This summer, the Victoria and Albert Museum will explore how Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), one of the most recognized and significant artists of the 20th century, fashioned her identity. Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up will be the first exhibition outside of Mexico to display Kahlo’s clothes and intimate possessions, reuniting them with key self-portraits and photographs to offer a fresh perspective on her compelling life story.
Working in close collaboration with Museo Frida Kahlo, the V&A will display more than 200 objects from the Casa Azul (Blue House), the house in Mexico where Kahlo was born, lived and died. Kahlo’s personal belongings – including outfits, letters, jewelery, cosmetics, medicines and medical corsets – were rediscovered in 2004, 50 years after being locked away by her husband Diego Rivera, following her death.
Kahlo developed an immediately recognisable presence through both her work – most prominently self-portraits – and her life. Carlos Phillips Olmedo (Director General, Museo Dolores Olmedo) writes in the book that accompanies the exhibition that "in constructing her own persona – as if it were a work of art – through a very specific style of clothing and reflecting this in her work … Kahlo has been transformed into a symbol extending beyond the spheres of culture and art to represent many social movements". But also, "to Kahlo, writing poetry, designing her own clothes and decorating her corsets with mirrors and oil paint were all one". This relationship between the public face of an artist, the work produced for posterity, and their more private life, is a central theme of the exhibition.
Circe Henestrosa, exhibition co-curator and Head of the School of Fashion, LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, notes: "Kahlo was aware of the power of clothes from a very young age. But she was equally aware of her fragmented body after contracting polio at the age of six and suffering a near-fatal accident aged 18. These incidents caused her lasting pain and formed the core subject of her art, but they also informed her personal style. As a result of the polio she was left with a wasted and shorter right leg, which is one of the reasons why she often wore long skirts. From a young age, she would wear three to four socks on her thinner calf and also wore shoes with a built-up heel to mask her asymmetry."
Circe continues: "Kahlo’s powerful style is as integral to her myth as her paintings. 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 today. Her resplendent Tehuana dresses; striking headpieces, hand-painted corsets and prosthetics masterfully masked her physical impairments, but were also a form of self-expression and an extension of her art."
Unlike Rivera and other male artists who asserted their artistic freedom by being depicted in paint-spattered workwear, Kahlo rarely appeared casually dressed, even at her easel, for although underestimated as an artist in her lifetime, she was frequently photographed at work. Her charisma and careful regard for the art of dressing offered a photogenic appeal that was at odds with the uncompromising nature of her art; as the founder of Surrealism André Breton observed, her painting was like "a ribbon around a bomb".
In November 2017, a team of conservators, mount-makers and curators visited the Blue House to prepare for the exhibition at the V&A. While there, they detected many traces of pigment on the skirts upon which Kahlo rested her palette and brushes; some are stained with red paint and small splashes of blue and black ink (Kahlo was an inveterate letter writer), while others have paint embedded in the textile fibres or faint brushstrokes of paint across the surface of the fabric.
Kahlo’s commitment to the Tehuana dress of her native Mexico was not for show, or for staged photographs, but an integral part of her daily dress – as the many darns, cigarette burns and stains demonstrate. The material properties of her clothing and possessions bring her paintings to life, while the paintings offer dress in all its symbolic meaning.
This text has been edited and condensed from Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, edited Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa available from the V&A.