The Victoria & Albert Museum in London recently presented late night viewings of the Frida Kahlo exhibition Making Herself Up, as a special tie in with Mexico’s national festival The Day of the Dead. I was lucky enough to obtain tickets for a midnight viewing. The evening (or should I say night) left me with a slightly unsettling mood but also an insightful appreciation into one of the 20th Century’s enigmatic artistic figures.
The exhibition created a seemingly macabre air of unease as if one had entered into a real life ghost story. For a night time museum experience this felt more like M.R. James than Ben Stiller. Colour photographic portraits of Kahlo looked as if they had been made just yesterday, bringing her into sharp realism, as did the bright colourful of traditional Mexican dresses that she wore as cultural identification with her indigenous heritage and a practical desire to cover lower body injuries that were sustained after a brutal transport accident years earlier. More than just an art exhibition the collection contained several other personal artefacts and items that belonged to the artist during her lifetime including cosmetics, jewellery and, most revealing, medical aids such as corsets and prosthetics that treated the long term injuries she suffered.
The terrible accident Frida Kahlo suffered was rarely, if ever, portrayed directly in her art (a single preparatory drawing was displayed at the exhibition) but the physical and psychological consequences of the incident permeate clearly through. Though her artwork often used photographs for reference (she had been introduced to creative photography by her father), her self portraits seem to go beyond just a realistic and technical likeness and they seemingly depict a re-establishing of Kahlo’s identity after the accident. The forms are classical in application but there is an honesty and uncompromising individuality that she produced. The portraits often contain the same fixed gaze and unsmiling mouth, indicating the everyday internal physical and emotional pains that she dealt with constantly. (Slightly reminiscent of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of America’s first president George Washington in 1796 - that also featured him with an unsmiling gaze - who struggled with awkward and painful dentures.)
Her mixed heritage also appears as a challenge in her art and much of her work adopts both European and native, religious and political themes, often simultaneously, with her in the middle. This mixed heritage didn’t necessarily bring mixed blessings, however, as being from an educated background (Kahlo had originally intended to become a medical professional) and cultural associations and material benefits enabled her creative life. The photographic portraits of her of appear like fashion modelling poses and she seemed to revel in wearing the Mexican costumes. Her political ideological leanings (typical of the day amongst bohemian society) seemed to contradict the material wealth that she had access to, including the medical treatment she had received in America, a society whose cultural ideology she opposed (see image at the top).
In all, I was left touched by the pain she must have suffered throughout her life, yet I also felt greatly inspired by her uncompromising attitude to the art that she wanted - and needed - to create.