By Anna Hadley
16 June 2018 – 18 November 2019. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
During her life, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was eclipsed by her husband, Diego Rivera. Rivera was an internationally acclaimed artist, who is credited with bringing the Mexican mural movement to North America. Like Kahlo, he was a prominent Marxist who had a close relationship with Leon Trotsky, and he most notably produced the Detroit Industry Murals.
Yet long after both of their deaths, Frida Kahlo is the house-hold name. And this leads me to where I am, at the Frida Kahlo ‘Making Herself Up’ exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, among the swathes of many. This exhibition had been sold out for months, and we are now packed in so tightly together, that any communal vision of a Marxist persuasion quickly gives out to irritation.
But what is on display here is Kahlo’s personal artefacts and clothing, which had been locked away for 50 years after her death. Many of which, it has to be said, are gorgeous. Featured here are her famous Tehuana dresses and elaborate necklaces that she had either made or purchased at flea markets. But the exhibition also shows a side of Kahlo which wasn’t ‘made up.’ Kahlo had been disabled since she had contracted polio in childhood, and her prosthetic limb and back brace is also on display. Yet it is here that I have to wonder whether this exhibition has descended into morbid hagiography.
Although Kahlo did indeed adorn her prosthetics, and so they could perhaps, be considered as part of her wider art collection, amongst this exhibition include pills and used makeup. Where, I wonder, are her artworks? To be fair, there are a few of Kahlo’s self-portraits exhibited here, but they are also buffeted by photographs taken of her by other people. The V&A website comments on the absence of Kahlo’s paintings, stating that ‘Kahlo’s possessions are the making of her.’ Yet surely the artist is not made through their possessions, but through the artworks themselves. As we know through this exhibition’s careful detailing of Kahlo’s biography, the emphasis upon her material possessions only contradict the Marxist philosophy that she espoused during her life.
Indeed, this exhibition sheds light, intentionally or otherwise, on what we consider art to be today. The artist’s life, and their material possessions, are now considered an artwork. Whether this is due to our current age of social media, reality television, or the proliferation of consumerism under late capitalism, I can’t tell. But as I conclude these thoughts, I exit into the gift shop, where I subsequently peruse Kahlo’s features on notebooks, pencil cases, and bags.
Image Credit: Nick Muray