Unique, subversive, contradictory, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) is today celebrated as one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. Known for her extraordinary life events and personal style as much as for her vivid artwork, Kahlo has become a cult figure, her image immortalised through the lens of many photographers and appropriated by feminists, artists, and fashion designers alike.
In 2004, the revelation of an overwhelmingly intimate collection of Kahlo's personal belongings dramatically changed our understanding of her life and her art. These objects, which include clothing – distinctive and colourful indigenous Mexican garments, some flecked with paint and visible signs of wear; jewellery – pre-Columbian necklaces that Frida strung herself; examples of intricately hand-painted medical corsets and orthopaedic devices; love letters and several items of make-up – still in their original packaging, had been locked away for 50 years following Kahlo's death in 1954, according to the wishes of her husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and Dolores Olmedo, friend and patron of Rivera.
This personal archive was housed, for all those years, in Kahlo's bathroom at La Casa Azul, the home in Mexico City where she was born, lived and died. Since 1957, the house has been a museum dedicated to the life and work of the artist. Cupboards, drawers and trunks around the house contained a myriad of objects accrued over a lifetime. Hilda Trujillo, Director of the Museum since 2002, recalls the moment when the bathroom was opened for the first time:
...we knew that Diego had given instructions to leave all letters, documents, books, and things that he considered important in one bathroom alone, [...] Later there were requests on the part of intellectuals and Kahlo specialists to open this space...
It was in 2004 that we started to open everything, it was very slow, because we didn't know what was there, but we knew what we were doing was important and we didn't want to waste a minute...
Hilda Trujillo, Director of the Museo Frida Kahlo
So personal was the nature of Kahlo's belongings that Hilda Trujillo initially questioned her right to explore the collection:
I felt like an intruder, for what right do I have to be there with Frida's things? At times I thought I wasn't entitled to do this, that no-one was. However, it was also important to restore, rescue [...] the letters and photographs – had been left as they were, frozen in time, and some textiles – but they were in very bad condition. You could tell that cats and rats had made their way in and gnawed at them.
Since then, the Frida Kahlo Museum has embarked on a major project to catalogue and restore the collection, whose existence was publicly announced in 2007. Some of the pieces were exhibited that same year, and since 2012, Kahlo's dresses have been displayed in the exhibition, Las Apariencias engañan, (Appearances Can Be Deceiving).
More than 200 of these intimate objects have now been loaned to the V&A, and will be seen for the first time outside Mexico, in the exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, (16 June – 4 November 2018). The objects will be displayed alongside key self-portraits by Kahlo, photographs and film, offering a fresh perspective on the artist's compelling life story, and exploring her highly choreographed appearance and style.
…with the V&A's support we will continue the work of restoration, because it's no simple task to restore over 22,000 documents, over 300 of Frida's clothing items, and the large number of other textiles: tablecloths, blankets, some of which have been embroidered by Frida's mother or Frida herself.
The many letters that were discovered reveal Kahlo's intimate relationship with artists, intellectuals and photographers such as Isamu Noguchi, Man Ray, Nickolas Muray, Manuel Álvarez Bravo and the poet Pablo Neruda. Her interest in photography, a trade that she learnt alongside her father the photographer Guillermo Kahlo, is evident in the collection of over 6,000 photographs that Kahlo inherited and built over time. Informal snaps with friends and family were found side by side photographs taken by acclaimed photographers including Lola Álvarez Bravo, Nickolas Muray, Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Héctor García and Gisèle Freund. Together the collection reveals an unparalleled insight into Kahlo's personal life, as Hilda Trujillo explains:
I think all of these things were a turning point for interpreting the history and personality of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and also what was happening in Mexico at the time.
A series of medical corsets, supportive back-braces and a prosthetic leg illuminate the story of her near-fatal bus crash at the age of 18, an event which caused her lasting pain, immobility and left her unable to have children. It was the catalyst for Kahlo's interest in self-portraiture – she began to paint, while bed-bound, using a mirror inset into her four-poster bed.
...today we know that, importantly, [these objects] reflect Frida as an intellectually restless person, an aspiring Frida, a lively Frida who loved parties, and in fact – all the hardships and the pain that she portrays in her work – did not overshadow her daily life.
The collection also reveals how Kahlo used indigenous textiles, as well as art, to give her emotional strength and develop a sense of personal identity. Her striking appearance was a political statement – she crafted her identity to reflect her own mixed-race heritage and allegiance to Mexico. Her wardrobe includes examples of traditional Mexican dress – rebozos (fringed shawls), embroidered huipiles (square-cut tops), enaguas (skirts) and holanes(flounces), as well as corsets painted with religious and communist symbolism.
Beauty products in vivid shades, including her favourite lipstick, Revlon's 'Everything's Rosy', and an 'ebony' eyebrow pencil, which she used to emphasise her signature mono-brow, build a picture of a woman who experimented with and artfully constructed her appearance. Kahlo even reclaimed some of her medical objects – the hand-painted corsets and customised prosthetic leg, complete with a striking red platform boot embellished with little bells and Chinese dragon motifs – as a means of self-expression.
It's this interpretation that young people can relate to today, a woman that suffered many injuries but who was able to transform this pain into art. This is what we discovered in these archives.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up runs at the V&A, South Kensington, from 16 June to 4 November 2018.