A Frida Kahlo Behind the Scenes

Frida Kahlo made me cry last week. Standing in the middle of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, a show at the V&A museum in London, amongst displays of her most intimate possessions: make-up, clothes, paintings, back braces, photographs of Kahlo painting from her bed, or surrounded by doctors, you could not help but feel her pain.

Frida Kahlo was a celebrated Mexican painter who began to paint in 1925 whilst recovering from a near-fatal bus accident aged 18, that severely damaged her spine and pelvis. The accident left her with life-long injuries, in almost constant pain, and unable to have children.

A self-taught artist, her work was a constant exploration of self and identity. She wrote of it, "I paint self-portraits because I am the person I know best. I paint my own reality.” In her work Kahlo shares a raw, undiluted and uninhibited self through which she channels her loss, pain, love - a kaleidoscope of emotions

I was 27 when I broke my back, a lucky escape I was told by the doctors, although it didn’t feel like that at the time, or during the long months of convalescence. What I do remember from that year is that it was hard to concentrate, to really ‘do’ anything. I was tired, lethargic, down at times. I lived in clothes that looked like pyjamas, make-up less, I hid away from the world. It felt like I’d been dropped and try as they might, over the two operations, the doctors couldn’t quite put me back together the way I was before, I was missing bits, like those little Lego pieces that disappear so quickly once you’ve opened the pack. Eventually for me, it all worked out, I live, I work, I mother, I run, I yoga, but for Kahlo who had 22 different operations over the course of her short life, and a leg amputated towards the end of it, I can imagine that she never quite felt like she was altogether again. 

Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, is an exhibition that aims to reveal the stories behind the construction of her still hugely resonant and sophisticated identity, through a display of over 200 Kahlo’s personal letters, books, photographs, clothing, jewellery, make up, medical corsets and orthopaedic devices that were locked away in her bathroom for 50 years, following her death aged 47, at her lifelong home, La Casa Azul (The Blue House ) according to the wishes of her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Her possessions on display, in contrast to her paintings, to me - show her more pragmatic side – it’s like a ‘behind the scenes’ of Frida Kahlo.  

Throughout the exhibition you see a woman who, rather than succumb to a life as an invalid, is defiant in the face of it, more than that, finds the lighter side of life . Plaster corsets are ornately painted, there’s her prosthetic leg with a beautifully made red leather boot with an appliquéd silk and Chinese motif, to which Kahlo tied bells to the laces. And her wardrobe, a large collection of indigenous textiles, clearly demonstrates her allegiance and pride for Mexico, an appreciation of colour and style, but also practically hid her disabilities. By making herself up, Kahlo distracted the world from what she didn’t have and instead focused the attention on all the things that she did.

I think her fearlessness is what makes Kahlo such a potent and timeless figure of interest. People instinctively want a bit of that – they want to look like her, dress like her, be like her. She means a lot of things to a lot of people, as an artist, feminist, activist, communist, a maverick, I think to sum it all up, it’s best to leave it to Kahlo herself. I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it's true I'm here, and I'm just as strange as you."

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up is at the V&A until November 4, 2018.