Frida Kahlo’s Making Herself Up: ‘Elevated lifestyle porn’

By Stella Botes

Making Herself Up, on now at the V&A, is at heart a fashion exhibition – the curators, Claire Wilcox and Cerce Henestrosa, are both from the fashion department of the museum- and yet, it has merited a move from the V&A’s tight fashion space in an alcove of ‘the main hall, into a wider, more accommodating exhibition space. Perhaps this is because this exhibition is about a fashioning, the aesthetics of a life; Kahlo’s work takes a back seat, acting as an accent to her photographs, documents and objects. The exhibition constructs an aesthetic world which moves between the private and the public. On one level, there is Frida the artist and career-woman, photographed with her paintings and brushes like food around her, with a real air of the intensity and personality of her practice. Then there is the Frida of everyday life, who used this medicine and that perfume, made her bed like this, wore her shawl like that.

Self Portrait as a Tehuana (1943) by Frida Kahlo

Both of these are Fridas that we know. In fact, there is no Frida we don’t know. There is no mystery to this artist- her life and her suffering are entirely exposed. And yet, despite this transparency, she continues to capture the public imagination in a way unrivalled by the darkness of artists such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko. Making Herself Up demonstrates this relentless fascination as it lays out all the objects of Kahlo’s life- her lipsticks, letters, diaries, medical corsets, dresses and decorations.

Yet it does so without any of self-awareness. The obsessional nature of the public relationship to Kahlo is not acknowledged but revelled in as a kind of lifestyle porn. I found myself noting the perfumes Kahlo wore (Guerlain ‘Shalimar’ and Chanel No. 5 Body lotion, for those interested), as though by mimicking her smell I might gain something of her potent attraction. The exhibition itself became something of a consumer-fest, like a page form House&Garden or a beauty section on summer lipsticks, flower crowns. It felt at times as though the audiences main takeaway might be notes on how to tie a shawl, how to accent a bedroom wall or how best to use bathroom tiles. It demonstrates an unashamed obsession with all that is Frida Kahlo, right down to her medicines for diarrhoea, or emetics. This obsession which was only underlined by the bookend of the exhibition, the gift shop, filled with a curation of Kahlo-inspired tea-towels, sleeping masks, rubbers and scarves.

Selection of cosmetics owned by Frida Kahlo

Much has been made of how Kahlo might have felt about this rabid consumption of her life, yet what this exhibition does show is that the Kahlo we know today was one carefully constructed throughout the artist’s life. The exhibition begins with photographic self-portraits of the artist, articulating an awakening self-identity – in one, she dresses as a man in a suit and tie with a stern centre parting, in another, she wears the confection of communion dress, gazing into the camera with a saccharine stare. The articulation of her self-image in her life and work was a labour of what might now be called ‘branding’, a consciousness of the power of her own looks, taste and identity. Kahlo came to us as a pre-packaged, tightly-coiled phenomenon of aesthetic aspiration.

This Midas touch which Kahlo possesses is in many ways inexplicable. What makes her such a modern woman? What draws us to her like moths to a lightbulb? Many of the visitors stood enthralled before the extraordinary videos of Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, some even in colour film, marvelling at her self-possession and charisma. Making Herself Up, while excavating the minutiae of Kahlo’s life, offers no answer to the question of her timeless appeal, yet deftly provides an outlet for Kahlo-mania, and permission to indulge in our collective obsession.

Photographs (from top): Nickolas Muray, Self Portrait as a Tehuana c/o fridakahlo.org, Javier Hinojosa © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums

Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 4th November 2018.

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