I first saw the work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo while at art college. Whilst I was influenced by large abstract art at the time, Kahlos’ small figurative paintings intrigued me.
Over the years I viewed Kahlos’ work with increasing admiration. Her self portraits are instantly recognisable. Staring out defiantly with her distinctive monobrow, faint moustache and jet black hair pulled back from her Latin features. While Kahlos’ autobiographical paintings tell of a pained and troubled life through symbolism and motifs.
Frida Kahlo as icon
Kahlo was a groundbreaking figure in Mexican art during her lifetime. However, it was 30 years after her death, in 1954, that her iconic status really began to take off and turn into the Fridamania we see today. The image of Frida Kahlos’ face now appears in popular culture worldwide. From cosmetics to sanitary towels, phone cases to Barbie dolls. With this saturation, it’s easy to lose sight of the woman and the artist behind the fad.
‘Making Her Self Up’ Kahlo at the V&A
The V&A exhibition ‘Making Her Self Up’ in 2018, brought together Kahlo’s personal artefacts, clothing and belongings. Visiting it helped me to understand Frida on a more intimate level and helped to reconnected the preoccupation of her pop image back to the artist and the woman.
The family photos in the exhibition illustrated Fridas complex personality and freedom of self expression. At times cross-dressing and looking handsome in a suite, while at other times embracing her femininity with flowers in her hair. The tiny-footed red leather boot of her prosthetic leg made me realise she was a woman of petite build. I empathised with the restrictiveness she endured when wearing the iron corsets needed to support her spine throughout most of her life. The display of the traditional Mexican dresses that she wore to mask a twisted body, looked heavy with beautiful embroidery.
Kahlo and Mexican Folkart
The V&A exhibition displayed the votive art that Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, had collected in their lifetime. Mexican votive art are small, naive paintings made by rural folk . They depict a dangerous incident which a person has survived. These paintings are then offered at the altar to thank a saint for their miraculous intervention. Votive paintings in Kahlo’s house ‘Case Azul’ .Photo by joshbousel on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
The influences of the votive on Kahlos’ work are obvious. In both we must suspend reality when the spiritual and the earthly meet. The macabre themes and banners of text are also shared signatures.
I left the gallery in no doubt as to why she has earned her iconic status. Frida Kahlo was a woman of inner strength and deep passion. We recognise the truthful and honest way she portrayed her physical and emotional suffering. And we admire her confidence to celebrate her unconventional beauty in a contemporary world full of filtered selfies.
By Emma Allan