05 November 2018, Victoria and Albert Museum
"Who was Frida Kahlo? It is not possible to find an exact answer. So contradictory and multiple was the personality of this woman, that it may be said that many Fridas existed. Perhaps none of them was the one she wanted to be."
- Alejandro Gomez Arias
When I first tried to get tickets for this exhibition, every single day was sold out. I'm talking about weekdays at 10am where everyone is supposed to be at work. And yet there I was, on a Wednesday at 9:30, waiting for the doors of the Vitoria and Albert to open only to find out that there were no visits available anymore..
I think destiny just wanted me to go because a couple of weeks later I managed to get a ticket. The exhibition had been so spectacularly popular that it got extended for two more weeks. I actually got an alert on my phone from the V&A's newsletter at about 4 a.m. and I just happened to be having trouble going back to bed that night. I bought my ticket immediately. It came at the perfect time because by the next day the they were all sold out again. So I settled for an early Monday morning, no longer expecting to have the exhibition all to myself.
So on the morning of the 5th of November I was rushing up exhibition road, crossing lights in red and almost crashing into the glass doors of the V&A (thank god they were open). I carefully avoided the alluring gift shop, managed to shoot through the sculpture gallery without knocking any over and finally made it to my destination... I can't say I was surprised to see I had to wait in a queue just to get inside the first room of the exhibition. However, once I was in, it was like nothing else existed.
As I entered, I was welcomed by a room veiled in a sapphire blue light. I did not know about Frida as much as I do now, but I was familiar with her home in Mexico, known as La Casa Azul (The Blue House). At the top, there is an enlarged photograph of Frida in bed, seemingly at peace. It may or may not have been the curators' intention, but it was almost like Frida was expecting to welcome us into her home, like she welcomed so many others through out her life time.
I had so many questions before my visit; why Frida remains such an intriguing character today, why her exhibitions sell out so quickly, why she's been an iconic figure to so many people... I want to use this article to give these questions some answers and create an understanding about the fascination with her character. There is no way to summarize all my research so I have settled to publish it into two parts. And as I sit at my desk, with a playlist of Paco de Lucia and the soundtrack to the motion picture, Frida, in the background, I struggle to put all my thoughts into words.
Family and childhood
A part of the exhibition is dedicated to Frida's father, Guillermo, and his career as a photographer. The portraits taken of his daughter show that they had a very close relationship, perhaps brought on by their common interest in art and her assistance and engagement with her father's profession.
Guillermo himself has a unique background; he was born in Germany as Wilhelm Kahlo, and when he was 18 he emigrated to Mexico, encourage by the pro-european regime of Porfirio Diaz, President of Mexico between 1876 to 1880 and from 1884 to 1911. Frida's mother, Matilde, was was of Spanish and Zapotec Indian decent; the Zapotec people were the indigenous community from the area of Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Oaxaca. This culture was dominated by women nd well known to being a "matriarchal society". They are a subject of much interest in the exhibition because Frida's image and presentation to the world drew a lot of influence from this culture.
Matilde was actually Guillermo's second wife. From his previous marriage, he had three daughters but, upon their mother's death in childbirth, they were raised in a convent. Guillermo married Matilde in 1898 and had Frida and Cristina. In the family photographs, you can certainly see the resemblance of Frida with her parents; she has her father's forehead and chin, both featuring heavily accented eyebrows, and yet her eyes are penetrating and almond shaped like her mother's.
La Casa Azul
The exhibition starts by leading the visitor down a white corridor. On the walls, there are black and white photographs, each grouped together to represent a different part of her life. Each section is separated by a frame of white, geometric patterns, very similar to the patterns on the limestone of the walls of ancient Mexican ruins. Many of these were photographed by Edward Weston, who became a lover, friend and iconic portrayer of Kahlo.
Further ahead in the exhibition, at the end of the main corridor, the space features background sounds of birds and insects, similar to those you can hear in the rich nature of Mexico's fauna. It has wonderful footage of La Casa Azul, now The Frida Kahlo Museum; you get a sense of serenity from the lively garden in the central patio of the house. It is filled with strikingly green cacti, succulents and vegetation that stand out against the bright, cobalt blue walls of the house, with their brick coloured window frames, green beams and grey, granite columns. You can also see this very clearly in the opening scene of the 2002 biopic by Julie Taymor, Frida.
Upon Frida's death in 1954, her mourning husband, Diego Rivera, instructed for all her belongings to be locked up in her private bathroom in La Casa Azul. It was not opened until 2004 and all her possessions were discovered. The Frida Kahlo Museum spent years cataloguing the items and they have been exhibited around Mexico. This is the first time they are displayed outside the country.
