As the world-leading V&A opens its Frida Kahlo exhibition, Rena Niamh Smith looks at the complex life of this iconic artist.
Frida Kahlo’s image has become a pop cult touchstone. With the crown of flowers, monobrow, dark eyes and the sometimes-omitted moustache, this disabled bisexual Mexican communist’s image is eclipsing Che Guevara’s as the in-the-know poster child for rebellion with a zeitgeist feminist update.
These days, any serious children’s bookshop carries at least a couple of books explaining Kahlo to baby feminists as a girl who said “Yes we can”. In March this year Barbie released a Kahlo version to celebrate International Women’s Day alongside a range of contemporary feminist icons. Then last month the V&A opened an exhibition dedicated to her art and style entitled Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up.
Her life story alone is cinematically remarkable. Growing up during the Mexican Revolution, she contracted polio at six, permanently weakening her right leg. Aged 18, she suffered a catastrophic accident when a tram she was on crashed into a bus and she was impaled through the abdomen by a metal handrail, breaking her legs, spine, pelvis and collarbone. It was a miracle that she survived. She was disabled for life as a consequence. She painted as a pastime and as a way to process the accident, inspired by her photographer father and informed by work she had done with him.
At 21 she married one of Mexico’s foremost communists and artists, Diego Rivera, though he was twice her age and double her stature. Her parents derided the union as “the elephant and the dove”. Rivera was expelled from the Mexican communist party in 1929, and Kahlo followed. They moved to the United States, first to San Francisco, and later New York and Detroit, where Kahlo suffered one of her most painful miscarriages.
In the late 1930s they moved back to Mexico and Kahlo’s art star began to ascend, taking her alone to New York and Paris. She became a recognised artist in Mexico, teaching at “La Esmerelda” National School of Painting, Sculpture and Printmaking to a dedicated class of followers from 1943. By the early 1950s, dependent on painkillers and alcohol, she contracted gangrene in her polio-weakened leg, which had to be amputated in 1953. She died the following year. When her coffin lay in state, it was draped in the Soviet flag.
Much of the V&A exhibition is made up of her effects, locked in her bathroom for 50 years on Rivera’s orders, and only unlocked in 2004.
Kahlo was rediscovered after her death by feminists outside Mexico looking to redress the gender balance in art history books. What gives Kahlo a powerful legacy is that she is a figure rich for examination for many different peoples: from her distinctive beauty and style, political identity, challenge to gender expectations and provocative art.
She makes an excellent icon of the feminist movement. She engaged with the wider oppression of women in her work, as can be seen in “A Few Small Nips” (1935). A man stands over a naked woman lying bloody on a bed, depicting a contemporary court case of domestic violence.
It seems counterintuitive to define Kahlo by her relationship to her artist husband Rivera, but the differing receptions to their work, and the power-play in their marriage, exemplify challenges faced by women of the era. They also underline her unique confidence. In Kahlo as Artist, Woman, Rebel, Mary Motian-Meadows quotes Bea Campbell’s definition: “Feminism necessarily identifies both the subjective and objective conditions of existence as problems of politics. In other words, the person becomes a political problem.”
Like virtually all women, Kahlo relied on marriage for financial support. In her case this was exacerbated by significant medical costs. Her art began as a private pastime compared with Rivera’s vast, public murals. His influence was titanic among revolutionaries and peasants. Few women were taken seriously as artists. When she died, the New York Times obituary was titled “Frida Kahlo, Artist, Diego Rivera’s Wife.”
Rivera was a notorious adulterer, and though Kahlo had affairs too, many understand her affairs as retaliations against his, and point to the deep love she expressed for Rivera. The Two Fridas (1939) shows twin figures of Frida sit facing one another clasping hands, one in Tehuana dress, her visible heart shown in full: on the other, in Victorian dress with a blood-spattered lap, her heart visibly ripped open. She wrote that these represented the twin sides of her personality, one which he loved and the other which Rivera rejected.
