Photo: Nickolas Muray, 1939

‘Everybody thinks they know Frida, but actually they don’t know her at all,’ Claire Wilcox senior curator at the V&A has said. My Frida knowledge is hazy, I’m not going to pretend otherwise. I know all the usual stuff: contracted polio at a young age (six), suffered ill health throughout her life, had a monobrow, became a feminist icon. But before the V&A’s new Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up exhibition, I don’t think I’d realised quite how much the Mexican artist’s life and art were connected. How much her disability fed into her work and her image.

Frida Kahlo: self portrait, 1948

At 18, Kahlo was involved in a near-fatal bus crash that fractured her spine and pelvis, a handrail pierced her body damaging her uterus; subsequent medical complications meant Kahlo was unable to have children. Her right leg, shortened by polio, was broken in the accident and the ankle dislocated. She never fully recovered and wore a medical corset on and off for the rest of her life.

Image via

While bedridden Kahlo started started to paint, using a mirror attached to the ceiling of her four-poster bed she focused on self-portraiture. The crash together with Kahlo’s interest in Mexican traditional costume, shaped her identity and the way she dressed.

Photo: Leo Matiz, 1943.

In 1953, her gangrenous right leg was amputated below the knee – and movingly, the prosthetic limb is on display at the Making Her Self Up exhibition. For me, the final two rooms at the V&A are the highlight. Displays of Kahlo’s medicines, makeup – her Revlon ‘Ebony’ eyebrow pencil, red lipsticks and nail polish –  together with orthopaedic aids, underline the suffering and the carefully constructed style. The medical corset made of plaster and painted by Kahlo, numerous braces used to support her damaged spine, red leather boots decorated with bows, silk and embroidery. And the final room containing Frida Kahlo’s striking outfits: the full-length tiered skirts used to disguise her disability, the embroidered Tehuana garments and chunky handmade necklaces; together with photographs of the artist – some taken by her photographer father Guillermo Kahlo.

There were one or two Kahlo-a-likes floating around the campus when I was at college, and the outfit below really took me back and emphasized the artist’s influence on fashion, as well as feminism.

This rare archive of Kahlo’s belongings had been locked away in a room at the Blue House, where she lived with Diego Rivera. Discovered over half a century after her death, the items have never left Mexico before. The Making Her Self Up exhibition shows over 200 objects and offers a fascinating insight into Kahlo’s life, art and identity. It’s a must-see, whether you know the artist or not.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up is on until 4 November 2018. And there’s an interesting piece on the V&A website: Unlocking Frida Kahlo’s wardrobe.

19 thoughts on “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A

  1. That looks like an amazing exhibit, Alyson. I know little about art, and I love it when exhibits also include lots of biographical information. Last summer I visited a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit in Toronto, and it included detail about her life and even her iconic style. And since I can’t take in the Khalo exhibit… maybe I’ll do some reading about her. I mean, like you say, we all know a little bit about her… but in my case that’s very little. I should remedy that.

  2. Thank you so much for this review. She was an inspiration and a rare entity, a talented, creative feminine woman who combined her love of costume, cosmetics and all things womanly with being an artist. Her suffering both mental and physical must have been immense, but her legacy leaves all this shining and beautiful art for us to enjoy. Been looking forward to this and although I live at the other end of the country am definitely going to go.

  3. Clearly Alyson we were on the same wavelength writing and thinking about this Frida Kahlo exhibition. I agree about the most interesting rooms being the one containing the corsets makeup and the actual clothing accompanied by her jewellery and photographs and paintings of her in these outfits. The outfits made a statement about indigenous Mexico as well as allowing her to wear lose comfortable clothing, albeit in lovely fabrics suited to a warm climate, and permitted her to cover up her body casts and withered and later artificial leg. She chose to focus on the positive with long swishing skirts and carefully arranged hair and made-up face. This was definitely the work of an artist who was creating a definite image for herself. And one that endures still See it if you can and/or look at the V &A website where the catalogue can be ordered as well as related merchandise. Many beautiful handwoven sashes available which could spruce up a plain cotton dress like those at Toast .

  4. She’s been one of my favorite artists for many years and have visited her homes in Mexico City a few times. I do know quite a bit of her history and life, and how they both affected the way she presented herself to the world, and her art, so deeply. I would love to see this exhibit.

    1. Casa Azul was my reason for visiting Mexico City. It’s a beautiful compound in a charming neighborhood. Those details of her life—the cast and braces, her cosmetics, the hospital bed and bottles and bottles of pills, the carefully curated folkloric ensembles—were heartbreaking. The, together with her amazing self-reflective paintings tell her story.

  5. Those old Revlon nail polish bottles with the wand handles! I remember those from when I was a little girl.

  6. Love the look of the exhibition, my son lost his leg on an accident and his resilience like Frida is marvellous, he is going come with me to see the exibit as he is fasinated6by het girlie and prosthetic leg. The old cliche out of ugly things come wonderful things is very true.

  7. I recommend watching the movie “Frida” starring Salma Hayek who also co-produced it. (2002). One of my all time favorite movies.

  8. Wow, talk about black florals! That black skirt she’s wearing really rings my bell.

    Loving Frida’s style, as I’ve always done, I wonder (given my knickers-in-a-knot post the other day about Glamorous Instagram Grandmas) if back in Frida’s day I might have been one of those who thought she was Trying Too Hard.

    Sigh. Self-reflection is a bitch. 😉

    1. Same here, Ann. I think I was probably quite scathing about the Kahlo-a-likes at college but the V&A room with all the outfits in is wonderful and had me wanting to be ‘more Frida.’ Maybe I’ll start wearing more colour and embroidery…

  9. I love Frida Kahlo and everything surrounding her fascinating and stoic life. I have fridge magnets of Frida, prints by Frida and books by Frida in my home. She was, in many ways, inspirational as a woman – despite loving and coping with Diego. I went to an exhibition at the Tate in 2005 the day after the dreadful bus bombing in 2005. London galleries were virtually deserted and I pored over the minutiae of the paintings, astounded at their colour, content and pure beauty. Frida was probably not the best artist in the world but she poured her heart, soul and pain into them. I could not be more excited that I am going to see the exhibition at the V&A next week – alone – where I can spend all day if I want to and read everything (twice!).

  10. Another book I hope to be able to afford is Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, 2008, Carlos Phillips Olmedo. Since the book for the V&A is only 50, I’ll get that one for now. Not as nice as attending the show, but a lot less expensive than traveling there. Sadly.

  11. To make the story of her life even more interesting, she had a short and intense love affair with Leon Trotsky; this is portrayed in a beautiful book named “El hombre que amaba a los perros” (“The man who loved dogs”), written by Leonardo Padura. I don´t know if it’s available in english but I highly recommend it.

  12. Like Maudie I also saw the Frida Kahlo paintings at Tate Modern. So I had a good idea of her themes and styles of paintings. And saw the biographical film produced by and staring Selma Hayek. This new exhibition adds another dimension to one’s knowledge of the artist.
    It even contains a film clip of Trotsky speaking alongside other photographs.
    Maudie enjoy your visit to V & A as I did mine.

    1. I enjoyed the Selma Hayek film but it didn’t quite hit the spot for me. Can’t wait until my visit this week!

  13. Thanks for this post. I read Hayden Herrera’s biography of Frida, and it’s a great book that I recommend to everyone. I love the pictures of her dresses. I would fly over to London in a nano-second to see this show. Oh that it were possible.

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