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

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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

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