by John JervisJan 07, 2020
The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo has been an inspiration to me since 1995, when I first saw a nicely reproduced painting of her self-portrait with her monobrow, fiery dark brown eyes, slightly hairy upper-lip, firm yet warm mouth, and her fabulously creative hairstyle. She symbolised ‘woman’ in her entirety, with her beauty, her flaws, her talent and her tragic disability that informed her work.
When I, as a writer, was assigned to cover her life encompassing exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I felt my life had come full circle, but that was not it…
This review started about a month back but I could complete it only now, when I finally surfaced from a life-threatening, metamorphosing accident with some of my dearest friends on the Delhi-Lucknow highway, and as I began to revisit this half-completed piece on Kahlo, it indeed felt different. As someone who actually faced life changing, destabilising injury, this exhibition that included not just Kahlo’s work but the objects of her life, like her prosthetic leg with leather boot and appliquéd silk, it really did feel like life coming to a full-circle.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up has been hailed as the first, important exhibition of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s worldly possessions shown outside of Mexico. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has been a ‘home’ to her personal artefacts, art and photography, depicting the story of her “short but extraordinary life,” to quote the release of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The exhibition was unique because it provided viewers with a physical manifestation of Kahlo’s life and times through a collection of memorabilia and historical reconstruction.
The only other exhibition that I experienced that moved me in such a way was featuring Rabindranath Tagore in Kolkata, which showcased photographs, artefacts, furniture, clothes and musical instruments. It gave a complete understanding of the life of the literary and artistic genius. This year-old exhibition on Kahlo touched a similar nerve, but with a whole new connection.
To begin with, the exhibition took viewers through Kahlo’s early years and her family tree. Born in 1907, she spent her youth exploring her identity and rich heritage. Her German father and Spanish-Indian mother, who settled and lived in Mexico, were both sources of her early complexity and nuanced understanding of the notion of ‘identity’. As one of the four sisters, Kahlo was not afraid to experiment with gender fluidity. In fact, one of the prized artefacts of her collection is a photograph of her wearing one of her father’s three-piece suits. A painting that hangs in the MoMa (Museum of Modern Art) also records this moment; titled Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940. Oil on canvas, measuring 15 x 11 inches, it is a later evocation when Kahlo cut her hair short after her divorce with Diego Riviera.
Once again one understood her connection with her body and her hair, which led her to act out against the rejection she faced. After my recent accident, I found myself having to reject certain activities, especially social ones, and I began to understand peripherally what Kahlo may have faced her whole life after the accident.
In her works confronting gender, Kahlo also confidently showed off her ‘famous’ monobrow and facial hair in her artwork, despite having people comment on the ‘masculinity’ of these features and her lack of ‘conventional beauty’. In her diary, if one has had the time or accessibility to it, Kahlo has often posed the question of gender and has said the famous words, “I have to fight with all my strength, to dedicate the little positive energy that my poor health has left me to support the revolution. It is the only real reason to live.”
When Kahlo was only 18 years old, she was involved in a near fatal tram accident that left her bedridden and with life altering spinal damage. She was resigned to wearing surgical corsets to protect her posture and bone structure. Unable to attend medical school as originally intended, Kahlo had a mirror installed above her bed so that she could paint her corsets and continue her self-portraits.
I can personally relate to this given my recent injury, and having been bound to a friend’s lovely house that includes a bedroom and a study. Being unable to stay alone currently, one can understand the love and structure of family and friends that enveloped even Kahlo who dealt with it her entire life.
In the latter half, as Kahlo settled into her life, even as a person dealing with severe physical challenges, one discovers how she became ‘fascinated’ with Mexican folk culture and adopted the traditional dress and hair style as a teenager – braiding her long hair with colourful ribbons and floral decorations. Through the vivid display one may learn that her clothing of that time was bright, colourful and intricately detailed, completed with extravagant costume and jewellery. Some even consider it a reflection of her family’s wealth. Kahlo’s style and unique beauty not only became the focus of her own self-portraits but also the work of renowned photographers. She was photographed for the French edition of Vogue while exhibiting in Paris. This aspect of Kahlo’s to turn her persona into a moment to celebrate, is something I greatly admire, both in the past and more so, now.
“Despite the colour and flamboyance of Frida’s style, her long, floating skirts and square cut tunic blouses were also used to disguise several physical disabilities and deformities,” says the curatorial note on the exhibition. Kahlo suffered from childhood polio, leaving one of her legs severely damaged and significantly shorter than the other. Later in life she went on to have the limb amputated. Not to be defeated though, she had a prosthetic leg commissioned, complete with highly decorated footwear. Part of the footwear was displayed at the exhibition at the V&A as one of the important parts of the artist’s life and existence.
How objects and personal belongings become part of a narrative has now become intriguing to me. Being bedbound for days, I realise that things around me have become my companions, as with them I can almost have conversations.
In reality though, Kahlo could never be relieved of her pain and suffering and a series of operations on her spine causing infection lead to her untimely death at the age of 47 in 1954. Her husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera opened up Kahlo’s family home, the house they shared - La Casa Azul - in 1958, as a museum dedicated to her life. Now, 60 years later, all were invited to spend a little time in the colourful, surreal world of Frida Kahlo, courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum.