London: “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up” @ the V&A

Frida on the bench 1939. Nickolas Muray. V&A Museum

Tickets had sold out for the day the first time I tried to visit “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up,” back in the summer when I ended up visiting “Fashioned from Nature” instead (and I remember that day well too. It was unbearably hot so I got an ice cream that dripped all down the front of my dress on the way there, and I didn’t notice until after I entered the exhibition, so people probably thought I was a slob). So I went home and booked for the first available date on one of my days off, which ended up being the 15th of October. Despite the lengthy wait, I suppose I should consider myself lucky for having gotten in at all, as the exhibition is now sold out for the remainder of its run (through 18th November).

Guillermo Kahlo portrait, V&A Museum.

So clearly, there are a lot of Frida Kahlo fans out there – even with my timed ticket (normally £15, £7.50 with National Art Pass), I still had to join a queue to be let into the exhibition (there was presumably a one in, one out system). And of course, once I made it inside, it was super crowded (and photographs weren’t allowed, though it didn’t stop half the people there from attempting to take them. It was gratifying when the stewards caught them and yelled at them. To avoid this fate myself, I am illustrating this post with objects and art in the exhibition that I found images of online). Not quite Harry Potter exhibition bad, but unpleasant enough. The worst part was the opening gallery, which was long and narrow and had photographs grouped together in clumps, which does not lend itself well to orderly viewing. It was very much a “push in where you can” system, at least at first, and I am not shy about shoving myself in if it means avoiding a queue.

Frida (far right) and her sisters, taken by Guillermo Kahlo.

The exhibition was based off of a selection of Frida’s clothes and personal possessions which were walled up in a bathroom in her home after her death, which was opened fifty years later (so, 2004). It wasn’t really explained why they were walled up in the first place, but this exhibition marks the first time they were shown outside Mexico, which does explain its popularity. The opening section was about Frida’s family background; she had a German father, Mexican mother, and three sisters; two older, one younger. After she contracted polio as a young child, she became very close with her father, who struggled with his health himself, but had a rather distant relationship with her mother; obviously her style and artistic interests very much favoured the Mexican side of her background, but she always used the Germanic name her father had chosen for her. The polio left her with uneven legs and a resulting limp, but she was still on track to attend medical school when she famously suffered a horrific accident after the bus she was riding collided with a streetcar, forcing an iron handrail through her body, damaging her spine and reproductive system, and leaving her in chronic pain for the remainder of her life.  However, this was also the catalyst for leading her into art, since her poor health made it impossible for her to return to medical school. This section covered all of this biographical information, as well as Frida’s communist leanings (although it didn’t go into great detail), and contained a rather splendid collection of photographs of Frida and her family, many of them taken by her father, Guillermo (he adopted the Spanish version of his name, William, after moving to Mexico), who was a keen photographer.

Frida Kahlo, by Leo Matiz, 1943, Coyoacán, Mexico. Private Collection. © Alejandra Matiz. Leo Matiz Foundation.

From there, the gallery progressed into a section about Casa Azul, Frida’s childhood home, which was also the home she returned to as an adult with her husband, Diego Rivera, and painted it an amazing deep blue. I loved the map that Frida drew of the house, with a little unibrowed stick figure to indicate where she was born (which wasn’t accurate, since she was actually born at her grandmother’s house, but was no less charming for that), and all of her animals carefully labelled, with the exception of what were clearly ducks in a pond, because, as she put it, she didn’t know the English name for them. She owned a special breed of Mexican dogs that looked rather like larger chihuahuas, and also had pet monkeys and a deer.

Votive offering dedicated to the Virgin of Talpa. I don’t remember if this particular piece was on display, but it’s just so you can get an idea of the style.

The next room was about Frida’s interest in native Mexican art, in particular votive paintings, which are amazing. Votive paintings are a tradition that originated in rural Mexico as a way of thanking the saints after someone was saved from bodily harm. If someone survived a life-threatening experience, they would commission an artist to paint a small picture showing the event in question, which they would then hang as an offering in their local church. Though they are obviously very heartfelt, due to the melodramatic nature of the things they depict, and their rather primitive style, they are often unintentionally hilarious, and I love them, as did Frida. She had a whole wall full of these paintings at Casa Azul, and they were a major influence on her art, as can be seen in the paintings she made of herself after various operations (some of which were in the final room of the exhibition). The best piece here, in my opinion, was one that showed a man being hit by a train, and this was Frida’s favourite as well, because of its similarities to her own accident.

Frida, by Guillermo Kahlo, about 1926, Coyoacán, Mexico. © Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera Archives.

The next gallery was probably my favourite, and was all about Frida’s health and how it affected her art. She was very frail, and had to wear a corset to support her spine, which she used her elaborate and beautiful dresses (based on the traditional dress of the women of Tehuana, Mexico, which was a matriarchal society known for its exceptionally lovely clothes) to try to conceal. The central theme of this exhibition was that everything about Frida’s outward appearance was very much an intensely cultivated persona, and a way for her to transcend her pain and frailty and become something magnificent (hence the double meaning of the exhibition’s title, in that she both made herself up with makeup, and she made her “self” up). She even tried to make her plaster corsets (which were moulded to her body, and could stay on for months at a time) reflect her personality by painting them with things like sacred hearts and hammers and sickles. I would say that it seemed like a lot of effort for something she tried to keep concealed, but that wasn’t quite the case, as Frida, despite her marriage to Diego, had a number of affairs with other artists (as did Diego, including one particularly hurtful one with Frida’s own younger sister, who lived with them), and allowed herself to be photographed topless, and in her corsets, by one of her lovers. I can’t say I blame her, as in addition to Diego’s affairs, he was also a rather unfortunate looking man – her nickname for him was Sapo-Rana (Frog-Toad), and I can see why.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holán. Photograph Museo Frida Kahlo.

While celebrating Frida’s indomitable spirit (there were plenty of photographs of her painting while on bed rest, on an easel suspended above her head), this gallery was also depressing, because of course her ill health got the best of her in the end. She struggled with gangrene in her toes, which eventually led to the amputation of one of her legs, so the exhibition included a prosthetic leg clad in one of Frida’s signature red embroidered shoes, though by this point Frida was confined to a wheelchair. She died only a year after her leg was amputated, because her body had pretty much given up the fight at that point (after more than 30 surgeries), even though she was only 47. She also had some struggles with addiction to painkillers (there is some speculation that her death was the result of an overdose), which is understandable, given the amount of pain she seemed to have been in at all times from the aftereffects of both polio and her bus injuries.

Dress display inside exhibition, Wikimedia Commons.

I know talking about her death probably makes it sound like I’m approaching the end of this post, but there was one remaining gallery. This was the one that held all of Frida’s dresses, which were incredibly gorgeous, especially a blouse embroidered with animals and Aztec dancers. I did find the labelling a bit confusing though, as the dresses appeared to have been arranged more to make a statement than for clarity, and with dresses displayed in rows, it was hard to tell which sign went with each dress. There was also some of her jewellery – my favourite piece had little leg and arm shaped prayer tokens, which were probably chosen somewhat ironically by Frida in reference to her health issues (she renounced her Catholicism after discovering communism).

Aztec dancer blouse.

This gallery was even darker than the rest of the exhibition (which was already quite dim), presumably to protect the fabric, but I think it led to a woman mistaking me for her daughter, as she put her hand on my shoulder and began speaking to me in Spanish (at least, I think that’s what was going on. I did have similar hair to her daughter, so we might have looked the same from behind, but it did weird me out a little). It also contained some of Frida’s art, which had been on rather short supply in the rest of the exhibition (where the focus was more on photographs and the art Frida collected), so we could see for ourselves how she created her image from all the aspects of her life the exhibition had been talking about.

Necklace of coral beads with metal milagros in the form of legs Mexico, early 20th century. Photography Javier Hinojosa © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives.

Although I think some people may have been disappointed by the fact that more of her art wasn’t here, since I’m not that familiar with most of her work anyway (other than all the iconic images of her with unibrow in full bloom. Not snarking, because mine would look exactly the same in a couple weeks if I stopped plucking today), I wasn’t all that bothered by it. I was less impressed by some of their poor choices of signage materials – the labels in the corset room were all just stickers stuck on the outside of the cases, and some of them had peeled off to the extent that you couldn’t even read them. Actually, they were difficult to read anyway, because they were white letters on a glass case in a dark room, so you had to angle yourself just right to see them, which wasn’t always easy to do in an exhibition as crowded as this one. That said, although it was quite crowded, other than in the first gallery, the objects were generally spread out enough so that you didn’t have to queue to see everything, and could just kind of wander around to whatever was free, which was a pleasant change from the initial part of the exhibition.

Self Portrait with Braid, 1941.

