Part II: Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up

05 November 2018, Victoria and Albert Museum

Guillermo Kahlo, Frida Kahlo and Family, 1926, Throckmorton Fine Art, New York

Frida Kahlo had a natural tendency cause a sensation from a very early age. Before she started to create her own image, she already made a point of standing out wherever possible. For starters, she decided to be called by her German name, Frida, as oppose to Magdalena or Carmen, the more traditional Spanish names of Mexico. She also began to experiment wearing men's clothes to challenge tradition; in a family photograph, from 1926, she wears a three piece suit and hair combed back to resemble that of a man's.

Frida Kahlo, elf Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States, 1932, Philadelphia Museum of Art

This is just one example of how Frida responded to the shifting position of Mexico after the Revolution and her role as a woman. She always had an interest in depicting herself as different people. For instance, in Self Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States, from 1932, she is painted at the center of the canvas in a pale pink dress. Underneath her character, there is a plinth with an inscription that reads "Carmen Rivera painted her portrait in the year 1932". Perhaps this was an attempt to depict her usual vibrant personality as a completely different Frids; a muted, young woman called Carmen (her first name) Rivera (her husband's surname) who feels stuck between two cultures.

The Revolution

When I left the exhibition there was still so much I wanted to know; Diego's past life, their personal affairs, the rise of the Mexican Revolution. I wanted more details so I decided to buy the catalogue and watch the biopic Frida, which is based on a very intimate biography of Frida written by Hayden Herrera. It illustrates the personal relations with her family; the closeness with her father and eldest sister, the sense of betrayal when she discovers her's and Diego's infidelity, and the tense relationship with a mother that cannot understand her spirited daughter. It gave me a better understanding of her tempestuous relation with her husband and the reason for all the affairs with some of the men featured in the exhibition, including Julian Levy and Edward Weston.

After she recovered from her accident, Frida joined the Mexican Communist Party (Partido Comunista Mejicano) in 1927. Through a mutual friend, the Italian-American photographer, Tina Modotti, Frida and Diego became reacquainted in 1928 and began a relationship that would last until the end of her life. They shared an ardent passion for art, rebellion and their country. More than anything though, they were passionate about each other despite their twenty year age gap. She had previously met him when Diego was first commissioned by José Vasconcelos, the Minister of Education, to produce Creation (La Creation), a mural produced at Frida's school, National Preparatory School, in 1922.

Frida Kahlo, La Adelita, Pancho Villa y Frida, 1927, Oil on canvas mounted on board, 65 x 45 cm. Tlaxcalteca Institute of Culture

By this year, the Mexican revolution had finished. It brought huge political and social changes to the country. In the ten years of it's duration, emerging, local artists became heavily influenced by the main leaders of the uprisings; Francisco "Pancho" Villa, leader of the Northern Division, and Emiliano Zapata, Leader of the Liberation Army of the south. Both men were from humble origins who made a name for themselves fighting for their country and their beliefs. Frida painted La Adelita Pancho Villa and Frida in their honor; it features a portrait of Pancho Villa at the back and she has depicted herself at the center of the painting as Adelita, famous woman soldier from a Mexican folklore poem of the same name.

Furthermore, a new growing elite was rising and invested hugely in the realm of art and, at the center, were the three most important artists of this period; Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. It was thanks to Jose Vasconcelos, also the Director of the Secretariat of Public Education, who developed a program of public art that continued to grow through the circles and influence of these three great artists. Education was seen as form of stimulating change and inspiring the people of Mexico to become free thinkers and challenge traditions. Artists like Frida Kahlo are an example of the transformation of art as a purely academic training to a political and social form of communication to masses of people. Rivera gained his reputation by producing mural works that celebrated the heroes and aims of the revolution, promoting pre-Columbian culture and portraying the era before the Revolution as a period of corruption and social decline.


At the end of the main corridor of the exhibition, following the room with The Two Fridas, I walked into another room with a completely different atmosphere; it is cast in a darker light with a more peaceful music and walls painted in burgundy. It has a series of photographs and items of clothing that represent the culture that inspired Frida to construct her unique image. Her own, personal fashion cosnsited of variations of the traditional dresses of the Zapotec women of Isthmus of Tehuantepec. She favored huipils (tunics), morrales (blouses) and long skirts made of cotton and geometric shapes and patterns of bright colors.

Edward Weston's photographs show some beautiful examples the intricate qualities of the items. (The patterns are also reminiscent of the limestone patterns of Mexican temples, also photographed by Weston). This room also features a series of photographs by Tina Modotti of Zapotec women. I don´t quite recall if this particular one is in the exhibition, but the subject is from Tehuantepec. She wears a richly embroidered huipil and poses with determination and grace.

Moving onto the rest of the exhibition, I walked towards a shorter corridor but where I spent a tremendous amount of time. In the first place, there are two beautiful photographs by Guillermo Kahlo of two different buildings in Mexico. They made me completely bypass the series of votive paintings on the opposite wall, which were so favoured by both Frida and Diego. They filled their house with them and these are just a selection of their personal collection. Perhaps I am more familiar with this type of painting due to my Spanish background and have seen them more often. The first photograph is The Metropolitan Cathedral and Tabernacle, from 1922, and Collegiate de Ocotlan, from 1912. They are extremely ornate photographs that seem to bring the structures out of the surface. Every detail of the building seems to have been sculpted directly onto the paper.

