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In her lifetime, Frida Kahlo was little-known outside Mexico. Her reputation abroad could be summarised by this derisive headline from a newspaper article, published during her first trip to the USA in 1933: ‘Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art.’ Neither was she commercially successful, though her work was feted by prominent European aesthetes like André Breton. In her home country, however, she was a cultural icon, leading the charge for a modern, independent Mexico.

Over sixty years after her death, Kahlo is among the most celebrated female artists of all time. Her face is plastered across fashion houses, home furnishings and children’s books. Her defiance of gender and beauty standards, and lifelong struggle with disabilities – as represented in her astonishingly intimate art – have redefined her for a new generation as the original selfie queen, a woman belonging to our century as much as her own. Her distinctive ‘Mexicana’ appearance – in contrast to her husband Diego Rivera, who painted in workers’ overalls – made her art, and the person behind it, inseparable.

Perhaps nobody would be more surprised than Frida herself to find her possessions on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the heart of London. The world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, the V&A is an embodiment of the imperialism she despised, and yet she would surely appreciate its ambitious scope. For it’s not only her legendary self-portraits and photographic images which have fallen under the English gaze since June, but also her majestic collection of Tehuana costumes, the well-used contents of her make-up box, and the most private objects of all, her pill-jars, corsets and crutches.   

I have Madonna to thank for my discovery of Kahlo, after she mentioned her in a magazine interview during the late 1980s. Madonna had just acquired one of her most controversial paintings (‘My Birth’), but Frida’s influence dated back to her teenage years in Detroit, the erstwhile hive of American industry once visited by the Riveras. As an awkward teenager, Frida’s art and style appealed to me. A year or so later, I found Hayden Herrera’s monumental biography in a South Croydon bookshop, which continued my education. After moving into my first bedsit, I tore photos of Frida out of another book, and blu-tacked them on the wall.

The V&A exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, unfolds within a mausoleum structure encompassing three rooms, and the constant hum of an organ provides an ominous soundtrack to the entire tableau. It was very crowded when I visited in August, and it’s a testament to this layout and Kahlo’s peculiar charisma that during the two hours I spent there, I never felt rushed or intruded upon. Well, except maybe at the beginning when a woman standing close by said loudly to her friend, “Isn’t it strange how people don’t move?”

The same woman commented on a Victorian family portrait, featuring Frida’s mother before her marriage, “They weren’t very beautiful, were they? Not even Spanish beautiful…” The first room features photographs from Frida’s childhood, many taken by her father Guillermo. Born in Germany, he came to Mexico City aged twenty and later married Matilde Calderon, mother to Frida and her sisters. ‘Herr Kahlo’ was a professional photographer, specialising in architectural subjects, but later opened a portrait studio. He encouraged Frida in her ambitions; first to be a doctor, and then in her art. Because he photographed her so frequently, Frida learned how to pose for the camera at an early age.

Matilde’s influence on her famous daughter is more nebulous, but in a book accompanying this exhibition, it is noted that as a young woman, she too had posed for Guillermo in Tehuana costume. This is hugely relevant, as it not only challenges the perception that Matilde was a repressed wife, and dull parent; and it also belies the mistaken assumption that Frida adopted traditional dress merely to please her own husband. The relationship between the artist and her mother is explored further in a new book from Virago, You Are Always With Me: Letters to Mama.

Frida was born on the eve of Mexico’s revolutionary period, and she lived through an era of political tumult and immense creativity. For Kahlo, Rivera and many other artists, communism would become an article of faith. A note by Frida, accompanying her First Holy Communion portrait, is inscribed in capitals: IDIOTA! But while she may have renounced organised religion for secular ideology, she remained fascinated by the Catholic imagination.

She also adored folk art, and collected votive paintings made as an expression of personal suffering and spiritual beliefs. Images of traffic accidents were particularly attractive to Kahlo, after a tram crash in 1925, when she was a student of eighteen, almost killed her. Having contracted polio aged six, Frida was no stranger to disability. But she was left crippled and would struggle with constant pain for the rest of her days. In 1929 she married Diego Rivera, who was more than twenty years older, and one of Mexico’s most renowned painters. Diego had numerous affairs, and though conflicted, she did the same – but they were united in a fervent belief that art was for the people.

Archive footage brings Frida’s Mexico to life, including a sepia-tinged 1930s travelogue made for their allies in the Soviet Union. During her travels in America, she became a muse to photographers Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Julian Levy (the art patron who captured her in a state of undress during their brief flirtation.) She loved bargain-hunting in New York’s dime stores, but her ambivalence towards this highly industrialised, materialistic society is reflected in the 1932 painting, Self-Portrait Along the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States.