This love story provided the thrust for the 2009 film version of her life starring Salma Hayek. As Deborah Shaw wrote in the Independent: “Since her death, Kahlo has been transformed to make her less threatening to Western capitalist belief systems… her anti-Americanism, bisexuality, and her radical Stalinist politics are played down. In their place, Salma Hayek’s Frida embodies talent and physical attractiveness.”
More than betrayed wife, Kahlo was a polyamorous bisexual who challenged the bourgeois institution of marriage. Her lovers included Leon Trotsky and Jacqueline Lamba who was married to surrealist superstar André Breton.
She travelled extensively and had a public life at a time when her childhood polio and road accident marked her out as deficient according to common consensus, when disabled people were forced to be hidden from view for life. In Europe the physically weak were being targeted and led to the gas chambers. Towards the end of her life she was bedbound during an exhibition of her work. She had her bed taken to the opening ceremony in the back of an ambulance and held court from it at the gallery.
Her work explores complex experiences of women never expressed by male artists, though female bodies remain a central subject in art. “Suffering from natural causes, such as illness or childbirth, is scantily represented in the history of art... That caused by accident, virtually not at all — as if there were no such thing as suffering by inadvertence or misadventure”, writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others. Kahlo’s work is thus rare on both counts.
The painted childbirth and miscarriage: her plaster corsets are on display at the V&A, with a curled foetus painted over the belly. She depicted a motherly feeling of love towards a lover. In The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Me, Diego and Mr Xolotl (1949), Rivera’s naked body in the foetal position lies on Kahlo’s lap, she herself embraced by a fecund figure and plantlife.
While an established feminist symbol, commercial opportunity has robbed Kahlo’s legacy of communist principle. Last year, Theresa May wore a bracelet with her image at the Tory party conference and Twitter was ablaze. Mainstream art historians explain away her communism as a passing association.
Kahlo wrote in 1953, “Today like never before I am not alone. It has been 25 years that I have been a communist. I know the central origins. I know the ancient roots. I’ve read the history of my country and almost all the villages there. I know its conflicts of economics and class. I understand clearly the materialist dialectics of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Zedong. I love them as the pillars of the new communist world. I realised the error of Trotsky since he arrived in Mexico. I was never a Trotskyite. But in that time, 1940, I was only an ally of Diego. (personally) (political mistake) — But you have to take into account that I’ve been sick since I was six years old and really very little of my life I’ve enjoyed health and I was useless to the Party. Now in 1953 after 22 surgeries I feel better and I can from time to time help my Communist Party. Since I’m not a worker, I am an artisan — and allied unconditionally to the communist revolutionary movement.”
Kahlo’s paintings are steeped in symbols and inherited traditions of Mexican art. Mexico then was a young country constructing its identity after the decade-long bloody revolution by peasants and workers throwing off the yoke of Spanish-descended imperialism. Kahlo attended the new National Prep School where new nationalism was promoted, and remained part of an A-list of politically engaged intellectuals from her schooldays onwards.
As Janice Helland writes in Culture, Politics, and Identity in the Paintings of Frida Kahlo, “Kahlo’s personal pain should not eclipse her commitment to Mexico and the Mexican people. As she sought her own roots, she also voiced concern for her country as it struggled for an independent cultural identity.” Kahlo expressed her national and social convictions in her style choices, which should not be overlooked by revolutionaries. As a teen, she dressed in boys’ suits, and as a newly wed to Rivera, in worker’s overalls; but her signature would be traditional Mexican styles.
Kahlo drew inspiration from Caotlicue: a serpent-skirted goddess, heart and skeletons, all three of which were important artistic Aztec symbols. Helland describes the importance of Aztec heritage as symbolic of anti-imperialism to the Mexican left. The V&A exhibition displays her outfits alongside explanations of some key pieces she loved to wear; the reboso (shawl), huilpil (tunic), holán (flounce) and enegua (skirt). Even in death, she has become an ambassador for Mexican apparel.
