Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up – at the V&A from Saturday, 16 June 2018

Life and Death

Frida Kahlo, communist revolutionary and feminist icon, was born in Mexico in 1907 and is one of the most recognised artists of the 20th century.  As a young child she contracted polio so her right leg was thinner and shorter than the left which she tried to conceal with large-skirted dresses.  Tragically, as a teenager, she was involved in a serious road accident which left her with multiple broken bones, a uterus too damaged for child-birth, a lifetime of medical interventions and repeat operations, and long spells bed-bound, as well as dashing her dreams of becoming a doctor.  While recovering she began to paint herself “I paint self-portraits because I am the person I know best”.  Her self-portraits often have a nightmarish quality, and draw heavily on her experiences of medical treatment and intense prolonged pain “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality”.

Married to, divorced and then remarrying Mexican artist Diego Rivera, her inability to have children and her husband’s infidelities brought her intense misery, which she met with warm humour and indomitable spirit – “I drank to drown my sorrows, but the damned things learned how to swim”.  After her death Rivera placed her possessions in a bathroom in the Casa Azure (Blue House) that they had shared and locked the door with instructions that it was not to be opened until after his own death.  In fact it was unopened for over 50 years.

Making Herself Up

The V&A’s exhibition “Making Herself Up” comprises artifacts tantalizingly found behind the locked door.  Her traditional Mexican dresses, her much loved make up, the torturous-looking corsets she was obliged to wear and defiantly decorated with symbols of hope, her prosthetic leg with elaborate boot – her right leg was amputated a year before death but even this could not diminish her spirit “Feet, what do I want them for if I have wings to fly”.  The exhibition also includes self-portraits and photographs, many of her accessories, elaborate head dresses, huge colourful necklaces, letters and medicines.

In 1953 she became the first woman artist to have a solo exhibition of her work in Mexico, and she attended the exhibition in a specially adapted bed as she was too ill to walk or even attend in a wheelchair, although still beautifully and defiantly attired and made up.

Kahlo’s death certificate recorded pulmonary embolism but suicide was suspected, and her last diary entry read “I hope the exit is joyful – and I hope never to return – Frida”.

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