Work of Art: As a major Frida Kahlo exhibition opens at the V&A, Giulia Rhodes explores
A quick internet search confirms that “Fridamania” remains both undimmed and, it would seem, a commercial goldmine.
So while fans can admire the myriad images of – and by – the artist online, they can also amass Frida Kahlo-emblazoned bags, clothing, cushions, tea towels, dolls and phone cases.
There is even a special FridaMoji.
Salma Hayek has played the artist on-screen, Beyoncé dressed up as her for Halloween, Madonna owns one of her paintings and Prime Minister Theresa May sported a Frida Kahlo bracelet during her ill-fated conference speech last October when she was overcome by a fit of coughing.
This week, a hot-ticket exhibition opening at London’s V&A museum is set to give the artist’s status another boost.
More than 200 items of her clothing, cosmetics and jewellery will be displayed alongside photographs and self-portraits – the first time these items have been shown outside Mexico and, in some cases, at all.
Exhibition co-curator Claire Wilcox believes part of Frida Kahlo’s enduring appeal lies in her timelessness. “Frida doesn’t look dated on any level. She just looks completely individual,” she says.
The artist’s uncompromisingly direct interaction with the camera – or the canvas in the case of her self-portraits – reinforces this modern, Instagram-friendly feel.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up runs from Saturday to November 4 at the V&A in London
Frida’s appearance was performative; more so than any other artist… she showed great artistry in her clothing and dress – it was very much by design
“She was always camera-ready,” says Claire.
“It’s actually a very contemporary notion of an individual making themselves up, constructing their identity and asserting their difference. There’s an astonishing number of photographs. She was one of the most pictured women of her time.”
This attention was, Claire believes, something Frida enjoyed.
“She liked being observed. When you see the self-portraits you almost cannot but meet her eye.
“Frida’s appearance was performative; more so than any other artist. She showed great artistry in her clothing and dress – it was very much by design.”
Frida Kahlo’s trademark look was flamboyant, bohemian and colourful. Her outfits tended to be based on three elements – skirt, blouse and shawl.
Completing the look were her hair decoration, jewellery and make-up.
Her favourite shades – Everything’s Rosy lipstick, Clear Red blusher and Ebony eyebrow pencil, all by Revlon – are included in the exhibition.
“Her tastes were eclectic and the compositions she created were never purely Mexican,” adds Claire.
“So she might wear a Mexican blouse and jewellery with red lipstick and perhaps a huge bow in her hair. On any other woman it might look quite childish but on her it looked tremendous, adding height, texture and colour, with which she was always brilliant.”
One of the images in the exhibition was taken by photographer and her sometime lover Nickolas Muray in 1939 and shows her wearing a blue satin blouse with pink embroidered flowers, an imposing gold necklace and earrings and a pink hair bow.
“With that heavy brow, the lipstick and that piercing look, it all just comes together,” says Claire.
Much about Frida’s wardrobe and its provenance remains unknown.
Beyonce dressed up as Frida Kahlo for Halloween.
In fact, its contents were only revealed to the world in 2004, as her late husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera insisted they be locked away in the Blue House in Mexico City – where she was born, lived and died – for 50 years after her death.
“It seems to have been an eclectic, magpie process,” says Claire of Frida’s style.
“Her clothes and jewellery came from markets, from a dressmaker who made up skirts, from friends who brought her things from their travels, from her mother’s wardrobe and from pedlars who knew she was interested in regional dress.”
Her clothing choices championed her forthright, rebellious, left-wing political stance, supporting Mexico’s precolonial culture and indigenous people.
Her shawls, embroidered tops and flowing skirts often came from poor, politically neglected regions of Mexico such as the southeastern district of Tehuantepec.
“It was just accepted that this was what she was like. There are descriptions of her arriving at the opera, clanking with jewellery, the bells on her petticoats rattling. Another time, a crowd of children followed her in New York, asking for the circus,” says Claire.
Frida liked to shock. Her language was colourful, her attitude to facial hair out of sync with societal norms, her sexuality fluid and yet she loved her clothes, make-up and jewellery. It is her rejection of the idea that any of this should be contradictory that makes her stand out.
Her appearance was crucial to her sense of identity.
“It was an intrinsic part of what she needed to do in order to be the self that she chose to be,” concludes Claire.
But behind her nonconformism and confidence, the artist suffered both physically and emotionally.
At the age of 18, she narrowly escaped death in a bus accident.
Her severe injuries left her frequently bed bound and in pain.
Perhaps the outfits were a response to her accident and certainly they had to accommodate it.
The Frida Kahlo museum in Mexico.
Her blouses could easily be worn on top of the cumbersome spine corsets on which she depended, while the long skirts hid her badly damaged right leg.
“Her clothing bravura was a demonstration of defiance against the terrible bad luck of the accident,” Claire explains.
And it is this strength and individuality, the unflinching commitment to her values and what Claire describes as “something intangible” about the way the artist put herself together that underpins Frida Kahlo’s continuing and enduring appeal.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up runs from Saturday to November 4 at the V&A in London. Visit vam.ac.uk