Years ago I read an article about how Frieda Khalo’s personal wardrobe, make up, accessories and artefacts had been carefully preserved for over 50 years. I decided then that one way or another I would get to see this fascinating and priceless collection even if it required a trip to Mexico.
Imagine my delight when I discovered that some of the collection was coming to London to our Victoria and Albert museum. Another friend, Grace (of @MadeinMaida) contacted me as soon as it was announced (about a year ago) to see if we could go along together. We waited patiently. And last week we went along.
The exhibition is phenomenal. I know it has had mixed reviews, but they are somewhat superficial in my view. That she has been commercialised, that it is all about style and brand and not the art, that it is “sad” and “depressing”. We didn’t find it so.
Both Grace and I have been interested in Frida for decades (well, Grace is half my age so not so long in her case). Grace speaks Spanish and has spent time in Latin America; she has read as much as she can about Khalo; she makes films for a living and understands photography. In 1979 my first husband completed his thesis on the art of Diego Rivera, and we were both influenced by Leon Trotsky and other communist authors. I have always regarded Khalo as a style icon and have loved her look. Grace and I both sew, and knit, and embroider and we identify with Khalo for various reasons. Coming to the exhibition with our own preconceptions and interests Grace and I immersed ourselves in it, read every caption, looked carefully and took a few photographs. And at the end we went to the shop and dressed up in the clothes and jewellery that was “inspired” by Frida, and Mexico, and the colours that she wore. I didn’t think it was tacky or commercial, although Grace kept saying – “you could make this yourself”. Which is true.
Look at this photograph. Frida is about 10, and she is already dressed in a dramatic way with a huge bow in her hair, a lace blouse, necklace, over dress with embroidery. Her father – a German immigrant photographer, and her Mexican mother – clearly influenced her appearance and pose. Yet she is already strong, determined, artistic. Her appearance mattered and conveyed a message. Later she bought and wore the dress of Zapotec women of Tehuantepec, in Oaxaca. This look included long skirts (enagua), embroidered tops with a simple square or T shape (huipil), and colourful woven shawls (rebozos). In addition she would normally wear important earrings, pre-Columbian necklaces and flowers in her hair.
The clothes she chose celebrated Mexican nationalism, and she found beauty and value in the styles and work of indigenous people. She wore men’s clothes and trousers too, and applied mascara to her facial hair, revolting against over-feminised views of beauty. But her clothes also covered her withered, then amputated leg, her corseted torso and the scars of multiple operations. The exhibition brings her personal pain and suffering to the fore, as it reveals some of the contraptions, medication and cosmetics she used to “make herself up”. Much of her social life was conducted from her bed where she also painted, using mirrors and other means to keep on living, learning, creating, and loving. And laughing. Frida wrote “Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.” Frida turned pain into beauty. She was not self-pitying despite the most appalling disabilities, medical interventions and limiting conditions. She just got on with it and used her imagination and artistic skills to soar above her personal difficulties. I love her for this.
The fact that a number of people found the exhibition sad and depressing surprised me. But then we worked it out. When we visited there were a few technical hitches. We had to look at some of the photographs with our phone-torches, most of the videos were off and there was no sound track. Not a major issue – we intend to go again. But we realised that the doom-laden sound track may have unhelpfully contributed to the idea that the exhibition is deep and dour. For me you don’t dress up everyday, carefully comb and oil your hair, plait it carefully, pile it on the top of your head, then pick fresh flowers to adorn it, if you feel that life is futile. If you have a house full of dogs, monkeys, artefacts, colour, light, water and friends you are basically happy and creative and engaged with life. You paint your nails, your eyes, and then you paint and make art.
I will write about Frida’s wardrobe, and style, next week. In the meantime, if you can, do go.