Thursday 27 September 2018

Frida Kahlo at the V&A by Janie Hampton

Frida Kahlo 1907-1954 

Image courtesy of Museo Frida Kahlo.
© Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México. 
My oldest grand-daughter, Matilda, is 9 and a self-confessed ‘Victorian Expert.’ So for a summer holiday treat we went to the Victoria & Albert museum in London. After splashing in the fountain and admiring the Victorian frocks, we queued for the Frida Kahlo exhibition.
Matilda was fascinated by the surreal self-portraits with Kahlo’s signature mono-brow, painted using a mirror attached to her bed. After a near-fatal bus crash at 18 years, she was in constant pain and unable to walk. ‘She was a woman that suffered many injuries but who was able to transform this pain into art,’ wrote Hilda Trujillo, Director of the Museo Frida Kahlo. 
“I’d rather sit on the floor of the market of Toluca,” said Kahlo,
“and sell tortillas than have anything to do with those artistic bitches.”
Now her image sells like hot tortillas. photo Nikolas Muray, 1939.
As well as Kahlo’s own distinctive paintings, the exhibition includes masses of votives - small, primitive paintings on tin. Mexican Catholics with sick relatives hoped that by placing them in a church, the relatives would recover. I wondered if this would also work in the V&A? Though most had presumably died already. 
When Kahlo herself died in 1954, all her possessions were locked in a bathroom at her home, La Casa Azul, in Mexico City by her husband, the artist Diega Rivera, (1886 –1957). By the time it was finally opened in 2004, she was already a cult figure, so everything was conserved to archaeological standards. Trujillo wondered if it was right to intrude after so long. ‘At times I thought I wasn't entitled to do this, that no-one was. However, it was also important to restore, rescue the letters and photographs [which] had been left as they were, frozen in time.’ They have yet to restore all the 22,000 documents and 300 items of Frida's clothing and textiles.
However, many are now on display at the V&A, having left Mexico for the first time. Being housebound, Kahlo painted everything around her, including the plaster corsets she had to wear to support her spine. It’s sad to see the one she painted with an unborn baby– knowing that she never bore a live child.
Kahlo’s laced boots are gorgeous - red leather, with stacked platform heels and Chinese embroidery along the side. But one boot is prominently displayed on the prosthetic leg she wore for the last year of her life. Would she have liked that? She didn’t show off about her disabilities and wore long skirts to cover her polio-damaged legs, even when she still had two. 
Art, fashion or function?
Would Kahlo have approved? Photograph Javier Hinojosa.
© Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México,
There is something voyeuristic about the glass case containing her ‘Everything’s Rosy’ red lipstick and her empty Revlon nail varnish bottles, displayed like a saint’s relics. Was that the point the curators were making? That despite her rejection of Catholicism, she used its imagery and iconography repeatedly in her work. We admired the self-portrait featuring a white lace ruff framing the face. Also on display is an excerpt from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1930 film Que Viva Mexico! which shows that these holánes were worn by women at church weddings in the Tehuantepec region of Southern Mexico. 
Kahlo’s colourful and eccentric image has been appropriated
by feminists, fashion designers, artists and souvenir factories.
Photo: Robin Richmond, 2018
Kahlo often chose to wear the rich Tehuana costume - pre-Columbian jewelry, fringed rebozos (shawls), embroidered huipiles (square-cut tops) and long, gathered enaguas (skirts). Her striking appearance was a political statement to show she identified with the oppressed indigenous Mexicans. But as Robin Richmond, author of  Frida Kahlo in Mexico says, ‘Frida was no Tehuana. She was the well-educated, literary daughter of an Hungarian intellectual. Under her vast petticoats Frida was a shy damaged person who hid a tragic soul under this mantle of disguise.’

‘In Mexico now, Frida is everywhere. On children’s knapsacks.
On wallets. On handbags. On shopping bags. On socks. On Barbie Dolls.
On the 500 peso bill. On tortilla packets,’ says Richmond. photo: Robin Richmond, 2018
All the rooms in the V&A exhibition are small and rather dark. Emerging into the light, Matilda was shocked by the gift shop where you can buy a pair of 1950s gold sunglasses quite like Kahlo’s, for £150. Richmond agrees, ‘I think she would have been horrified. She hated exploitation of any kind according to Arturo Garcia Bustos and Rina Lazo from Oaxaca, friends of mine who knew her very well.’ Cheapest at £1 is a badge that says ‘I am my own muse’. Fine for Kahlo to say it, but what does it mean when anyone else wears it? And if you were your own muse, wouldn’t you make your own badge? The things ‘inspired’ by Kahlo and made by artists who are obviously not their own muses, are terrible, especially the caricatures of her self-portraits. An ‘easy to wear’ fuchsia headdress was pretty, but it cost £245. Matilda and I went home and settled down to make our own for a couple of quid. 
Cultural appropriation, or a grand-daughter dressing up?
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up runs at the V&A, South Kensington, until 4 November 2018. 

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