Kahlo often designed her own jewellery, an intrinsic part of the armour she wore to conceal her frailty. A dash of matching green paint can be traced on the irregular, Pre-Columbian jade beads seen in Self-Portrait With a Necklace (1933.) The stones may have originated from an excavated Mayan site in South-Eastern Mexico, and were strung together by Frida. Although her jewellery can be seen in many photographs, only a few pieces have survived. Earrings are rarely featured in her later self-portraits, where her ‘armour’ was stripped bare. But her coiled hair arrangements seem to indicate turmoil in two paintings from 1941, Self-Portrait With Braid and Self-Portrait With Red and Gold Dress.

Colour footage filmed at the Casa Azul shows the Riveras in relaxed, affectionate mood, with a voiceover from their houseguest Leon Trotsky (with whom Frida would have an affair) ruminating on the nature of art. Another of Frida’s lovers, Nickolas Muray, came closest to capturing her luminous vitality in his Kodachrome images, one of which graces the exhibition poster. But it was women photographers like Lola Alvarez Bravo and Gisela Freund who would delicately unfurl her nurturing side and private pain.

American cosmetics manufacturers were expanding their reach, and among Frida’s possessions were several well-used powder compacts (she was gifted with a large supply after representatives for Helena Rubinstein visited Mexico), eyebrow pencils and lipsticks, usually red (such as Revlon’s ‘Everything’s Rosy’), signing off letters with lipstick kisses. However, she also used make-up in ways that subverted the feminine ideal and emphasised her androgynous side, adding thick black strokes to her eyebrows and upper-lip hair. This became part of her signature look and still has the capacity to shock. Some of Kahlo’s greatest works, like Self-Portrait With Monkeys (1943) are painted with a surgical precision which belies her naïve art influences, and she transformed herself with the same dedication.

With her vision at its peak, Frida’s world was shrinking. Deteriorating health kept her mostly confined to home, or in hospital. Depressed by the failure of successive operations to improve her condition, Frida drank heavily and was probably addicted to morphine and barbiturates, among the many medications she was prescribed. Bottles and jars are displayed in one case, including herbal remedies, tablets and solutions, ampules, and other paraphernalia.

The cumbersome leather braces she wore beneath her colourful attire are revealed in a 1934 sketch, Appearances Can Be Deceiving. Even as a young girl, she wore several pairs of socks and a built-in heel to disguise her lameness. In later life, she decorated and personalised these rather grim accessories, painting a hammer and sickle on a corset, and adding Chinese embroidered appliqués to the red leather boot with wedge heel on her prosthetic leg. She also owned a pair of pink fringed cowboy boots, which resemble the customised Converse designs seen today.

The third room is bookended with two displays: firstly, a recreation of one of Kahlo’s masterpieces, The Two Fridas (1939), with the original costumes used in the painting to denote her dual identities; the European lady and the vibrant Tehuana woman, connected by blood. While in public she embraced her Mexican heritage, her art reflects the painful legacy of colonialism and the spectre of La Malinche (the native woman sold as a slave to the Spanish conquistador in 1519.) Kahlo’s own mother was part-Indian (a mestiza), and came from the Oaxaca region which Frida never visited, but would shape both her style and her work.

The other stand-alone case displays the ‘resplendor’, or headdress she wore occasionally to signify her Catholic lineage. In Self Portrait, 1948, her tear-stained face is framed by the resplendor. At first glance she resembles a Madonna, but her direct gaze is more akin to La Llorona (‘The Weeping Woman’), a ghostly figure from Mexican folklore condemned to search eternally for her lost children.

At the centre of the room is a large plinth holding multiple Fridas (her facial contours are replicated on the mannequins) wearing various garments, including the rebozo or traditional shawl, given to her by Diego as a wedding gift; and the costume she wore in a 1946 photograph taken by Nickolas Muray on a New York rooftop. This display is quite cluttered, however, making it difficult to match the clothes to moments in her life and art.

In the final years of her life, Frida found it ever harder to recreate the image of herself she had conjured. The revolutionary dream was also fading, as Mexico’s government became as embedded in patronage and corruption as the old regime it had replaced. At her last public appearance in September 1954, she joined a protest against the CIA-supported military coup in Guatemala. By then, she was so weak and ravaged that Diego had to hold her up as she clenched her fist.

And yet one of her last great paintings, The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego, and Señor Xolotl (1949), shows that Kahlo also drew strength from nature, and womanhood. Depicting herself in native dress, with her hair loose, she cradles Diego like a baby – and in turn, is held safe within the arms of a pagan goddess.

An entire shop-floor is dedicated to selling Kahlo memorabilia. Alongside posters, books and DVDs, the V&A has commissioned an exclusive range of clothing and jewellery inspired by the exhibition. Some critics complain about the monetization of Kahlo’s image, while others try to reclaim her as an airbrushed symbol of empowerment. But unlike the Halloween costumes and digital manipulations that have abounded in recent years, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up is drawn directly from the source. While some of the artefacts on display might seem mundane or even morbid, those are the remnants of a vanished life. Whether self-immolating or life-affirming, Frida Kahlo smashed stereotypes and dared others to do the same.

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