I have long admired the work of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who has become a cultural icon. She became an extension of her art herself, in the way she emphasised her physical features and also in her dress, favouring Mexican national costume to assert her political beliefs. Growing up in post-revolutionary Mexico in the 1930s, she considered herself a ‘child of the revolution’.
What I did not know was that Frida was disabled.
She caught polio as a child, and had to wear a prosthetic limb. This was difficult enough, but it did not deter her spirit, or her desire to enter the medical profession.
Then aged 18, she was in a near-fatal bus accident which changed her life. As a result, Kahlo would undergo some 30 operations and spend many months at a time lying in bed inside a plaster body cast, reliant on her family for all her needs.
It was during these periods that Kahlo began to paint. Her father erected a special easel that fitted on her bed and placed a mirror above her. The famous Frida Kahlo self-portrait, complete with that powerful gaze, was born.
She had a turbulent life: a difficult marriage to the Communist artist Diego Rivera who had an affair with her sister; a traumatic miscarriage that inspired the painting ‘Henry Ford Hospital’ (1932); and an affair with Leon Trotsky.
Nothing held her back. For me, and many others, Frida Kahlo is truly inspirational.
Frida Kahlo is now the subject of a new exhibition at the V&A.
Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, sponsored by Grosvenor Britain and Ireland is on from 16 June – 4 November 2018 vam.ac.uk/FridaKahlo
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to discuss Kahlo with the co-curator of the V&A’s exhibition, Circe Henestrosa. She explained that although always interested in art, Kahlo did not intend making it her career. Her passion was medicine, but circumstances dictated that she become a patient instead.
The image people think of in relation to Kahlo is represented in all her self-portraits, that is the way she wanted us to remember her and Circe believes she has achieved this very well. Kahlo put a lot of attention on her face and adornment in general.
The V&A collection includes personal belongings found at the Blue House (Kahlo’s home in Mexico) in 2004. These include a Revlon eye pencil ‘Ebony’, which she used to darken her eyebrows as well as objects such as different lipsticks, her blush, a cigarette case and many other objects never revealed before.
The power of image
Kahlo understood the power of dress from a very early age, as a result of her polio at the age of 6; she was left with a withered and shorter right leg, something that led her to choose long skirts. She began wearing three to four socks on her thinner calf and also wore shoes with a built-up heel to mask her asymmetry. This shows how she established a relationship between her body and dress from a very early age. Through the use of her self-portraits and the use of traditional Mexican dresses to style herself, Kahlo dealt with her life, her political views, her health struggles, her accident, and her turbulent marriage.
A feminist icon
In Circe’s view, Kahlo has become a feminist icon for everything she represents. Frida Kahlo is the very model of the bohemian artist: unique, rebellious and contradictory, a cult figure that continues to be appropriated by feminists, artists, fashion designers and popular culture. She was ahead of her times and that is what makes her so relevant and contemporary today.
I hope this snapshot of Frida Kahlo inspires you and encourages you to visit the exhibition at the V&A. Personally, I can’t wait!