Frida was born in 1907 in the village of Coyoacan, now a municipality of Mexico City. She grew up in La Casa Azul, ironically located on Calle Londres 247 (London Street), and during her childhood, the house was decorated in the traditional European style. When she finally moved back to the house with Diego in 1930, they changed the entire setting including painting the walls in the cobalt blue colour for which it is so well known today. The house originally only had one floor, however Frida and Diego enlarged the building with the volcanic rock of the area and refurbished the interiors to accommodate their art works. These included a vast collection of votive paintings and pre-columbian figurines which provide much of the inspiration for many of her own paintings.
Illness and accident
In order to begin understanding the nature of the exhibition, it is essential to learn about the backdrop of Frida's life, framed by a difficult childhood as well as the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). These two aspects shaped her mind set, her art and her self-reflection and helped her create her own image. She was extremely proud of her mixed heritage, passionate about her country and culture, and pushed herself to overcome all the limits of her physical conditions. Despite her poor-health, she proved to be by no means a fragile woman, neither in body nor spirit.
Further ahead into the gallery, there is a sound in the background of quiet bells, almost like the sound of crickets at night. It is very appealing for the darkened atmosphere of the room and the subject matter at hand. Since the space was very full, I was very picky with the way I carried out my visit. There was a hoard of people crowding around the section with photographs of her family, so I purposefully went to the quietest side of the room, where I learned about her health issues.
At the age of six, in 1913, Frida contracted Polio, an infectious disease that attacks the nervous system, particularly of young children who have not yet reached puberty. Today, children are given a vaccine against it, but back in the day there was no cure. As a consequence, Frida developed one leg shorter than the other and had to get shoes especially made for her with one foot with a higher wooden heel. Polio had her confined to bed for months and, during this period, she invented an imaginary friend to keep her company. There is a diary entry written by Frida on display that I was extremely lucky to be able to read myself in Spanish. The entry is dated from around 1944-45, (although the actual diary page reads "Pinzon, 1950"). In this entry, she still recalls this friendship with tenderness in her adulthood, making a very sweet remark of it's memory:
"It has been 34 years since that friendship and each time I remember it, it is revived and verified more in world".
I love this passage because, knowing the different accents between Castilian Spanish and Latin American Spanish, I can hear melodious voice with a gentle accent; it is gentle and poetic as oppose to Spanish of mid-land Spain. Rather than showing a distraught child suffering from loneliness and pain, she expresses her joy during these years of her life despite having to deal with a sickness at such a young age.
This friendship was also an inspiration for her well known painting, The Two Fridas, from 1939. The exhibition features a recreation of this painting at the end of the main corridor, although the darker figure is seated on the left instead of the right.
Later, in 1925, Frida suffered a nearly fatal accident in Mexico on a lobby. It killed her partner at the time, Alejandro, and caused her permanent, physical damage that would affect her through out the rest of her life. It was during the recovery of this accident that she began painting, and some of the most stunning photographs in the exhibition are taken during her periods of convalescence between surgeries. In fact, in the photograph at the entrance of the exhibition she seems to be resting, but is in fact recovering from a difficult surgery in 1943.
In spite of it all, Frida was not one to suffer from her difficulties; she turned her corsets into canvases, infatuated both men and women, a became a muse to artists from all over the world. In an interview with Hayden Herrera in 1977, one of her lovers, Julian Levy, claimed to be "totally infatuated with [her]". She was a woman, revolutionary, artist, wife, lover. She was tempestuous, unique, vibrant, contradictory and unconventionally beautiful. All in all, there are more that just two Frida's, but rather an infinite number of them, and she herself legendary.
I loved this exhibition because is not a mere presentation of Frida's life or a study of her works, but rather a reflection of the woman herself, how she shaped her own image, strength and future. There were photographs of her childhood, her family, intimate drawings, personal possessions of beauty, jewellery, and necklaces assembled by Frida herself. Don't expect to see a collection of her paintings or learn about the intimacy and variety of love affairs, including those with women, nor the affair that Diego had with her younger sister, Cristina, which led to their divorce in 1939. In fact the exhibition avoids all these aspects. It remains neutral about her personal relations with family and husband and instead focuses rather on a more personal reflection of this extraordinary woman's will to live.
The photo credits and information provided in this article have been taken from the exhibition catalogue, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, Edited by Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa, V&A Publishing, 2018.