Frida Kahlo – Making Her Self Up : A S T E A M woman for our time

Between a hectic time at The London Festival of Learning recently I had a moment to queue up on a Saturday – very early – to see the new Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I lived in London in the 1980s and it was my first time back to this city for an extended period – it did not disappoint. The exhibition is sold out until August but if you go to the museum at least an hour before opening you can be in line for the first 100 tickets to see this incredible ‘feast for the eyes’.

Frida aged 9.

People who know me understand that I have been a long time fan of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) so the opportunity to see this exhibition in London was one I was not going to miss. She has an uncanny physical resemblance to my wonderful sister-in-law Suzzanne but that is a whole other story.

Frida’s story is well known to many people – she had a hard and difficult life – suffered personal illness, injury and loss at a very young age. No photos are permitted of the exhibition – it is quite small but beautifully curated. It’s the very first time self-portraits and many of her garments/jewellery items have been able to be seen by the general public outside of Mexico.

The exquisite and distinctive clothing she wore were a pleasure to view up close. The exhibition is based around six themes: family and childhood, adolescence and adulthood, jewellery, cosmetics, orthopaedic devices and medicine. As the Director of the V & A, Tristham Hunt states: “Frida Kahlo’s powerful and inimitable style is as central to her fame as her paintings”.

The co-curator of the exhibition Circe Henestrosa notes: “It is her construction of identity through her ethnicity, her disability, her political beliefs and her art that makes her such a compelling and relevant icon” (p.14).

Many of the personal possessions in this exhibition were rediscovered at the Museo Freda Kalho (formerly the casa Azul or Blue House). I have not travelled to Mexico so the chance to see this exhibition was felicitous.

When Frida died in 1954 aged 47 her life had been bookended by two violent and destabilising events; the Mexican Revolution – where pessimism was replaced by optimism and towards the end – when she participated in a public demonstration against the coup d’tate covertly supported by the CIA that deposed the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz – where Frida’s sense of optimism was replaced by pessimism. The parallel of these events in many respects mirror Frida’s life.

Frida paid great attention to her face. Of all her features her eyebrows become a unique signifier and they acted as a stage for her

preoccupations in many portraits. Some suggest they are like ‘bird wings’ with her husband Diego Rivera recalling: “Her hair was long, dark and the thick eyebrows met above her nose … they seemed like the wings of a blackbird, the black arches framing two extraordinary brown eyes” (p.116).

Decorated plaster corset.

Frida would decorate her shoes with bows, often pieces of silk embroidered with dragon motifs. Evidence of the trauma she suffered is evident in the orthopaedic devices and the corset in articular. She needed it to support her spine after the horrific accident she suffered when empaled by a bus railing in a traffic accident when she was 18 years old. Her body was dependent on medical attention. But her life was also one of rebellion. Far from allowing the corset to define her as an invalid she decorated and adorned her corsets but they were also a type of disguise.

Frida’s interest in dissecting her body’s proportions in geometric forms are evident in the cut out photographs found in the archive. According to sociologist Joanne Entwhistle: “Fashion and dress have a complex relationship to identity in that they are expressive but also make a comment about gender, class, status and so on. Clothes can conceal who we really are, as they do not straightforwardly ‘speak’ and can therefore be open to misrepresentation” (p.81-82).

Courtyard of the V&A where you can ‘take a selfie’ with that famous headband.

I have just scratched the surface of this remarkable exhibition – a tribute to an iconic figure for our time. The life of Frida Kahlo has many  S T E A M possibilities within syllabus documents in the Australian Curriculum in schools but also the #metoo movement and the work of so many women who are activists in their communities.

If you happen to be in London between now and the end of November – try to catch it.

Reference: Wilcox, C. & Henestrosa, C. ( 2018). Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. London:V&A Publishing.

Note: All images in this post are from the excellent exhibition book – see title above. Here is a link to the recent exhibition of paintings by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the Art Gallery of NSW, Australia.