Exhibition review: Making Her Self Up

Hi all,

Apologies for the radio silence: I enjoyed a wonderful five weeks in heatwave Britain, saw lots of castles, museums and historic sites and then had to plunge head first into uni as I was three weeks behind – and jet lagged. But I’m catching up at last.

My first assignment was an exhibition review: what a treat! I’m so pleased with it (and got a good mark) so I’m sharing it with you here. Sadly the V&A doesn’t let people take photos in their best exhibitions, so all I have is a couple of borrowed images but there are more online if you wish to see them, including in the bibliography links at the end.

This is the first time I’ve shared any of my work at Deakin: this is part of my Master’s of Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies degree, but hopefully won’t be the last.

I should add that for the assignment, I had to include details about interpretation and visitor management, and didn’t have the word count to wax lyrically about the objects themselves as much as I’d like (there’s so much I’d like to say about Frida’s clothes) but I hope you enjoy it and if you happen to be in London before it closes in November do see it, but book as soon as you can: I had to book five weeks in advance, and only got in to see it a few hours before my plane left for home. I’m glad I did.


Exhibition Review – Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up
Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Nicole Jenkins

The V&A has another blockbuster exhibition on their hands with their new work, an edit of the personal effects of surrealist artist and feminist icon, Frida Kahlo.

Curator Claire Wilcox, the museum’s senior fashion curator, has teamed up with the Museo Frida Kahlo and curator Circe Henestrosa to display a selection of the great painter’s wardrobe and ephemera. These artefacts were preserved as an intact collection at the time of her death in 1954, sealed up in a bathroom at The Blue House, her home and place of death (and now museum) and were only revealed recently, providing a rich and poignant document to one of the 20th century’s most influential women. This is the first time these items have travelled out of Mexico.

Found were over 22,000 documents, photographs and garments along with make-up, perfume, medicines, sketches and linens. Together they create a picture of a complex woman: androgynous, communist, disabled, intelligent, passionate, creative, strong-willed and suffering. A small but notable selection is displayed here as her story is told chronologically from childhood to death, from innocence to unbearable pain.

The exhibition is set out as a series of rooms, flowing from smallest to largest, with timed entry to control the inevitable crowds. The museum has learned from previous experiences like the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition (2015) and reduced capacity, as it was easy to move and the access to objects was never impeded.

As you enter each space, you can clearly view all aspects including the egress to the next gallery. Security guards monitor traffic and were available to aid a woman with pram, who was at risk at causing blockages in the flow.

The exhibition begins with the traditional white gallery walls featuring archival images with detailed interpretative panels introducing you to Kahlo’s childhood and young marriage, but the hues darken to grey in the first large gallery where evidence of Kahlo’s sufferings appear, and you find several large four poster bed-inspired display cabinets filled with ephemera.

The beds are reproductions of the styles seen in the black and white photographs on the walls, of Kahlo painting in bed, mirror in hand, and are an evocative and creative touch, layering the motif of illness with a lingering sense of a life greatly limited by her injuries: her life lived within her bed, usually at home but sometimes elsewhere. During her last illness, she lay on a bed within an art gallery at the opening of her first (and only) Mexican exhibition.

Within the cabinet-beds, Kahlo’s personal objects rest on institutional white padded mattresses. A treasured book of Walt Whitman poems (found next to her, in death) lies abandoned on a pillow.

Central to Kahlo’s art is the well-known tale of her martyrdom: childhood polio followed by the adolescent tram accident destroying dreams of a medical career and the long months spent in bed, lying beneath a mirrored ceiling creating self-portraits. The passionate marriage – twice – with the unfaithful but (at the time) more famous artist husband, Diego Rivera.

