Arguably Mexico’s most famous artist, Frida Kahlo is known for the blunt honesty of her self-portraits, her trademark monobrow and the more-than-a-hint of a moustache. She is also remembered for her tempestuous marriage to the mural artist Diego Rivera; for her many affairs including, probably, with Leon Trotsky; for her espousal of both Mexican culture and far left politics; and for her perseverance through crippling illness and injury. All of these, especially the last, feature in a splendid exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up.
Kahlo was born in 1907 in Mexico City, in what became known as La Casa Azul, the Blue House. She died there in 1954, and it is now a museum to her life and work. Polio at the age of six damaged her right leg, making it shorter and thinner than the left. Then at 18 she was seriously injured in a bus and tram crash. Her injuries – an iron handrail through her pelvis, fractured ribs, legs and collarbone and damage to her vertebrae – would plague her throughout her life.
One painting shows her with a broken column for a spine, her ripped-open body held together by steel corset straps, nails piercing her skin like St Sebastian’s.
In 2003-4 two bathrooms in La Casa Azul, sealed by Rivera after Kahlo’s death, were opened up. They contained the traditional clothes she wears in many of her portraits, her indigenous jewellery, personal accessories and thousands of photographs. These form the basis of the exhibition.
The final room is a blaze of colour with a huge display of her distinctive clothing. But it’s the previous room which is the emotional heart of the exhibition. Kahlo had many attempts at corrective surgery, and spent a lot of time recovering in bed. Six display cases in the shape of four-poster beds contain her orthopaedic corsets for her spinal injuries; her prosthetic leg, after her right leg was amputated at the knee a year before her death; her cosmetics (she loved red lipstick), perfume and sewing basket; and her medicines, including powerful painkillers.
It’s an intensely personal view of the reality of life of a physically weak but immensely strong woman, an artist and activist who has become iconic in Latin America in recent decades, almost rivalling Che Guevara. There’s even been a Barbie doll of her, blocked by a Mexican court earlier this year.
Kahlo’s paintings are known for their fusion of pre-Colombian and Catholic imagery and for her political statements (she decorated her corsets with religious and political images). But this exhibition emphasises how much pain, both physical and emotional, is at the heart of her work. Her photographer father often used her as a model, which accounts for her distinctive portraiture style. There’s a photograph of her at 25, a month after her mother’s death, looking still and sad, and a self-portrait at 34, shortly after her father’s death, with black yarn woven into her hair as a sign of mourning.
Kahlo suffered pain, but never let it defeat her. Instead she integrated it into her art, and lived her life to the full.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up is at the V&A until November 4
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