Frida Kahlo photographed in 1939. Image: Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Nicola Sullivan, Issue 118/09, 01.09.2018
This fascinating exploration of the Mexican artist’s personal style would be even better with a stronger focus on her political activism, says Nicola Sullivan
A small black and white photograph of Frida Kahlo adding delicate brushstrokes to a tiny canvas under the gaze of her husband, Diego Rivera, his own mural looming large in the background, is one of several captivating images in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) exhibition about the Mexican artist.

This photograph was taken in the early 1930s and is particularly striking because it reminds visitors that, for much of her life, Kahlo lived in the shadow of her husband, whose work often eclipsed hers in terms of scale and the recognition it received.  

The painting Kahlo is working on in the photo – Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States (1932) – depicts two conflicting worlds. The work was poignant then and has gained new relevance today as part of the debate around US president Donald Trump’s policies to control immigration between the two countries.

While this exhibition does not explain how Kahlo’s work resonates with contemporary audiences or why she is arguably now better known than Rivera, it does provide a fascinating insight into how she constructed a striking self-image that has endured long after her death and appears on coffee cups, jewellery and pillowcases.

Kahlo’s fascination with self-portraiture began at an early age and was inspired by her father’s photography. The exhibition starts with a collection of theatrical black and white pictures of the artist. In one, she cuts a striking figure in her white first communion dress and in another she challenges gender norms in a three-piece suit and tie. This is the woman who accentuated her monobrow and whose dark moustache was visible under heavy make-up.

Political style

Kahlo’s fuchsia lipstick and nail polish are among the 200 items that were discovered in her home, the Blue House – built in Mexico City by her father in 1904 – where she was born and where she died. Numerous personal objects including clothes, letters, jewellery, cosmetics, medicine, and medical corsets were locked up in a bathroom by Rivera when Kahlo died in 1954, and weren’t discovered until 50 years later.

Some of the most compelling pieces are the medical corsets she wore after a near-fatal bus crash when she was 18. Her recovery was characterised by the start of an intense period of self-portraiture. The severity of her injuries left her bed bound for long periods and she spent a lot of her time painting with the aid of a mirror inset into the canopy of her four-poster bed.

Among the standout objects is her prosthetic leg with bright red boot, made from luxurious red leather decorated with silk embroidered with Chinese dragon motifs.

There is also a plaster corset, on which she painted the communist symbol above a cutout hole, which may be for ventilation or, as Kahlo couldn’t have children, could represent the absence of a pregnancy. The traditional dress she wore allowed her to conceal medical corsets under geometric-cut blouses and her damaged (later prosthetic) right leg under long skirts.

This exhibition illuminates the extent to which Kahlo’s artistic expression extended beyond the canvas and into her appearance. But, at the same time, it shows that her personal style was so all-consuming that it influenced her work, which can be seen in paintings such as My Dress Hangs There (1933).

Making a statement

Indeed, the many dresses on display breathe life into this show, which, at times lacks colour and feels overcrowded with small black and white pictures. Although these offer glimpses into her private moments, they can lose their impact in the dimly lit space. In some areas of the gallery, however, the photos are blown up, which creates an element of drama.

Most of Kahlo’s dresses are accompanied by detailed descriptions of how they were made, where they came from in Mexico and how they incorporated the traditional styles of the Tehuana women who were fond of printed cloth, large quantities of which was imported from Manchester. The information is so detailed that the history and craftsmanship behind indigenous Mexican clothing and jewellery almost becomes an exhibition theme.

It is interesting to note that while Kahlo was a revolutionary thinker, in adopting the Tehuana costume she paid tribute to the spirit of a matriarchal society. However, she did use traditional dress to make anti-American statements, such as when she wore a Tehuana outfit to show her support for Rivera when he was sacked after producing a painting of Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin for the Rockefeller Center, New York, in the early 1930s. This anecdote, however, is very much an aside in the show and is one of many missed opportunities to fully explore Kahlo’s political life.

We learn that Rivera and she amassed a vast collection of portraits of revolutionaries, including of the Mexican Emiliano Zapata, and Russians Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. But there is no information on how the couple’s views developed over the years or how their politics influenced their art.

While footage of Trotsky denouncing Stalin in the garden of the Blue House is fascinating, it is not connected to any wider discussion of Kahlo and Rivera’s association with communism, how their lives were shaped by the Mexican revolution or how they supported the Spanish civil war. This is disappointing for an exhibition dedicated to a woman who, as an adult, claimed that she was born in 1910 (instead of 1907) because it marked the start of the Mexican revolution.

Despite these omissions, this exhibition is still a stunning and sometimes haunting testimony to a woman whose bravery, style and physical and emotional struggles will always resonate with modern audiences.

Nicola Sullivan is a freelance writer

Project data

  • Cost £1.4m
  • Architect Gibson Thornley
  • Exhibition design Tom Scutt; Gibson Thornley
  • Graphic design BOB Design
  • Exhibition graphics BAF Graphics
  • Exhibition editor Maria Blyzinsky
  • AV Luke Halls Studio, The Abstract Union and Ben & Max Ringham
  • Lighting DHA
  • Exhibition contractor Setworks
  • Technical project management and quantity surveyor Focus Consultants
  • Exhibition ends 4 November
  • Admission Museums Association members get free entry on weekdays until 12 October