The making of an icon
Artist, communist, feminist, wife, lover, selfie superstar… No wonder Frida Kahlo is having a 21st-century renaissance. As a major exhibition opens at the V&A, featuring works never before displayed in this country, Sara Wheeler visits the home of the sel
As a new exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s artefacts and clothing opens at the V&A, Sara Wheeler investigates the artist’s turbulent life – and legacy
I’m standing in the garden of the fabled Blue House in Mexico City, jacaranda blooming, sunlight shimmering on cacti, bougainvillea resplendent against cornflower-blue walls. This was the home shared by artist Frida Kahlo and her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. An exotic creature, she strode, bejewelled and bedecked, through a dazzling and dramatic career, and conquered the art world – which, for a Mexican woman in the first half of the 20th century, was really quite something.
Kahlo incorporated the influence of Aztec and other pre-columbian cultures into both her work and wardrobe. She favoured the floor-sweeping skirts and blouses of women from the matriarchal Tehuantepec region of Oaxaca, where her family had roots, decorating them with bells and tassels, and wearing flowers in her long black hair. She became a cultural icon – not just for Mexico, but for the world. This month, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, a major exhibition telling her story through her paintings and her possessions, many of which have not travelled before, opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
And what a story it is. Kahlo was born in 1907 on Mexico City’s high, thin-aired plateau. Her German father was a photographer, her mother part-spanish, part-indigenous. Aged six, she contracted polio, which caused grave problems to her foot and leg that plagued her throughout her life.
Her country achieved independence during her childhood, so she grew up in the heady atmosphere of Mexicanidad, or Mexican-ness. With the colonial overlords gone, the new government commissioned public artworks to promote this rediscovered sense of self. Rivera was the most famous artist to undertake one of these commissions. When Kahlo was 15, he was asked to paint a mural above the stage in her school’s splendid amphitheatre. One day, he was on his scaffold, brush in hand; as he worked, Kahlo crept into the top of the theatre’s banked seating. Hiding behind a pillar, she called out to him. It was the beginning of a great love story.
Rivera was 36 – porky, ugly and already on to his second wife, who was sitting in the front row with his lunch in a basket. However, within seven years, Kahlo and Rivera had married. By that time, she had developed even graver health problems. At 18, she had been involved in an accident between a bus and a tram, and a handrail had skewered her spine and collarbone and shattered her already disabled leg. She had 32 operations in all, and until the day she died, pain dominated her life. According to a friend, ‘She lived dying.’
So, what did she paint? Herself, mostly. She favoured the naïve style of Mexican popular art – flat and two-dimensional, using bold colours in oil or acrylic, and symbols referencing aspects of national heritage. Nowadays, her works fetch between £6 million and £11 million. Earlier this year, when the V&A launched the website to accompany its exhibition, it crashed on the first day of ticket sales, owing to the number of visitors. It is the fastest-selling exhibition the museum has ever staged.
Kahlo had long fingers and thick, beetly eyebrows that almost met in the middle – a signature look – and a moustache that she emphasises in her paintings. When once she shaved it off, Rivera said he wished she hadn’t, because he liked it so much. She was small and walked awkwardly, often wearing a built-up shoe. She loved jewellery and always wore red lipstick, yet she was mannish, as her self-portraits show.
Included in the V&A exhibition are three of the many surgical corsets Kahlo had to wear after her accident. She painted patterns on them, some of them depicting instruments of torture, and one a broken column, symbolising her fractured spine. Much of the material in the new show was sealed at the family’s request until 2004. The embargo, initiated by Rivera and perpetuated by later guardians, may have been to keep secret details of the bisexuality revealed in her letters and diaries.
Kahlo was born in La Casa Azul – the Blue House, which I visited in Coyoacán, an old neighbourhood in the south-west of Mexico City. Light fell in squares on the yellow floors as I looked around the elaborately decorated rooms, and a breeze wafted in the scent of frangipani. Rivera later bought the one-storey property from Kahlo’s parents, but in his wife’s name. The couple lived there on and off from 1929 to 1954, with intermissions that included four years in the United States, when Rivera was painting socialrealist murals for the Rockefellers. They created a home in their own image – now the meticulously restored Frida Kahlo Museum. Its curators loaned most of the artefacts for the London exhibition.
Still revered as a countercultural and feminist pioneer, Kahlo moved in radical-chic circles. Today, she’d be called a champagne socialist. She embraced communism and Marxism, painting a hammer and sickle on one of her corsets. Rivera was also a committed communist and visited the Soviet Union twice. From January 1937 to May 1939, the pair hosted the fugitive Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia in the Blue House. Rivera had sought permission from the Mexican president, Lázaro Cárdenas, but the two artists risked their lives by associating with Trotsky. They bricked up the windows facing the street and built a security tower. Kahlo and Trotsky had an affair for six months during this period. He was old and wornout, but she was always up for an adventure.
The Russians moved out, and in the garden of their next home, nearby, now the Leon Trotsky Museum, I talked to 92-year-old Esteban Volkov. His mother was Trotsky’s daughter from his first marriage, and Trotsky had him brought to Mexico as a boy, where he assumed a Mexican first name. Volkov was wearing a thick denim shirt, a dirty red baseball cap and a crumpled fawn jacket. His eyes were red-rimmed and rheumy, but still a dazzling blue, and his smile almost broke his face in two. He spoke warmly of his grandfather, before explaining how he came to his end. ‘I came home from school one day, entering through the back. The door of the library was open and my grandfather was covered in blood. I heard him say, “Don’t let the boy see this.”’
Perhaps because Rivera was so prominent a figure, Joseph Stalin had waited until his rival had moved out of Kahlo’s home before he had him killed with the notorious ice pick. Volkov became a chemist and brought up four daughters in his grandfather’s house. He was an extra in the 2002 biopic Frida, starring Salma Hayek. Volkov knew Kahlo well, and told me, eyes twinkling, ‘Hayek was too perfect, too beautiful to play Frida.’
The 12 works in the V&A exhibition include two of the artist in a ceremonial resplandor, the lacy Tehuana headdress that encircles the face, and Appearances Can Be Deceiving, a drawing that was unknown until 2007, in which she
appears naked under a transparent dress, broken spine on display and butterflies on her left leg. The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), and Señor Xolotl shows Kahlo in a flounced skirt cradling an adult-baby Rivera, both embraced in turn by a Mexican goddess, and all three encircled by two enormous arms, one black and one white.
Twenty-two mannequins display Kahlo’s costumes in the new exhibition. ‘It’s the first time these outfits have been shown in this way, meaning they can be viewed in 3D,’ co-curator Claire Wilcox, who also staged the Alexander Mcqueen show at the V&A, told me as we perused them behind the scenes in the London museum. Wilcox’s favourite has a full-length citrus skirt featuring chinoiserie, an embroidered panel and a detachable flounce, and is accompanied by a lilac-and-green striped rebozo, a traditional handwoven shawl with a knotted fringe.
‘That’s typically Frida,’ Wilcox explained. ‘She adapted everything – she didn’t merely copy the Tehuanas. She bought fabrics such as these in local markets and used no buttons or zips.’ The exhibition also displays some of Kahlo’s huipils – the square-cut embroidered tops worn across Mesoamerica for centuries and now on sale in every tourist market. Ever the show-woman, she would dress in a way that would prompt children to shout, ‘Where’s the circus?’
Over a seafood dinner in Mexico City, her grand-niece, Cristina Kahlo, told me that her mother remembered hearing Frida approaching before she saw her because of the rustling of her skirts and the tinkling of her bells. Carlos Fuentes, one of Mexico’s greatest writers, said the same thing: he would hear the artist entering a box at the theatre before he would glimpse her.
And what of her marriage? In many ways, Kahlo was Rivera’s mother and he was her father: she loved to look after him, he loved to nurture her talent. He was an incorrigible adulterer – as Kahlo said, he was never really married to anyone, despite having had three wives (and a fourth after her death). He even had an affair with Cristina, one of her three sisters – the grandmother of the Cristina I met. But Kahlo learnt to love without possessing. In the 1980s, the tail end of the second wave of feminism, critics positioned her as a victim – a sick woman struggling in a man’s world with a remorselessly treacherous husband. But she wasn’t a victim: she was a survivor, and had many affairs of her own. As an artist, in the end, her fame equalled Rivera’s – Picasso spoke out in praise of her work and the Louvre purchased and hung her pictures.
