What lies beneath Frida Kahlo’s belongings locked away in a room for 50 years

Frida Kahlo’s belongings had been locked away in a room in her home on the outskirts of Mexico City for 50 years. It took four years for historians to catalogue the 6,000 photographs, 12,000 documents and 300 items found. Now they are on show at the V&A as part of its summer exhibition. Suzanne Harrington takes a look.

What lies beneath Frida Kahlo’s belongings locked away in a room for 50 years

Frida Kahlo’s belongings had been locked away in a room in her home on the outskirts of Mexico City for 50 years. It took four years for historians to catalogue the 6,000 photographs, 12,000 documents and 300 items found. Now they are on show at the V&A as part of its summer exhibition. Suzanne Harrington takes a look.

“I am my own muse, I am the subject that I know the best,” said Frida Kahlo, revolutionary artist, feminist icon, and arguably the originator of selfies. But instead of presenting herself through a flattering filter, her self-portraits were painted in pain, the creative processing of emotional loss and physical agony fiercely channelled. Frida’s indomitable spirit, trapped in an increasingly broken body, was released first through her work, and then through her death, aged just 47, in 1954.

Fifty years later, a locked room was opened in 2004 at the Casa Azul, her house near Mexico City where she had been born, lived and died.

Originally sealed by her husband, the political muralist Diego Rivera, the room contained over 200 personal objects belonging to Frida. Clothes, jewellery, makeup, letters, photos, medicines, painkillers and ephemera were recovered.

Such is the instant recognisability of Frida Kahlo’s appearance – today’s equivalent to the ubiquitous Che Guevara imagery of the 1990s, except more marketable on Etsy, from hair flowers to shawls and chunky metal jewellery – that London’s V&A has just launched an exhibition based not of the artist’s work, but of her distinctive and much-imitated look.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, says its curators, “offers a fresh perspective on the life story of this extraordinary artist, whose charisma and entirely individual way of dressing made her one of the most photographed women of her time”.

The monobrow. The red lipstick. The hair woven with bright fresh flowers. The hot colours, the traditional Mexican costumes with which she created her own distinctive look. The flowing flouncy skirts. (“I must have full skirts, and long, now that my sick leg is so ugly,” she said).

Frida Kahlo did not just make art, she was art.

What she would have made of a sophisticated London art crowd gawping at her artificial leg – on the end of which is fitted a small elegant red leather boot with green embroidery and silver bells – remains unknown.

Would she have liked her medical corsets, hand painted by herself with the Communist hammer and sickle, to be presented in a glass case for all to see? Her nail varnish? Her sunglasses?

Despite the coruscating honesty of her self-portraiture, which variously present her in pain, in sorrow, in lust, in love obsession, in loss, in contemplation, and in power, there is something quite voyeuristic about gazing at semi-naked photos of her plaiting her hair. A bit like rifling through her knicker drawer.

Frida Kahlo, around 1926. Museo Frida Kahlo, Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives.
Frida Kahlo, around 1926. Museo Frida Kahlo, Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives.

Or would she have enjoyed our curiosity, perhaps found it funny?

Frida Kahlo was not hugely well known outside the art world until a certain Madonna Louise Ciccone began collecting her work three decades ago (her influence on Madonna remains significant – the performer’s 2015 Rebel Heart album cover features her face tied in black binding, a direct homage of a Kahlo self-portrait where Frida’s face is bound in rope. Except the Madonna version is filtered to look pretty).

Frida, on the other hand, painted herself to be less beautiful that she was in real life; while photographs of her are vibrant and luminous, her portraits are often shadowed and harsh, reflecting her inner world of physical pain.

These days, we all know Frida Kahlo. Not only has she influenced fashion designers from Dolce & Gabanna and Balenciaga to Celine and Burberry, appeared on the wrist of the British prime minister, been Beyonce’s Halloween costume, and inspired countless artists and makers to produce Frida-inspired objets, so strong is her image that it can be reduced to a single monobrow under a cluster of flowers.

The flesh and blood Frida lost much of both during her life, yet maintained robust emotional strength as her body suffered and deteriorated.

“I suffered two grave accidents in my life,” she said.

“One in which a streetcar knocked me down…. the other is Diego.”

The first accident happened in 1925 when she was 18, and was impaled by a metal pole in a tram collision, leaving her with lifelong pain and mobility problems, and ultimately resulting in one of her legs being amputated because of gangrene.

She had been studying medicine, one of 25 young women amongst a student body of 2,000, but the accident brought her studies to an abrupt halt.

From her bed, immobile and trapped, she began painting.

She asked for a mirror to be fixed above the bed, and began producing self portraits.

She had already suffered from polio as a small child, which had left her with a weakened leg; this experience may have lent her strength to deal with the physical catastrophe of the tram accident which was to dominate her life, and prematurely end it. But not before she created a body of work which would make her one of the most revered artists of all time.

The second “accident” was falling in love with Communist artist Diego Rivera, whom she first met in 1922 when he came to paint a mural at her school. At the time, it was Rivera who was the esteemed artist; Frida had not yet established herself.

Frida Kahlo in 1939, photo by Nickolas Muray, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives.
Frida Kahlo in 1939, photo by Nickolas Muray, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives.

They married in 1929, when she was 22 and he was 43. Her parents, a German father and Mexican mother, described the union as that of “an elephant and a dove”.

The elephantine Diego caused his wife much suffering with his infidelity, despite her own series of affairs – including a fling with Leon Trotsky, hiding out in Frida’s Casa Azul with his wife Natalia prior to being ice-picked in 1940.

Frida loved women as well as men, enjoying passionate relationships with both, although her great love remained Diego, whom she divorced in 1939 and remarried in 1940.

Eventually they lived in a house designed by Mexican-Irish artist Juan O’Gorman which had two separate areas linked by a walkway; perfect for them both to continue having affairs.

Because of her damaged body, Frida was unable to have children; her miscarriages were a source of great sorrow, which she converted into a series of raw paintings.

After a life threatening pregnancy loss while visiting Detroit in 1932, her fierce stoicism is apparent: “I had such hope to have a little Dieguito,” she said. “But now that it has happened there is nothing to do but put up with it.” The surrealist Andre Breton described her work, which was being shown in Europe and North America, and gaining acclaim, as a “a ribbon wrapped around a bomb”.

As her work continued to be shown, with a show in Paris organised by Breton and Marcel Duchamp, and the Louvre buying one of her paintings, plus shows at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery in New York following her first solo show in the city in 1938, Frida’s health went into terminal decline.

Operation followed operation, so that she spent months on end in hospital, increasingly reliant on high doses of pain medication.

Her right leg was amputated in 1953, resulting in her hosting a solo show in Mexico City from her bed, completing work while on her back and in great pain.

She died on 13 July 1954. Such is her enduring image that the gift shop at the V&A is filled not just with books and prints of her work, but with flowers, earrings, shawls, necklaces, all in bright, unforgettable Mexican colours. Her look, created in a locked room in a blue house in Coyoacan, Mexico, lives on in our collective consciousness.

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