Given my love of medical history, I actually really loved that the focus was primarily on her health, with a bit of fashion thrown in, as those things are so much more my cup of tea than art. I think there could have been more about her life in general, because as I said earlier, her political beliefs were only very lightly touched on, as were some of her family relationships (I didn’t realise she’d had a difficult relationship with her mother until I did a bit of research whilst writing this post, because all the exhibition said was that she was upset because she was suffering from her own health problems (it might have been one of her miscarriages. The accident left her unable to carry a child to term) in America around the time of her mother’s death, so she couldn’t make it back to see her, which seemed to imply at least some sort of loving relationship). But I think, given the title, the exhibition did pretty much deliver on what it promised, which was to explore Frida Kahlo’s artistic persona and what went into creating it (and my god, it must have been an effort for someone as ill as Frida was. She got fully dressed in her ensembles every day, regardless of whether she was expecting company. I change into jimjams the second I walk in the door, and if I don’t leave the house at all, I might not put on actual clothes for days at a time).

Frida Kahlo in Blue Blouse, 1939, Nickolas Muray. Bentley Gallery.

I guess I should also comment on the shop, because the V&A’s exhibition shops are always so fabulous it makes me feel a bit sick with jealousy, given how crap it makes the museum shop I run look in comparison. They had brought in a lot of Mexican art, and even though I kept bitching about how much cheaper it was to buy these things in Mexico, I still paid £6 each for two little Dia de los Muertos style metal skeleton wall hangings (I know that sounds cheap, but they really are very thin and small. I reckon I should just go back to Mexico one of these days though – I’ve only ever been to Tijuana, and that was 15 years ago. I would absolutely love to go for Dia de los Muertos one of these years), and there were plenty of other things in there I would have bought as well, if I were a wealthier woman. In the end, it was actually more enjoyable than I was anticipating, despite the crowds, and I’m glad I had the chance to see it. 4/5. The V&A is also hosting a Day of the Dead celebration this Saturday which they’re tying in with this exhibition, but as it’s free and unticketed, I’ll probably give it a miss, though I will of course report back if I decide to go. My brother’s visiting this week, so I’m off doing vaguely touristy London things, but I will have something relatively Halloweeny to post about next week!

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10 comments

  1. I love historical soap operas, and the Frida/Diego story is such a great saga. Divorce, remarriage, life-threatening injuries, affairs, and (of course) the Trotsky political assassination. Plus, it seems like every time I do research on artists of the era, it turns out they slept with Frida. With all the drama and her physical issues, I’m always so amazed at her confidence and self assurance. The Philadelphia Museum of Art just had a portrait exhibit (similar idea to this one – it was about how artists used portraiture to define their public persona) and they had on display some of the topless photos of Frida. Definitely no playboy bunny, but I just love the attitude she shows. I certainly will never have that kind of self assurance!! Wish I could see this exhibit, but I think it would drive me crazy not knowing the story behind the objects being hidden behind the wall…

    1. It’s not just her confidence, but the fact that she even found the energy to do all of this that amazes me! I’m perfectly healthy, but I really struggle with talking myself into doing anything on my days off. I suppose spending so much of her life bedridden made her more determined to enjoy life as much as she could, but damn, how did she find the energy to paint, be politically active, and take on numerous lovers with her failing body, when I don’t even want to leave the couch?

  2. Oh neat! I remember the story about her walled-up clothing but hadn’t realized (though should’ve suspected) that the contents would be on exhibition. Once again, you’re keeping me hep to what’s going on in the world – ha.
    Wow, those are some intense eyes on her sisters.
    And yeah, that Diego … Frog-Toad, indeed.
    Picturing you startled by the woman touching you made me laugh – but I know it’d have spooked me too. Especially in a dim room when you’re intently looking at the pieces.
    You should definitely go back to Mexico! We stayed in Coyoacan, Frida’s neighbourhood, when I was there this Spring and it was amazing. Easily my favourite part of the trip. I’d say that you should then go to Puerto Escondido on the coast and stay at my sister’s place but it’s so hot I don’t think you’d enjoy it much.

    1. Did they say anything more about what her clothes were doing there in the first place in that story? I think it’s really weird the exhibition didn’t say anything about it, unless I missed it.
      I would love to go to Mexico! I put together a little Day of the Dead altar for my grandparents this year, but I’d love to go and see it done properly. Could definitely do without the heat though!

      1. My memory is that Diego Rivera sealed them up when she died and asked that they remain undisturbed until after his death. Which kinda makes me feel fonder of him (at least as relates to their relationship) for some reason.

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