Kahlo invented her style to dramatise herself. ‘She never let her disabilities or personal circumstances define her,’ says Circe Henestrosa, the V&A exhibition’s co-curator. ‘She defined who she was on her own terms. We wanted to emphasise her unconventional spirit and the non-conforming ways of being that she expressed through her art and her clothes and in her life.’
In the creation of that image, Kahlo reinvented herself. She claimed to be of Hungarian-german descent on her father’s side, but, in fact, no such Hungarian blood ran through Guillermo Kahlo’s veins. She described herself as ‘partly’ Jewish, but she wasn’t. She said she was born in 1910, therefore ‘a daughter of the Mexican revolution’, which began that year, but she wasn’t. She claimed that, in the bus accident, the metal rod went in through her back and came out through her vagina, and that she lost her virginity via its penetration, but the rod did not exit by that route. She would say, in her latter days, that she had been in hospital for three years, but it was a year. She was a bundle of contradictions – a communist, but not an atheist, she incorporated Catholic iconography into her paintings. She was bisexual, although her most important relationships were with men.
In 1939, Kahlo and Rivera took possession of an architect-commissioned property in San Angel, near Coyoacán. It comprised two houses, bordered by a cactus fence, with a studio in each and an adjoining bridge. Kahlo lived there until 1941 and Rivera until his death in 1957. It is now the Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, and draws tourists from across the world.
There Kahlo painted The Two Fridas, one of her most celebrated works, now in the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City and too fragile to leave the country. The canvas, unusually large for her, depicts two versions of the artist: one in traditional costume, the other in colonial European garb. A vein runs from a miniature portrait of Rivera as a boy, which one Frida holds in her hand, to the other woman, who clamps it, as blood spurts over her white skirt. As Henestrosa explained, ‘She was proud of her indigenous roots. We Mexicans are all mixed race, and she referenced pre-hispanic art a lot, even though it was unappreciated in the early 20th century.’
The same year, the couple divorced. They remarried in 1940 in San Francisco, although the bride stipulated that the union be celibate. Kahlo liked the United States. She visited Paris through her work – her first show there, in the year of the divorce, caused a sensation – but she was more at home in New York. Both husband and wife featured regularly in the Mexican press in what we would now call gossip columns.
The avant-garde described Kahlo as a surrealist painter. André Breton, known as ‘the Pope of surrealism’, said she was indeed of that tribe – though he also said Mexico as a whole was surreal. She said she didn’t know she was a surrealist until he announced it. There is certainly an apocalyptic tone to her later works – a moon, for example, appears with a rabbit embryo inside it.
The last years were grim. ‘I feel I’m vegetating like a cabbage,’ she wrote to a friend. But she had many visitors during her months in hospital and there was always a bottle of tequila in her room. On good days, she put on puppet shows with her feet, using the frame that kept her legs elevated.
Kahlo was conveyed to her triumphant last exhibition in an ambulance and borne in on a stretcher. In 1953, her leg was amputated below the knee. The V&A show includes her prosthetic, which she painted and fitted with a silk boot. The following summer, she died in the Blue House. She was 47. Her star has been in the ascendant in the decades since, and it will not dim in our lifetime.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland with support from Aeromexico, is at the V&A (vam.ac.uk) from
16 June until 4 November
‘Kahlo defined who she was on her own terms. She expressed her non-conformist ways of being through her art and clothes’
Previous pages Frida Kahlo in 1939, photographed by Nickolas Muray, with whom she had a decade-long on-off relationship.This page, from left Kahlo and Diego Rivera with their pet monkey in Mexico City, 1940s; Kahlo’s prosthetic leg with leather boot, which is featured in the V&A exhibition
This page, from left Kahlo’s studio in the Blue House, which has been restored and opened to visitors as the Frida Kahlo Museum; the house’s courtyard and garden. Photographs by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock