adopted the huipil blouse of the Tehuantepec region – a loose, square-cut top covered in boldly embroidered flowers – teamed with a long, colourful, full skirt. She favoured bright and vivid colours, both in her clothing and her work. This was not coincidental, but something that the artist mindfully explored. Kahlo wrote lists with her own interpretations of the meaning behind the colours she favoured. Green meant “good, warm and light”, while magenta was the colour of the Aztecs, the “blood of the prickly pear” and the “brightest and oldest”. Yellow signified “madness, sickness and fear”, but also “the sun and happiness”, while blue was “electricity, purity and love”. The colour black, meanwhile, was explained, rather cryptically: “Nothing is black – really, nothing”.
For Kahlo, combining meaningful colours and loose-fitting silhouettes was clearly not only about adorning clothing that was beautiful-looking, but that also helped to disguise her disabilities.
She would often wear her long, dark hair piled up in intricate plaits, topped with a halo of colourful flowers. Combined with long earrings and loose scarves, Kahlo’s look was both steeped in her country’s tradition, yet made entirely her own. So unique was Kahlo’s style, that she was featured in American Vogue in 1937.
“Frida Kahlo wore her heritage, her home, the clothing made there, to reveal or conceal the hardships she endured and continued to endure throughout her life. In doing so, Kahlo created her identity,” E P Cutler, fashion historian and author, explains. “Through her art, especially her pieces of self-portraiture, Kahlo shared her identity – and her human struggles.”
In 1929, Kahlo married fellow artist Rivera, but despite their deep bond, the union was highly tempestuous (the pair would go on to divorce and re-marry). She would later say: “I suffered two grave accidents in my life.” One was the tram – “the other accident is Diego”. His constant infidelity and her inability to carry a child was a source of ongoing anguish for Kahlo, and she once more poured her pain into her work.
A reference to her miscarriage in 1932, Kahlo’s painting Henry Ford Hospital is a distressing depiction of a sobbing Kahlo surrounded by, among other things, her lost child and smashed pelvis, joined to her by umbilical cords. Intensely personal, it is an insight into the darkest, deepest torments of her mind.
Of the 143 paintings she created, 55 are self-portraits. “Kahlo had a type of violent authenticity that came from unflinching self-exploration,” Cutler says, “and an eyes-wide-open way of life that was able to honour beauty and humour amongst pain. Her immense strength as a person and an artist, and the vulnerability in her work, transcends language and country lines; Kahlo captures the universal in her unflinching personal reflection.”
Kahlo’s refusal to adapt to social norms, both in her work and her style of dress, made her a magnet for those with a similarly rebellious mindset. She was friends with Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Leon Trotsky. More recently, Madonna has declared her admiration for the artist. Having purchased Kahlo’s painting My Birth (1932) – a graphic and disturbing depiction of Kahlo’s birth in adult form – the singer announced to Vanity Fair magazine in 1990 that “if somebody doesn’t like this painting, then I know they can’t be my friend”.
Kahlo’s 1943 portrait Diego In My Thoughts shows the artist encased in a traditional Tehuana lace scarf, which frames her face and immediately draws the eye to it. Given Kahlo’s innate understanding of the power of clothing, it is little wonder that so many fashion designers have looked to her for inspiration.
“Fashion designers are often drawn to women like Frida Kahlo,” Cutler explains. “Strong women, enigmatic women, whose hearts seem fuelled by fire. Fashion will always be transfixed by the few women who possess those qualities. Fashion doesn’t forget women who changed the world, especially when their clothes and look played a part in doing it.”
Jean Paul Gaultier, who famously designed the corset-inspired costumes for Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour in 1990, called his spring/summer 1998 collection Hommage A Frida Kahlo; the designer drew on the artist’s darker side, resulting in a line that was almost entirely black. Now regarded as one of Gaultier’s finest collections, Cutler describes it as “layers upon layers upon layers, brightened first by a bit of blood red in a skirt and then glistened with heavy sequinning”. In addition to the floral headpieces and monobrows, many looks featured torsos tightly wrapped in buckled straps, which echoed the steel corsets that Kahlo was forced to wear to support her fragile spine.
