Socialist Worker

Frida Kahlo’s layers on show at V&A exhibition, but her politics are suppressed

by Sarah Bates
Issue No. 2609

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America (Pic: Frida Kahlo, 1932 (c) Modern Art International Foundation (Courtesy María and Manuel Reyero))


Frida Kahlo’s carefully constructed private, public and professional identity is thoroughly unpicked in a new exhibition, Making Her Self Up.

Given how central politics was to Kahlo’s life and work, it’s a shame more is not made of her commitment to Marxism.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the V&A, managed by that crosser of picket lines Tristram Hunt, doesn’t focus on Kahlo’s revolutionary politics. Nevertheless, it’s a sanitisation of Kahlo’s legacy.

In 2004, Kahlo’s bedroom was opened, after being sealed for fifty years following her death in 1954. In it were 6,000 photos and over 300 personal possessions, some of which are on display here alongside her artwork for the first time.

At times it’s a painfully intimate look at her life—Kahlo’s prosthetic leg is here, as are her corsets, medicine and make up.

Kahlo’s personal effects show, perhaps more starkly than her paintings, her determination to control her environment.

So the prosthetic leg is dressed in luxurious red leather and a plaster corset, which was medically necessary, but elaborately decorated.

Kahlo was influenced by the Mexican revolution of her childhood. It’s this legacy that shaped a new generation of artists who fostered a deep sense of pride in the country’s customs and history.

Mexico is a running theme throughout her work. Many of her paintings have distinctive Mexican architecture or imagery.

One of the most notable elements of Kahlo’s artistic output was her wardrobe. There are lots of images in the show of the artist in traditional Mexican traditional dresses.

Display 

The display of her dresses is a highlight of the exhibition.

The vibrant colours and heavy textiles of her clothes collection creates a breathtakingly beautiful effect. And a Tuhuana headdress, made of reams of white lace and pink ribbon, is displayed alongside a self-portrait of Kahlo wearing it.

But among the most interesting pieces is her artwork—and one of the most striking paintings is Henry Ford Hospital.

Created shortly after a miscarriage, Kahlo lies naked and vulnerable in a bed. Floating around her are symbols of fertility and nature—one of these is a foetus. It’s a stark contrast to the defiant character of so many of her other self-portraits.

Kahlo used art to deal with this bereavement, one of many other losses, for the rest of her life. But Kahlo is more than someone who overcame adversity—her art still has power to touch.

An intimate painting from 1949 shows Kahlo in the lap of the Mexican god of nature, cradling her husband Diego Rivera in her arms.

The collection is a fitting tribute to Kahlo—someone too often dismissed as a narcissist or reduced to her relationships with men.

The exhibition is excellent, and those wanting to find out more from one of the 20th century’s most influential artists should go to see it.

Frida Kahlo—Making Her Self Up until 4 November.
Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW6 2RL

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