From the 6th June to the 4th November 2018 there will be an exhibition of some of Frida Kahlo’s personal artefacts and clothing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. After Kahlo’s death, her husband, Diego Rivera, locked many of her possessions in a bathroom at their home in Mexico City. Rivera requested that the bathroom remain locked for 15 years following his death however, the room was left undisturbed for 50 years. The collection, entitled Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, has never left Mexico until now, leaving many questioning: is it right for such an intimate display of her belongings to be displayed so publicly?
Yes: It’s a chance to celebrate and appreciate an iconic and important artist.
Frida Kahlo was, and remains to this day, a feminist icon who continuously defied boundaries and, over her lifetime, produced a number of iconic paintings. It is, therefore, only natural for the V&A to host an exhibition of her work and personal belongings to celebrate her. Kahlo’s image as a cult figure has undoubtedly become appropriated by popular culture, fashion designers and large corporations alike. Much of what she believed in has been tarnished over time by either misrepresentation or a general lack of understanding of her complex character. The exhibition, however, will act as an opportunity for people to grasp a better understanding of her personal style and, consequently, her work. Many of her items of clothing are art pieces in themselves considering she hand painted dresses and corsets. The exhibition is somewhat of a once in a lifetime opportunity for many appreciators of Kahlo and her work as it provides a raw and intimate insight into her life.
Kahlo is well known for her colourful canvases and symbolic self-portraits, yet many are unaware of the history of the artist. Following a bus crash at 18, Kahlo was forced to remain on bedrest and it was then that she was given an easel and paints by her parents to entertain herself. Over the course of her lifetime, she endured extensive surgeries, months of bedrest and numerous hospitalisations and depicted much of this in her art. In 1953, her leg had to be amputated, leaving her reliant on a prosthetic leg. Kahlo hid this, along with the plaster corsets she had to wear for back support, due to damage caused by the bus crash coupled with childhood polio, by wearing full skirts; all of which will be available to view at the V&A exhibition in June. It is beneficial for people to see this as it provides a deeper understanding of her character and her art. Her disability was a key focus in her art and by displaying these intimate items, it allows us to delve deeper into the messages behind her paintings.
Although the concept is incredibly invasive, the items in the exhibition signify Kahlo and her character which fans of her work would not normally be lucky enough to see. Rather than appropriating her by selling propaganda with her face plastered all over it, it is more of a celebration of her and her work while also acting as an educational platform to highlight how her personal life influenced her art.
No: Is it what Kahlo would have wanted?
This exhibition is unlike any other before. Not only will Kahlo’s artwork be displayed, but a large array of her personal belongings, including her clothes, medical equipment, and prosthetics. It is a significant invasion of her privacy. While she was a remarkable artist and person, the display of her personal, intimate items goes beyond appreciation of her talent and crosses a boundary that Kahlo may have not wanted to be crossed.
The display of her prosthetic leg and the decorated plaster corsets she used to support her back are particularly disturbing. For some, this exhibition is fetishising her disability: the intimate items she needed to simply live without pain are being displayed for anyone to see. Her makeup is another questionable part of the exhibition, as Kahlo is frequently reduced to the image of her braided up-do, striking monobrow, and vibrant lipstick. The display of her ebony eyebrow pencils and favourite Revlon lipstick just feeds into this. But, she was so much more than an image.
The exhibition’s title, Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, calls in to question her authenticity. The seemingly harmless play on words suggests her appearance and identity were imagined and constructed from nothing, which is not the case.
It is also worth noting that Kahlo’s husband, Rivera, did not want the room containing her belongings unlocked until long after his death, which is indicative of his thoughts about the display of her possessions. He did not want to see his wife fetishised, with her everyday items treated as greater than they are.
The exhibition is open to the public, with an entrance fee of £15. This is extremely ironic, considering that Kahlo herself was a loyal communist; her plaster corsets were painted with a hammer and sickle and she was buried under a communist flag. Of course, museums and galleries must make money to continue their display and conservation of art, however, profiting off a communist artist is a great irony.
Exhibiting Kahlo’s personal and intimate possessions on such a public display is an invasion of privacy. It is possible for us to appreciate and learn about her art and her life without this exhibition.
(Image courtesy of Nickolas Muray/© Nickolas Muray Photo Archives)