When we think of Frida Kahlo, we think of a super-human representation of a feminist ideal with immense influential power. We tend to do so by visualizing how she managed her hardships with eloquence: from being diagnosed with polio, to her husband Diego Rivera’s multiple infidelities, to the gruesome aftermath of a bus accident that left her bedridden for months. We admire her as a figure with awesome resilience. When the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, UK, announced their dedicated exhibition to Kahlo’s life and work, I was ecstatic. As much as I was looking forward to observing her artworks and garments, I didn’t put much expectation in what I would get out of the exhibition, which ended up shifting my perspective entirely.
Unlocking a sealed bathroom door after 50 years was all it took to reveal the darkest yet most profound parts of an icon. Frida Kahlo is viewed as a woman who is recognized as an agent of change: from defying gender roles, to finding the beauty beyond her misfortunes, Kahlo is a symbol of feminism and resistance. The V&A Museum introduced the Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up exhibition as one that didn’t just focus on her art, but also one that consisted of her personal belongings had been locked in her famous Blue House in Mexico City. The experience feels as though you are reading a story. The exhibition starts with a brief history of Kahlo’s family and brings you to a red room with all her personal items, ending with an exquisite glass display of all her famous garments. This exhibition narrates a tale of a flourishing young woman through a bittersweet tone.
The displays ranged from her empty pill bottles, broken mirrors, and hair combs to the agonizing sight of her hand-painted casts she saved after their removal. The exhibition captured the inevitable pain that shaped Kahlo. Each room had a significant role in the portrayal of the artist’s life. However, they all shared the same outcome. The focus was not to romanticize her; rather the V&A purposely gave a retrospective point of view of the artist beyond her thick eyebrows and communist views. They exhibited the painful yet honest life of a woman enduring the suffering of her traumatic life events through her paintings. They tackled topics such as her accident, marriage, miscarriage and self-love.
There were graphic displays of the casts that she had to wear after her accident, letters to her unborn child, as well as an intimate yet profound secret photoshoot that caught my eye. The three photos, hidden in a corner of a floral wall, prized the true essence behind the woman. It was emotional and eye-opening to see an exhibition that was not only dedicated to her work, but celebrated her life, revealing every bit of misery in her conscious. It is those set of photographs that made me realize Kahlo was real. The V&A came alive to not only portray Kahlo for her magnificence but for the demons she carried that we dismiss or refuse to see through our view of her as an icon.
It is very easy to dehumanize a powerful figure. I never thought of the physical and mental pain that conflicted Kahlo when I was admiring her artwork. It was hard looking through the astonishing number of casts and her prosthetic leg. There were photos signifying Frida’s reasons to wearing long dresses. Although she embraced her scars, she struggled with insecurity, wanting to hide the aftermath of her past accidents while she sat on her wheelchair. In my eyes, I saw pieces of a woman that represented her inner self-conflict. This exhibition managed to juxtapose Frida’s majesty, but also her deepest sorrows. It offered a new perspective towards the artist: giving her more magnificence, yet grounding her to humility in being human.
When we think of Frida Kahlo, we think of a feminist ideal. She represents the epitome of self-love and pure talent with every brush stroke and sewn garment. It’s just like how we think of a stranger; we idealize and create an image of the perfectly structured life they lead through their values. However, it was the prosthetic leg, casts, nail polish, perfume bottles, letters, and broken combs that told so much about a person’s identity. This exhibition was a portrayal of her life in color. Every detail, every thread in her dresses, contributes to her pain, her life, her art.
Hareer Sulaiman is an Online Contributor for MUSE.