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.
Thanks so much for sharing your experience of the exhibition, the nearest I’ll get to going. Wow, how we dress and what we wear is surprisingly complex, isn’t it? Clothes are more than a practical consideration, what we wear can help us express status, culture and locality, emotion, creativity, and eccentricity, as well as anonymity and uniformity. I wonder how Frida was viewed by others during her life? Was she viewed as an oddity or seen as a flamboyant and colourful artist?
Thanks for the preview. I’m really looking forward to going. I went to the exhibition of her art at the Tate in 2005, a profound experience. I love the fact that she painted her own life and created her own unique style in her clothes and appearance that was flamboyant and bright despite her disabilities.
I quite agree Kate. I found the exhibition enthralling and enervating. Seeing the intimate details of a dressing table is a look into the psyche of the artist. Anyone who can turn a prosthetic leg into a thing of exquisite beauty deserves the utmost admiration. I thoroughly recommend going to see this wonderful exhibition.
I went at the weekend and found it interesting but not something that I loved. I too have a long acquaintance with Frida Kahlo’s work – it’s over thirty years since I first studied American labor history in which Rivera and Kahlo have more than a walk on part and then as a PhD student in the late 80s/90s when one of my PhD colleagues was writing his thesis on Trotsky in Mexico. I was thrilled to see the colour footage of Trotsky with Kahlo but there was so little context given to this and her political journey. Also I have a long standing (both academic and personal) interest in religious relics and their display which is what made me slightly uncomfortable looking at the pill bottles and the like. Finally, as someone badly injured by being hit by a car and who consequently spends a lot of time camouflaging my deformed and painful leg (dressmaking is such a help here – being able to lengthen things or widen trouser legs to cope with the lump where bone grafts and metalwork meet) it may have just been a little too close for comfort. But the textiles were beautiful. I didn’t think the exhibition was tacky or commercial or depressing – just very limited. I guess it was true to the idea of ‘Making Herself Up’ but I feel that it could have gone so much further in its depiction of what the self meant to Frida without becoming overly analytical. I would have been interested to see what an institution like the Wellcome Collection (who had a very fine exhibition of Mexican votive paintings in 2012) would have done with the same archival material to draw on.
The exhibition does not seem to have captured her joy de vivre despite her pain and physical limitations and that’s sad as she was, and is still, inspirational to many. Without the expression of the lighter more joyous aspect of her character her camouflage and artistic expression of her disabilities might appear poignant and sad especially viewed from a modern perspective.
Thanks for your email, I’m looking forward to reading your book.
Thanks for the review. In the early 90’s I visited Mexico a couple of times.
A friend and I went to Mexico City and the area near by where Kahlo, Rivera and Trotsky lived. Thinking back to the time I think Kahlo’s house was closed to visitors as items had been taken away for an exhibition. What I do really remember is Trotsky’s house. I was always interested in Russian history surrounding the 1917 revolution and seeing his recognizable round glasses still on his desk was fascinating. The area where they lived was so beautiful and tranquil compared to the bustle of Mexico City not far away. I have a colourful print by Rivera on my dining room wall with dancers in traditional dress.
Oh, how I love those last photos of each of you blending in with the paintings – talk about joie de vivre!
A great write-up, thank you Kate. My mum took me to a Diego Rivera exhibition in 1986 (or 87 – it was winter!) but I don’t remember any mention there of his wife or her work so this 21 century interest in Frida is I think well overdue. What an original she was, bold and unafraid to tread her own path. I saw her exhibition at the Tate (with my own daughter) and have worried lately that this belated fascination borders on idolatry but I love wearing my Frida-printed clothes and they often attract comments from strangers (always women).
What fun one could have making a Frida-inspired huipil! I think I’d need a peasant skirt too to go with.
There was an exhibit of Frieda Kahlo’s photographs, and photographs of her, not too long ago near me. What was most wonderful was the way that Latina women of all ages dressed up in Frida style. It was not a costume, but an homage. I loved this as much as the exhibit.
Many years ago my husband and I spent a couple weeks in Oaxaca – what a beautiful and inspiring place. Seeing you and your friend in the embroidered blouses brings back so many memories.
Time for you to plan a trip, perhaps?
I think you are right. It is good to hear your feedback. Many UK people go to the touristic coastal areas which sound fairly horrid, and my Mum said the pollution in Mexico city was stifling. So Oaxaca – I shall certainly consider it now. Thank you.
While I am too far away to visit the UK exhibit, just reading about it and seeing the clothes reminds me of movies I have seen about Frida. She certainly lived life in a big way not allowing her disabilities to take over. Thanks for sharing you time there and I do look forward to your next blog about her clothes. How is your book selling, speaking of women who made their mark in history?
Thank you for the treat ! Sometimes, we get to gawk at things through someone else’s eyes, and I am grateful for the opportunity!
Oaxaca has it all…higher altitude so less steamy climate, a fascinating archeological site (Monte Alban), fabulous food, a terrific anthropology museum, lots of options for day trips out of the city….. I do recall a slightly white knuckle landing at the airport, not unusual with mountain airports (and I am a nervous flyer…..). Its been 34 years since I have been there of course.
I did look it up and it still looks amazing. I couldn’t initially find an easy or affordable way to visit. But I am definitely hooked on the idea. Thanks!
we had to fly to Mexico City (DF) and connect to a flight to Oaxaca, as I recall. There seem to be more in the way of vacation rental apartments. BnB type things, etc, then there were years ago……but yes, its a trek.
I’m hoping to get along next weekend when I visit my daughter. I know little of her background (other than what has been reported along with info about the exhibition) so I’m going with a totally open mind. Thanks for your views on it.