Frida Kahlo at the V&A...

By Lucy Harbron - 22:47

I don’t remember when I first fell in love with Frida Kahlo, although admittedly (and embarrassingly) it wasn’t long ago. However, I do remember the first painting of hers that caught me; Self-portrait with Cropped Hair. Frida sat, dressed in a suit, surrounded by her hair, and the words, in Mexican;

‘Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.”

I remember thinking of her as I stood in my bathroom in first year, scissors in hand and hair on the floor, desperate to rid myself of something, someone.

I remember walking away from someone, going home and watching the film Frida through tear-filled eyes and sometime in the duration, realising I was crying for her and not me.

I remember unwrapping an illustrated book of her life, a gift from someone I loved. And then clinging to it when they broke my heart.

If you don’t know Frida Kahlo beyond her signature look of unibrow and flower crown, educate yourself. Here is a brief history; Born in Mexico, Frida grew up around her photographer father and got into art at a young age as a result. She contracted Polio as a young child and then was in a serious accident at 18 causing her lifelong pain and medical problems. During her recovery was when she started creating art consistently and decided to become an artist. She was also a communist and met her husband Diego Rivera when she joined the Mexican Communist Party. After one of Diego’s murals was taken down, due to his depiction of Lenin offending Americans, Frida began to dress in traditional Mexican clothes and really drawing on her culture in her art. She suffered, a lot. Pain, miscarriages, an unfaithful husband, deaths. And this pain is translated so beautifully, yet literally, into her art. Until the 1970s she was really only known as Diego’s wife, but in recent years her art has been recognised fully, and Frida has become an icon.

To me, Frida’s art is characterised by strength and defiance. Although you can see the pain so clearly and fully, she never dulled her colours and always painted herself as strong, beautiful, goddess-like. Even in her most heart-breaking works, created during her hardest moments, she pained herself in duality, always with a stronger version of herself protecting her. I love it. She was such a complex and fascinating woman, she suffered far far more than most but yet had a solid sense of self and assurance in her own strength and capability. When her health left her bed-bound, she had a mirror installed in her canopy so she could continue to pain. When she suffered a life-threatening miscarriage, she reclaimed her trauma, painting it onto her corset under a communist sign. When Diego cheated on her, she held tight to her sexuality and cheated on him right back, forever known as one of history’s most enticing women.

The V&A exhibition; Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, was built out of her wardrobe. After her death, Kahlo’s bathroom remained locked, and upon unlocking only a couple of years back, it was found to be full of jewellery, make-up, clothes, medical records, artwork, letter, all personal items giving a deeper insight into her life. And what a life.

I could’ve cried, standing and looking at her prosthetic leg complete with embroidered red leather boots and medical corsets painted by her hands during recovery. Seeing these things, empty medicine bottles, half used nail varnishes, it made it all so real. She was a real person, she lived just like I do, she got by and fought. Seeing these simple things, next to her art and iconic outfits, full of life and colour and culture, I felt like I knew her better, like I could see her coping mechanism.
When I feel my worst, I force myself to dress my best. I get up, do my make-up the best and boldest I can, pick out an outfit that covers over every inch of my sadness and insecurity and go out into the world, confident that I look good so I can feel good too. I think she did the same. The bright, traditionally Mexican outfits she’s famous for, covered with embroidery and dripping in big necklaces, earrings and rings, it was like she was drawing attention away from her weakness. Her outfits purposefully made to cover her leg ravished by polio, and big enough to go over her corset painted with the memory of her lost child. She hid it all under the one thing she was certain of, her Mexican heritage and its matriarchal history of strong women.

I’m a huge believer in the positive power of fashion. I’ve written about it many times and given the chance I’ll always rant on about it. But the clothes you were can be an armour, it’s so easy to invent yourself and re-invent the next day. You can wake up and pick a shield out of your wardrobe if you just need something to hide behind for a day. You can paint colour and joy onto yourself when you can quite make it. There’s so so much power and potential in it, Frida knew that. An incredibly strong woman, made stronger by the clothes she picked, purposefully chosen for that reason. She invented herself when her outer and inner didn’t match up, the might of her brain versus the body battling illness and pain her whole life.

The exhibition was exceptionally curated. Moving through her life, to her belongings, then ending in a wide-open room full of her art, jewellery, and clothes combined. It allowed you to know her inside and get some context before putting it together with the final image of her armour. Paired with dark lighting and nature sounds, it was hard to not get emotional. The whole crowd felt the same, silently taking it in, wanting to see everything and read everything, as each annotation and caption gave away a little more, another clue about her enigmatic life.

I could’ve stayed there forever, staring at tiny details. But I sighed, unable yet to articulate all the feelings, bought a postcard and left, smiling to myself at all the young girls dressed up as her, their idol. I clung tighter to the patch on my denim jacket, Frida my saint of strength, perseverance and power.

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