Frida Kahlo: V&A Museum on 16 June 2018

The fierce and vibrant beauty of Frida Kahlo’s iconic aesthetic is deeply woven into the fabric of the modern world. Postcard photographs, fridge-magnets and flea market portraits of the afflicted Mexican artist’s strong face, hard stare and black hair adorned in vivid colour decorate everyday lives, globally. This summer, however, London’s imperious Victoria and Albert Museum will display Kahlo’s most personal belongings, exhibiting a collection of quotidian curiosities locked up for fifty years after her untimely death, and showcasing a three-dimensional view of what makes a person. The exhibition is aptly named ‘Making Her Self Up’.

As with any icon - although Kahlo certainly bore her heart on her sleeve, poring her profound struggle into prolific art works (at a rate of a painting a day) - we do not often have the opportunity to break the hard surface of the symbolic vision of Frida. Recall Selma Hayak slipping into her unmistakably bold makeup and richly decorated Tehuana dress, for example. Making Her Self Up breaks through this classic image, bringing to life the world of Kahlo through the objects with which she surrounded herself, through which she made her self from her surroundings. 

But the forthcoming exhibition,  as does the life and significance of Kahlo’s work, also promises a rare glimpse into Mexican culture and history. There are currently a number of expat Mexican artists living and working in the thriving arts scene of the Capital, such as Pilar Enrich, for example, who worked with the British Museum on the opening of the Mexico Gallery, which showcases ancient artefacts. These artists are forging live connections between contemporary Mexican and UK arts and culture. But through the uniquely socially and politically involved works and items of Frida Kahlo, the V&A will allow today’s Londoners to access a historic moment in unprecedented vividness.

What is the history of Frida Kahlo’s art, life and belongings? Kahlo was born to a German father and mestiza mother in 1907, although later, as she established her political positioning, she would claim her birth year as that of the Mexican Revolution, three years later in 1910. Growing up on the outskirts of Mexico City, Kahlo contracted polio at eleven and from here her childhood was troubled by a physical and psychological struggle to keep apace. 

With the help of her loving photographer father, however, she excelled academically and artistically and enrolled at the prestigious National Preparatory School. Here she was to form lasting relationships with celebrated future intellectuals and to meet her life-partner and possible ruin, Diego Rivera, who crossed her path when the school commissioned him to paint a mural there. It was also here that she began her obsession with the indigenous cultures of Mexico and their importance for the nation’s future. 

At eighteen, Kahlo suffered a life-changing bus crash in which she was impaled by a railing, which shattered her pelvis and fractured her spine and right leg. The accident left her severely incapacitated for life, destroyed her hopes of becoming a medical doctor, and ultimately led to her prolific life as a painter. After having an easel made especially for use by her bedside, Kahlo began to explore her suffering through the aesthetics of Mexican folk art. 

A central figure of the Mexicayotl movement, which sought to revive indigenous cultures, as well as an active communist dedicated to appreciating and celebrating the popular, Frida Kahlo’s life and works spread revolutionary energy across the globe. Her socially configured passions are evident in the intimate possessions displayed at the coming exhibition: indigenous dress, folk art and her Communist Party card. Kahlo’s relationship to the international art world was notoriously fraught, her spirit infamously rebellious. Throughout her career, she continuously asserted the significance of Mexican culture, and refused to unhinge her identity from it. 

Sadly, after further operations and infections, physical suffering overcame her voracious energy and she died of unknown causes at the age of 50. By this point, Rivera found her suffering to be so unbearable, he felt he should have ended her life for her. In her absence, she left a body of objects: the writings, art and artefacts which made up Frida Kahlo as a work of art itself. 

Making Up Her Self will show for the summer season. Tickets are now available on the museum’s website, book early to assure your place in this unique glimpse beneath the surface of an iconic image.