The first words that come to mind when I think of Frida Kahlo: painter, feminist, artist, and proud Mexican. I think about the influence she brought and still brings to artists, especially those within the Latino community.
Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) recently opened up a new exhibition titled Frida Kahlo Making Her Self Up displaying Kahlo’s personal artifacts and clothing. However, I did not expect the name of the exhibition to be taken so literally with her pill bottles, ointments, makeup, aspirin, vitamins, and nail polish on display.
Although Kahlo suffered from polio as a child and was involved in a bus accident that left her with multiple fractures and a lifelong disability, Frida was known for the courageous way in which she channeled her pain into her artwork and the emphasis of this exhibition is more on her memorabilia than her actual work.
But, would she want the contents of her medical cabinet in an exhibition dedicated to her?
The exhibition was curated and designed by Gibson Thornley Architects and theatre designer Tom Scutt, whose aim is to take visitors through Kahlo’s Mexican home ‘The Blue House.’
As you enter, you are met with soft electronic music and blue lighting shining on a big white column that has an inverted black and white photo of Frida laying in bed wearing a traditional Tehuana dress.
When you make your way through the side of the column to embark on the journey of Kahlo’s life, you face a long white narrow hallway that displays portraits of her background, her father and upbringing, family life, and culture. The majority of the portraits are black and white with standardized caption cards explaining the cultural context behind it.
Matt Thornley, director at Gibson Thornley Architects, said the exhibition “promises to offer a unique window into the life of Frida Kahlo, exploring her life and work in a sensitive and personal way.”
Moving further down the hallway was quite difficult, due to the large crowd in such a tight space, all of us trying to read and see the photographs, paintings, and immerse themselves in the AV experiences. Perhaps the designers did not expect so much interest here. So, the space is used poorly.
In the middle of the hallway, we start to see more of Frida’s personal work. For instance, her piece ‘Gringolandia’ resembles what she disliked about the United States although she made great friends, connections, and took the opportunities presented to her for work.
Kahlo did not enjoy being away from Mexico and this piece illustrates those feelings. The reaction among the viewers including myself slightly chuckled while reading the title of the piece and the irony in her dislike for the United States but still choosing to have worked and shown her art there.
At the end of the narrow hall, the space enlarges into a rectangular shape with your eyes meeting two mannequins sitting down behind a glass door that resembles Frida with her iconic braids. The mannequins are modeling pieces of her traditional Mexican dress; this part was titled ‘Locked Wardrobe’. This is supposed to be a recreation of one of her most powerful self-portraits, The Two Fridas 1939, which was completed after her divorce from Diego Rivera.
The portrait shows Frida’s two different personalities, one with a broken heart dressed in Tehuana costume, sitting and holding hands with an independent, modern-dressed Frida. They both have visible hearts and the heart of the traditional Frida is cut and torn open with blood dripping onto the white dress.
However, the exhibit’s recreation contains no open hearts, blood, or emotion. It is simply a showcase of her wardrobe with no added significance to her artistry.
Drawing people to the middle of the room is a stand illustrating the blueprints to Kahlo’s Mexican home “Casa Azul” or “The Blue House.” On the right wall, a caption card details the significance of “The Blue House” and how Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, renovated and painted it blue to represent their Mexican heritage. Photos and portraits of Frida and the house cover the walls as well as photographs of her on a New York City rooftop in colorful Mexican clothes while smoking a cigarette.
I personally thought the photographs of Kahlo in New York City felt out of place in this section, because it mostly emphasized her life and home in Mexico with Rivera. However, I could see how the curators placement creates a juxtaposition between Frida’s self-portraits and how she saw herself with photographs taken of her from someone else’s point of view.
Exiting this segment to the left, there’s an entrance into the next room (which I call the “red room”), where the walls transition from white to red. The same music that was playing can be heard projecting out of the speakers into this room.
The small square space contains portraits and paintings of Frida and in the middle of the room, a large clear rectangular case contains one of her morrales (bag), a pair of earrings, a shawl, and a blue beaded jade necklace from an ancient Mayan site that Rivera acquired with his pre-Colombian art collection.
This bead necklace caught my attention because the beads used to be part of a classic Mayan burial practice of placing jade in the mouth of dead Mayan lords. They believe it takes the breath, soul, and spirit of the person. Frida loved to be in tune with her heritage and I presume she knew where they came from and the history attached to them.
Walking out of the red room and entering the blue room, you are met with six twin beds each with four big white leg posts that serve as display cases. Each case holds different personal belongings; for instance, hair accessories, nail clippers, a sewing box, and perfume.
It is no coincidence that the curators placed the majority of her intimate objects in the blue room as it represents her home, Casa Azul. One case exhibited the Lithograph, (1932 Detroit), the single corset she made after her miscarriage, accompanying the corset were anatomical and Aztec manuscripts.
The walls were filled with photos of her, some with the belongings shown in the room, letters from and to her doctor/friends, and the back wall projected black and white photos of her. This felt like she was watching us look through her personal items, and it made me quite uncomfortable as if I was invading her space.
Another bedpost showcased her prosthetic leather lace-up boot (1953, Mexico) that inspired a similar boot featured in Dolce & Gabbana’s spring 2013 collection. Her crutches (1954, Mexico) were also shown creating the full picture of how her illness affected her life but through art, she found meaning and healing.
Exiting the blue room into a black hallway with a color-changing ceiling that moves with the rhythm of the music playing there are a couple of photographs of Frida topless. This caused a different sensation of shock from some of the previous items like the corset and her prosthetic leg. I think people, including myself, didn’t expect to see photos of Frida topless in this exhibition, but their placement allows the viewer to end with the visual of a bare, exposed, and vulnerable Frida, yet acknowledge that her body empowered her and she tried to accept it despite at times not feeling feminine enough.
The end of the hallway leads you into this grand open room and the first thing that your eyes make contact with is a massive display of Kahlo look-alike mannequins with her iconic braid, wearing her traditional Tehuanas, huipils (tunic), shawls, and skirts. Surrounding this huge presentation were modern self-portraits, her paintings, screens sharing videos/images of her life in Mexico and cases displaying her shell bangles, more jade necklaces, and silver jewelry. People were paying more attention to her clothes and gasping at her jewelry than interpreting her actual paintings.
Will Gompertz, BBC, states that we are fixated on Kahlo’s personality which obscures us from focusing on her art, but “it’s become more apparent that with Kahlo there is no separation between art and artist: they are one and the same.”
Fashion was a big part of Kahlo’s life and she was constantly adorned with jewelry, therefore, its display in this exhibition makes sense but it should not have taken primacy over her artwork.
The last corner of the room contained another mannequin resembling Frida who is staring at her reflection, wearing a white huipil dress, her braid decorated with flowers, and with rings on her fingers.
This is how her family and friends presented her when she passed and was to be buried, which takes you a bit by surprise as you were just staring at her jewelry. I believe it intended to impact the viewer and leave them feeling uncomfortable or closer to her as they did see every aspect of her life including what she looked like on her deathbed.
So to answer the question, would Frida want the contents of her medical cabinet in an exhibition dedicated to her?
The answer is yes, the effect of the atmosphere of the exhibition was interesting in that people were behaving as if they had come back from her funeral into her home and started looking around. Their body language resembled that of funeral behavior with lots of whispering, hands clasped together and heads bowed down. Considering this, it was fitting that the final piece tied the whole message of the exhibition together.#Frida Kahlo