The other reason why I spent a long time in here was because I was trying extremely hard to understand the large mural at the end of this tiny hall. I believe it is an enlargement of a negative prior to the development of a photograph, but it is turned on its side. I asked the explainer in the room but he couldn't quite explain it either. It took me a long time to make out the shape, a lot of head tilting and squinting. I even had a couple of visitors cocking their heads like me and still couldn't figure out what it was.

Eventually I began to notice the silhouette of Frida's bare, lower back in her bed. Her black hair tumbles behind her neck and the white bed sheets are pushed down below her waistline. I was able to make out the details of the room, with the flowers on a vase on the nightstand. After buying the catalogue, I understood the image; the photograph in question is from a series taken by Nickolas Muray in New York, in 1946. Frida kept with Murray one of the longest affairs of her life, lasting for nearly ten years. In this picture, she is lying in her bed in Mexico. After a failed operation in New York to cure her back, Frida had to spend many months in bed. Only Frida could manage to create such allure in a situation like that; she was actually recovering from a surgical procedure and seems like she just woke up from a nap.

This photograph depicts another angle of a similar photograph, which is featured on the mural of the gallery room called "Endurance". It is a beautiful portrait; she is smiling sleepily at the camera, her dark hair is (for once) unbound, unadorned, and tumbling over her. She is wearing one of her iconic rebozos (handwoven scarves made in specialist workshops) over her shoulder and her hands have a big ring and red painted nails. I suppose this is as "unadorned" as Frida could ever get...

Florence Arquin, Frida Kahlo, 1941, Gelatin print, 24.13 x 16.51 cm, Throckmorton Fine Art Inc., New York

One thing I that is very powerful in the "Endurance" gallery is how the exhibition makes Frida's amazing personality overshadow all the difficult parts of her life. The photographs by Muray are just one example. At the centre of the exhibition, there are several glass displays. One of them is dedicated exclusively to her medicines, which are directly opposed by the display with all her make up and cosmetics, placed side by side. It's like the direct challenge Frida posed to her poor health, refusing to succumb to its sufferings. The displays with the corsets and prosthetic leg are carefully laid out and don't seem nearly as imposing as they would in any other setting. In fact I've never seen any sort of medical equipment so artfully decorated; her prosthetic leg is cleverly designed as a boot of bright red leather with an embroidered Chinese dragon and flowers, a bell tied to its laces and, of course, a high heel. Her plaster corsets are painted with a multitude of designs and symbols. She was constantly challenging back all the difficulties that life gave her.

The Thousand Fridas

Julian Levy, Frida Kahlo, c. 1938, Strips of Contact Prints, 3.7 2.5 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Just before the final gallery, there is a group of three extraordinary portraits of Frida taken by the art dealer, Julian Levy. The catalogue actually has two pages dedicated to the strips of contact prints of this photo session. Taken in 1938, Frida Kahlo Braiding her Hair is a series of extremely intimate photographs taken the same year Frida had a solo exhibition at Levy's gallery in New York. Each contact print depicts a step of Frida's morning routine. It is a lovely portrayal of this unconventional beauty; heavy dark hair beneath her arms, the faint hint of her mustache and unibrow, and at the same time she is alluring, seductive and confident.

The very last room has a spectacular presentation of a collection of outfits inspired by Mexican dress that have influenced Frida's style and art. It's very similar to the display used in 2014 for the exhibition Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe, held at the Frida Kahlo Museum. They fill the vast room with color and life and is jus just another small representation of the many Frida's I have come to know in the exhibition. These are also accompanied by photographs in which Frida is shown wearing the items. Murray, who remained a close friend of her's until her death, took three shots of Frida wearing a magenta rebozo. This rebozo is displayed in a mannequin just across the series.

The display has another beautiful outfit, not as bright as the rest of them but still exquisitely intricate. A photograph by Florence Arquin in 1948 shows Frida with it.

The exhibition ends with a window of a mannequin wearing a Tehuana dress, consisting of a lace huipil, but this time worn as a head-dress framing the face, almost like a daisy. There are several photographs and self-portraits of Frida wearing the outfit. The mannequin is also facing a mirror, a lovely conclusion to the exhibition and drawing attention to the importance that Frida gave to her presentation, how she constantly viewed herself and developed herself and her image.

If you did not have the opportunity to see the exhibition, I must encourage you to get the catalogue. I cannot stress enough how beautifully written and presented this book is. You will learn even more than from the exhibition, or this article even. There are fantastic texts written by some of the greatest specialists of Frida, as well as Mexican history and art. There are even chapters dedicated exclusively to her jewelry and cosmetics, accompanied by fantastic close up photographs of the pieces. I appreciated them even more in the book because they have a clear background and it's easier to see the colors and the details of the different materials she put together.

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.

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