In 1944, Kahlo’s back deteriorated once more, to the point where she was confined to bed by her doctors, encased in yet more corsets. With a spinal column barely capable of supporting her, Kahlo wore medical corsets almost every day, yet the pieces she was forced to don during this period – made of plaster of Paris and steel – were so brutal that she described them as instruments of punishment. Despite months in bed, she continued to paint (via a set-up that held the canvasses over her head) and also decorated the corsets that gripped her, encouraging her visitors to do the same. Several had holes over the stomach, but, undeterred, Kahlo painted on her skin, too. Even when unable to access her paints, she would use lipstick and iodine to continue the patterns.
At the V&A exhibition, visitors can catch a glimpse of one such corset that she decorated with the hammer and sickle of the Communist Party. As such a major part of her life, she often included the corsets in her work, including The Broken Column (1944), which exposes Kahlo’s shattered spine, and Tree of Hope (1946), where the artist is shown twice, once bleeding, post-operation, on a hospital bed, and in the other instance, seated upright, clutching a back support.
Fashion designers and labels inspired by Kahlo have also chosen to focus on the sense of celebration inherent in her dress. Clements Ribeiro, for instance, referenced her famous hairstyles for autumn/winter 2005, while in 2011, Kenzo looked to Kahlo’s love of floral layering, reinterpreting it in muted, autumnal tones. Moschino’s spring/summer 2012 collection took its cues from Kahlo’s floral headpieces, while Lena Hoschek embraced Mexico’s cultural heritage for spring/summer 2013, mixing Day of the Dead skull make-up with Kahlo-esque floral crowns. Alberta Ferretti updated Kahlo’s look in 2014, cropping the embroidered shirts to mid-torso and the striped satin skirts to above the knee.
However, it was Osman Yousefzada who seemed, like Gaultier, to look deeper into the artist’s life, basing his spring/summer 2016 collection on one of Kahlo’s love letters. While the collection is a subtle journey through her life, the most notable look is a yellow-orange dress with a tree growing up the front. It is a clear reference to Kahlo’s 1943 painting Roots, which sees the artist wearing the same colour gown, with plants growing from her belly.
In 1950, ongoing polio-related health problems resulted in Kahlo having to have part of her right leg amputated. However, just as with the corsets, Kahlo refused to let misfortune have the last word. When her prosthetic leg arrived, she added a jaunty red leather boot, decorated with snakes and Chinese dragons.
“That will strike a chord with subsequent generations,” Cutler explains. “Today, Instagram has provided a powerful forum for women with disabilities who do not hide them. They share their stories and their bodies, and the fashions they wear, to tens of thousands of followers. These women are showing there isn’t just one type of body or one type of beauty.
“These women are inspirational, but, like Frida Kahlo, they are more than that. They are aspirational. Rather than hiding disability, they are showcasing it and sharing it fearlessly. That is something women identify with, and want to be like,” she adds.
Part of the new exhibition, which runs from June 16 to November 4, the prosthetic leg and its faux boot have also been a source of inspiration on fashion runways, most recently in Gucci’s autumn/winter 2017 line, when it reappeared as a dragon-embroidered ankle boot for men and women.
The enduring legacy of Frida Kahlo is that despite immense personal suffering, she managed always to rise above it. In 1953, for example, she had her first solo exhibition in Mexico, but was in very poor health. So she arrived to the opening in an ambulance, and received visitors from a four-poster bed brought in especially for the occasion. Now, thanks to the Making Her Self Up exhibition, featuring some of Kahlo’s most personal possessions, visitors will be able to get a clearer understanding of this complex and intriguing woman. As Kahlo herself said: “They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”