It’s a miserable November morning & I find myself queuing outside the V & A, huddled under a crumpled umbrella with a grumpy two year old. Why? It’s the final days of the Frida Kahlo exhibition & I’ve been meaning to go since it opened months previous. Parenthood brings innumerable joys but with a toddler those little self-indulgent pastimes (reading, working-out, visiting a gallery, drinking a warm coffee) are….compromised. In retaliation, I’ve dragged us here through wind & rain although so far it’s proving more hassle than it’s worth!
Stepping into ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’ is an instant reality check; my mornings “inconveniences” are put into stark perspective. Besides her talent, Frida’s life was marked by two extraordinary things: an almighty sense of self & daily crippling pain as a result of childhood polio & a near-fatal bus accident. Dying at 47, she spent her short life as a young woman in a decaying body held together by orthopaedic corsets & prosthetic limbs.
Alongside Frida’s art & photography, the show exhibits her intimate possessions which had been locked away since her death. Rigid body braces are contrasted with her exuberant wardrobe. Full skirts, billowing tunics & vibrant shawls in the style of Mexican National Dress serving to hide the constrictions she wore beneath. Yet the way Frida styled herself went way beyond mere functionality.
Her self & her art were one in the same.
Artists often turn to autobiographical material in their work but with Frida it’s hard to decipher where the self stops & the art starts. Throughout her life she spent time restricted to bed rest & whilst most would find this physical isolation an artistic restriction too, Frida had a mirror attached to the ceiling & used her own reflection as inspiration for her work. Perhaps this intense time with her reflection is where she unlocked her power of self expression. From the photographs in the exhibition, she was captivating & more beautiful than her self portraits would suggest. Often emphasising her statement monobrow & facial hair in her art, Frida used her image to play with gender, sexuality & perceived ideas of womanhood. In our current “perfect selfie” culture, this still has the power to shock.
Like Grayson Perry today, Frida looked like a walking art installation standing out wherever she went with her vibrant brocades & elaborate headdresses. Her love of indigenous clothing reflected her admiration for artisanship, her commitment to Mexico & her cultural identity. Here was a woman with very little power over her health, but the utmost control over the way the world perceived her. 60 years on from her death & her image is recognised the world over. As the exhibition title suggests, she made her self up & in doing so she created an icon.
I’ve thought about Frida most days since that rainy morning in November. Park her genius with a paintbrush for a minute (something I’ve barely touched upon here but if you are interested, check out Tracey Emin’s article ‘Frida On My Mind’) & just look at her relationship with clothing. Style for her was a communicator; like her art it told the world who she was & where she came from. It’s mind-blowing that despite her unrelenting pain & premature death, she was able to create a self image that, half a century on, is engrained in our everyday; replicated on cushions, tea towels, socks! Obviously, not many of us are as bold in our fashion choices as Frida. Style is a personal journey of experimentation & self expression; it’s exhilarating to push boundaries & it is reassuring to have trusty friends in our wardrobe which anchor part of our identity. Frida is testament to the fact that what we wear can be our armour, our comforter & everything in between. It is not frivolous, it is a visual language that tells the world a little bit about who we are & what is important to us.
Although the V & A exhibition has finished, if you happen to find yourself in New York this Spring then the Brooklyn Museum is hosting a version of the London show.