Yet those seeking to remember Kahlo as a pure aesthete do a disservice to her beliefs. The V&A exhibition also points to the flattering effect of such garments over a frame disfigured by plaster corsets and later, a prosthetic limb. In Frida Kahlo: Painting Her Own Reality, Julian Beecroft writes that through clothing, Kahlo was “disavowing her own bourgeois upbringing in favour of a common national identity that declared her allegiance to both the ideals and the ordinary Mexican people in whose name the revolution was fought. This was embodied in the costume of the Tehuanas, the strong women of the Tehuantepec region of the south west.”
Helland further highlights elements of Kahlo’s politics that are less palpable to many today, including those on the left: “This emphasis on the Aztec, rather than Mayan, Toltec, or other indigenous cultures, corresponds to her political demand for a unified, nationalistic and independent Mexico. Unlike her husband, she disapproved of Trotsky’s internationalism. She was drawn, rather, to Stalin’s nationalism, which she probably interpreted as a unifying force within his own country. Her anti-materialism had a distinctly anti-US focus.”
Rivera’s work was explicitly socialist, but it was expensive, so it was private individuals like Henry Ford and the Rockefellers who bankrolled the first couple of Mexican communism between government commissions at home, as can be seen at the Rockefeller Plaza in New York. Self Portrait Along the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States (1932) explores these contradictions in juxtaposing wild, natural Mexico with the smokestack-filled landscape of America, and herself between the two.
The parallel between Kahlo’s self-portraits and the current obsession with selfies is almost too easy to draw: “Kahlo continues to be worshipped for her impeccable selfie game, her iconic fashion sense, and her outspoken personality,” writes Izabella Gomez for Teen Vogue. While flippant, there is a danger that the work of a confident woman might be co-opted by the neoliberal age of individualism.
The title of the V&A exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, points to Kahlo’s place in identity politics. Art history general knowledge sites such as Art Story explain: “Finding herself often alone, she worked obsessively with self-portraiture. Her reflection fuelled an unflinching interest in identity.”
The Kahlo on display at the V&A is an artist with exceptional personal style who overcame severe disability to celebrate herself. Her communism is not absent. The first section, Introducing Frida Kahlo, includes images of Kahlo and Rivera working on his murals, attending a workers’ protest and on video with the Trotskys, after she and Rivera secured their emigration to Mexico. A photograph taken in the 1940s shows photos of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Trotsky on the headboard of her bed. In blood red, she has painted the hammer and sickle on her plaster corsets. Here Kahlo’s communism is perhaps understood as a feminine desire for social justice rather than a critique of capitalism. The exhibition gives equal weight to religious icons and images of Kahlo outside a cathedral. Religious fervour is a parallel factor often patronisingly levelled at her communist convictions.
It is impossible to know what Kahlo would make of the commercial opportunities that accompany her cult status. She was involved in creating her own myth, claiming to have been born at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, and calling herself a “child of the revolution”, when in fact she was born the year before it began.
The V&A exhibition highlights many contradictions of Kahlo being adopted by the mainstream. As Sontag writes, museums have evolved from displays and conservations of fine art to “a vast educational institution-cum-emporium…the primary function is entertainment and education in varying mixes, and the marketing of experiences, tastes and simulacra.”
What particularly crystalizes the way in which Kahlo’s work is being plundered of meaning is that the principal sponsor of the V&A exhibition is Grosvenor Britain & Ireland. A property company under the aristocratic Grosvenor Estate, they have assets under management of £5.2bn in locations such as Belgravia. And with this partnership, Grosvenor have “taken inspiration” from Kahlo for a “range of products” to market their property portfolio to an international clientele of super rich just a stone’s throw from Grenfell.
Grosvenor CEO Craig McWilliam said at the exhibition’s opening, “It’s great to celebrate the work of an exceptional individual, who … was politically charged, striking, original and unafraid to celebrate herself. She portrayed herself in ways that highlighted communal rather than the self-obsessed.”
In a weird twist, Kahlo is only deemed worthy of this cult of individuality because she seemed to stand against it. Though she described herself as a Communist, it is her identity as one that is being remembered in South Kensington, rather than the meaning of those politics. She highlighted the plight of women and of colonised peoples, but it is as a remarkable individual that she has been given a place in history.