Red, the colour of blood, passion and it turns out…nail varnish is synonymous with Frida Kahlo appearing in her paintings, her fashion and her toilette.
I have loved the image of Frida Kahlo since the first time I saw her sometime in my late teens. I can’t remember whether it was in reference to a painting or seeing her mentioned in a movie, exhibit or TV show but I became aware of her in pop culture, and was forever struck by her art as well as her attire.
Scoring tickets to the Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum recently, I felt compelled to share in the wonder of this bravely honest and unique woman.
Movie-star lipstick, monobrow and moustache, so incongruous to what is deemed normal femininity, yet with meticulously styled and coiffed hair and always seen dressed in stunning and colourful traditional Mexican attire you’ve gotta hand it to her, she knew how to make a lasting statement.
Frida Kahlo grabs your attention even beyond the grave, which for any historical figure, and especially as a woman, is quite something! I find so many of our hero-figures to be dreary, chinless wonders, towing the party line but Frida practised her art in her daily life. Her enduring memory shows that there is also another version of allowed femininity, which doesn’t have to be cowed by any status quo.
This is the persona that screams ‘other’, ‘I am comfortable’ and ‘I express myself as I wish’. Some may describe her as a mix of masculine and feminine, but this does her an injustice as she simply exists in such individualism, that she transcends both. She was a strong person, a weak person, an expression of determination, sadness and joy who, by the history outlined in this exhibit, lived according to her beliefs and defied her limitations.
We, the public, never saw Kahlo out of pose, or poise. She staged the way in which people would see her -much as an artist prepares their models being her own subject both in image and thought. Like the Mona Lisa, her oft-captured half-serious half-knowing expression allows room for whatever the viewer projects, yet is insistent on rubber-stamping whatever conclusion you came to indelibly with her composed visage.
The exhibit is an extremely intimate rummage through her possessions, her bedroom having been preserved and sealed after her death and only reopened by the Khalo estate recently for cataloguing. There are family photos, items she used, paintings she painted and clothes she wore.
We see this other side to her immense art, Frida as human- her painted casts, special shoes, beautiful handmade clothes from artisans and collection of perfumes and pharmaceuticals. Her choices, preferences and vehicles of expression are on display as well as remnants of her pain and ailments- the false leg, the strong painkillers, pictures of the bed in which she died.
For me, like many other women and girls, who missed out on being able to see Kahlo in interviews on television, or in talks – word of her comes via second, third and historical sources now. This exhibit allowed us a much closer look at both the woman and artist from her early life at home to her untimely death and far-too-late discovery by the rest of the world- and included some rare home film, showing her in motion, breathing life into all the still pieces.
I like to think that Kahlo was a great example to female artists everywhere – of what mental freedom means – despite confinements. That confidence and determination to express oneself, regardless of any climate of ‘the norm’ and even through physical anguish and heartbreak, she still found worth in herself.
To have the ability and confidence to practice her art when faced with incredible challenges immediately raises Kahlo above the usual silence of female suffering. She becomes heroic and aspirational to women everywhere, as a symbol of resistance to burdens of all kinds. A role model, not a commodity despite her image reused on every Etsy store and market stall now- still worth of celebration as she becomes the way we ourselves express our strength and remember our own choices.
The exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum is on until Sunday, 4 November 2018.
Pictures taken from the museum website with credit.