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Who was Frida Kahlo?

The V&A’s much-anticipated Frida Kahlo exhibition has recently opened, bringing the vibrancy of Mexico to Kensington. But who was this artist who represented indigenous traditions and feminist principles in her works? Find out before attending the Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up event, which is being hosted at the museum until 4 November.

Life, struggles and style

Kahlo had a relatively short life – she died at the age of 47 – but she left a big impact on the world. She suffered from polio as a child and as a result, one leg was thinner and shorter than the other. She overcame this asymmetry by wearing a block in her shoe and several socks over the top of each other.

Another incident that was to have a profound effect on her life and style was a traffic accident when she was 18. The wooden bus she was travelling in collided with a streetcar and an iron handrail went through her pelvis.

It was while in hospital after the accident that she started to paint. Many of her paintings, which were mainly self-portraits, reflect the damaged state of her body and the struggles she would go on to have as a result. Over the course of her life, Kahlo would undergo 30 operations and multiple miscarriages.

Kahlo became known for the colourful embroidered Tehuana dresses in the style of indigenous women that she wore, as well as the flowers in her hair. They helped her to explore her heritage, but also enabled her to detract attention from the lifelong injuries she suffered and the braces and corsets she needed to carry on with her life.

Work and themes

Of the approximately 200 paintings, drawings and sketches completed by Kahlo, 55 are self-portraits. She famously said: “I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.”

It is the other elements of the pictures that shine a light onto the state of mind and struggles of the subject, however. In The Broken Column, you can see the after effects of the bus accident, with Kahlo’s spine represented as a fractured decorative column and the two sides of her body held together with a brace, while nails pierce her skin.

She explored themes such as suffering, loss and selfhood in a way that had not been achieved by a woman before. Exposing her internal organs and returning to feminine motifs of ribbons and personal animals, she looked at the complexity of female identity and how the impact of being childless affects a woman.

There are religious and political elements to her work too. Kahlo paints herself as the Virgin Mary on occasion and becomes Jesus Christ in her version of the Last Supper. In 1927, she joined the Mexican Communist Party, where she met fellow artist Diego Rivera, and created a work entitled Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky.

Kahlo’s turbulent relationship with Rivera – whom she married twice – is also evident in her work. In Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair, Kahlo is seen wearing a suit and surrounded by the strands of hair she has cut off to punish Rivera for his infidelity.

This is something she would do in the wake of many of her husband’s affairs, as he adored her long black hair. It is yet another example of the way in which style and image was manipulated by Kahlo as a means of self-expression during her most difficult times.

The exhibition at the V&A

Unlike a conventional art exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up puts a focus on the style and iconic look of the artist. While it contains a number of her paintings, these are put in context through more than 200 of her personal possessions and items from her wardrobe.

Such a display of Kahlo’s belongings has never been seen in the UK and until 2004, many of them were locked away from the world. After his wife’s death, Rivera had sealed off the bathroom of their home, the Blue House in Mexico City, with many of her personal items inside. It took experts years to document and understand this treasure trove of art history.

In the exhibition you can see a huipil from Tehuana worn by Kahlo with a holan lace flounce underneath, which originated in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. This one outfit alone shows how she took influences from various traditions and wove them together to create her own style.

Among the most interesting pieces on display are the items she was forced to wear for medical reasons. These corsets and even the prosthetic leg she adopted after having her own amputated due to gangrene, have been adorned with decorative techniques and political symbols, such as the hammer and sickle of the Communist party.

Kahlo’s look was always complete with her striking make-up. A simple exhibit featuring a tube of her signature red Revlon lipstick still smudged around the edges by the application and the kohl used on her eyes reminds the audience of the woman behind the icon.

Photo credit: Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939. Photograph Nickolas Muray. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives via V&A Press Office

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