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Self-invention as an art form: Frida Kahlo- ‘Making Her Self Up’ at the V&A

The V&A’s recent exhibition chronicling the life and iconicity of world-renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is a fascinating insight into the relationship between life and art—particularly, the self-fashioning of identity and reinvention of the self as a form of artistic expression. I must admit, ashamedly, that prior to this exhibition I had minimal knowledge on Kahlo and her work—the only image springing to mind is that of her ‘infamous’ monobrow. This exhibition did an excellent job in providing a brief, yet informative, exposition on Kahlo’s life and gave us an insight into her evolution as an artist. Due to its continued success and constantly sold out tickets, the V&A extended ‘Making Her Self Up’ a further two weeks.

Illness, pain, adversity—from the beginning of her life, Kahlo faced devastating health difficulties. She contracted polio when she was only 6 years old, leading to one leg being shorter than the other, and at 18 years old she was involved in a tram accident in which she suffered severe, life-threatening injuries and which also led to many other health complications for the rest of her life, ultimately leading to her untimely death at the age of 47. Every aspect of her life, from her ambition to study medicine to being unable to have children, was impacted by her health. However, perseverance, triumph, and courage are also words at the forefront of this exhibition—Kahlo’s life was not an easy one but her decision to utilise her hardships as creative tools present a courageous identity and highlight her image as an inspirational figure. We see this through Kahlo’s fascination with self-portraiture in the latter half of her life. Self-portraiture, it seems, became key to asserting and preserving her (artistic) identity as it was one of the few art forms she could still create whilst being immobilised in her bed due to her continuous injuries and operations as a result of the accident. One of the most striking photographs in this exhibition is of Kahlo physically confined to her bed with an easel situated above her as she painted her reflection from the mirror attached to her bed. Her relentless pursuit of creating art even through excruciating pain and discomfort underlines her resilient attitude and her desire for a reclaiming of individuality threatened by her health.

Kahlo’s orthopaedic corsets and prosthetic leg, both customised by her artistic and stylish flair, are also on display as evidence of her efforts to maintain her fashionable and innovative reputation. Her corsets contain various, colourful, and intricate illustrations—of animals, streetcars, the red communist hammer and sickle— and are works of art in themselves. Her prosthetic leg, made due to her leg amputation at the age of 46, has a bright red leather lace-up wedged boot attached to the bottom, designed and made specifically for her, and is just as bold and glamorous as you would expect. With embroidered silk panels and small bells on the side, these shoes are perhaps the clearest representation of Kahlo’s creative, joyful, and bold approach to life. Rather than viewing these items as signs of her ill health, her decision to personalise them and wear them proudly present an image of support and growth. Her choice to embrace her decline in health depicts how Kahlo’s body became a site of development and interpretation, rather than a fixed object upon which various ailments and illnesses were assigned.

Kahlo’s heritage is also a fundamental aspect of her identity, and this exhibition explores her mixed heritage and how it feeds into her image as a prominent cultural figure. Kahlo was born in 1907 in Mexico, just three years before the Mexican Revolution, to a German father and a mestizamother but, as the exhibition notes, Kahlo did not identify with her German heritage nearly as much as she did with her Mexican. Many of her paintings reflect her love for Mexico and a national identity but what this exhibition explores in more detail, rather than her artwork, is Kahlo’s unique and famous fashion style which is distinctly rooted in Mexican culture and tradition. Two out of four rooms in the exhibition are dedicated to Kahlo’s image as a fashion icon, highlighting the importance attributed to Kahlo’s style concerning her identity and reputation in popular culture. The first room is primarily focused on a history of Mexican fashion whilst the second room (which is also the final room of the exhibition), includes an extensive array of her most famous dresses and jewellery collection. In the first room, we are told that Kahlo adopted Tehuana costume from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a small piece of land in the south of Mexico. The women, known as Tehanuas, are famous for their colourful dresses and distinct style—a style that Kahlo found irresistible and that symbolises an embracing of her heritage. On display are various silk Mexican shawls, originally known as rebozos, that Kahlo used to wear regularly—the exhibition presents many photographs of Kahlo wearing these shawls on different occasions. As well as these shawls, Kahlo frequently wore huipiles(tunics with specific patterns and embroidery), Pueblan blouses, morrales (a colourful, patterned sack bag specific to indigenous Mexicans), and jewellery consisting of beads most likely to have come from burial sites in south-eastern Mexico. Her love for traditional Mexican clothing is further seen in the final room of the exhibition—upon entering, you are hit with a multitude of colours and patterns as a large glass cabinet in the centre of the room is filled with mannequins dressed in various outfits of Kahlo’s. The colours are bold, bright, and blazing—nothing less than expected from the omnipresent vivacity of Kahlo’s spirit throughout the exhibition. Her wardrobe mixed elements from different cultures and regions, particularly China, but this colourful, exciting, and joyful southern Mexican style is what remains, to this day, as Kahlo’s iconic image.

However, this stereotypically feminine image of vibrant makeup and colourful clothes is in strong opposition to Kahlo’s choice of fashion as a young child. Towards the beginning of the exhibition, we see a picture of 13-year-old Kahlo with her family, dressed in a three-piece suit whilst her sisters wear traditional dresses. In her younger years, Kahlo liked to play with her gender identity in a way that complicated her sexuality and dressed in masculine clothes, with more of a tomboy style. As she grew older, however, she embraced typical notions of femininity (jewels, dresses, flowers) that still intermingled with traditionally masculine aspects, such as her monobrow, upper lip hair, and characteristically stern expression This blurring of the masculine/feminine binary was another way for Kahlo to shape her identity—she refused any sense of closure or specificity. This lack of boundaries solidified her status as revolutionary and different, in both her art and her life.

A few reviews have criticised this exhibition for being too focused on memorabilia and seemingly trivial objects like her extensive dress collection and her prosthetic leg, and not focused enough on the actual artwork she created. Whilst I do agree that her artwork is fundamental to her cultural, political, and revolutionary identity, and whilst I would have liked to have seen more artwork myself, I believe that the objects included in this exhibition are integral to understanding Kahlo. In particular, her orthopaedic corsets and prosthetic leg function as other forms of artistic creation and demonstrate that she was a woman who treated her own body as a blank canvas with its own potential to cultivate and shape a reputation and identity. Her personal clothing items reveal a deep and passionate love for Mexican culture and tradition, which one can see through her artwork, but is simply further emphasised through the visibility of her daily wear and which forms an inextricable part of her identity. Her fashion chimed with a political wave at the time to assert indigenous Mexican culture and identity as an attempt to get away from western and specifically, American cultural influences, highlighting Kahlo as a cultural and political figure and is as equally valuable as her artwork.

 “I have enjoyed being contradictory”

This is the quote you see in the final room, upon leaving the exhibition and perfectly encapsulates the intrigue and everlasting excitement surrounding Kahlo’s careful sculpting of identity. The question that this exhibition asks is: who is the real Frida Kahlo? And although this question is posed, the exhibition simultaneously provides no concrete answer. The Frida Kahlo we have come to know in popular culture consists of a multitude of contradictions, of identities, of voices and that, I believe, was always her intention. Her overwhelming resilience and determination to succeed in the face of adversity, however, is the one consistent and pervading element throughout this exhibition, which the V&A depict in a careful and measured manner.

On now until Sunday, November 18th

The Exhibition is located at the Victoria and Albert Museum.



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