Here the suffering is brought into great detail: along with sketches of her wounds and surgeries we see plaster-cast corsets, orthopaedic supports meant to be thrown away but instead meticulously hand-painted by the restless woman seeking to bring beauty where there is only pain. Fashionable shoes mutilated, much like her body, to accommodate gangrenous toes. Hand-embroidered silk Chinese dragons ornament a red high heeled boot attached to an artificial leg. Kahlo was fascinated by different cultures and incorporated them into her work and life.

Visitors are well catered for: whilst there is an absence of seating in the galleries, a supply of fold-up chairs were secreted into a dark corner and were easily implemented if needed.

Next we progress through a dark womb-like passage surrounded by moving colour and sound, before emerging into the final and grandest gallery adorned with dark blue walls – the colour transitioning to illustrate a journey into pain and knowledge, towards an early death perhaps by suicide.

Likewise the ambient soundscape moves from cheerful bird noises at the beginning, soon fading into more solemn and intense noises. These visual and aural changes are surprisingly subtle, and fade into the background as the artefacts are so arresting.

Leather and metal boned torture-like structures created to enable a pretence of a normal life, were hidden under Kahlo’s preferred (and recognisably iconic) bulky traditional ‘Tehuana’ garb favoured by the women of the Oaxaca region. These boxy and voluminous garments offered a spiritual connection with a matriarchal heritage in contravention to contemporary fashions of the time, which were more feminine and flattering.

Indeed, it’s when you see photos of Kahlo with her contemporaries: other women of the era, especially in North America, that you wonder at her rejection of the styles worn by her sisters and friends. Her idiosyncratic choice has served her legend, as the style is so recognisably hers even as it is at odds with convention.

It is exciting to discover that Kahlo’s famous mono-brow was enhanced by the application of a Revlon eyebrow pencil, in direct contrast to the wispy arcs that were made fashionable by Hollywood actresses of the day, like Jean Harlow. Here is a woman who valued her uniqueness and revelled in it. When you see the glorious colour photographs by her lover Nikolas Muray, you admire a celebrated self-portraiture artist who was more beautiful in person, than in her art, a woman lacking in vanity.

Whilst it’s enlightening to see the real and vibrant garments that are so familiar from her paintings, and discern their intricate details, seeing them in person just emphasises how empty they are without the woman who inhabited them. Without Frida, they just become old clothes, personalised by the paint splashes and cigarette burns of a woman who took care, but not too much, and darned them by hand when they became worn out.

The V&A have done their best to show them off, creating customised mannequins with stylised braided hairstyles with the correct proportions, derived by measuring the clothes and applying a discerning eye to her portraits. The resulting fibreglass forms are covered in papier-mâché-style cardboard strips, producing a stone-like finish suggestive of Kahlo’s iconic stature, but through their attention to detail the mannequins detract and command too much attention to themselves. One reviewer considered them to be “creepy” like a sleeping zombie army. I wonder what Kahlo, a woman who appreciated her own unique beauty, would have thought of them all?

Image sources:

• Anonymous, ‘Frida Kahlo: Appearances may be Deceiving’, Museo Frida Kahlo, UAL site, http://ualresearchonline.arts.ac.uk/9396/, [accessed 30/7/18]
• Anonymous, ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up’, V&A museum site, https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/frida-kahlo-making-her-self-up, [accessed 30/7/18]
• Anonymous, ‘Making the Frida Kahlo mannequins’, V&A museum site, https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/making-the-frida-kahlo-mannequins, [accessed 30/7/18]
• Anonymous, Museo Frida Kahlo site, http://www.museofridakahlo.org.mx/en/ [accessed 30/7/18]
• Anonymous, ‘Unlocking Frida Kahlo’s wardrobe’, V&A museum site, https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/unlocking-frida-kahlos-wardrobe, [accessed 30/7/18]
• Barnes-Brown, A., 14/6/18, ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up exhibition wows at the V&A’, History Answers site, https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/people-politics/frida-kahlo-making-her-self-up-exhibition-review/ [accessed 30/7/18]
• Cumming, L., ‘Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up review – an extraordinary testimony to suffering and spirit’, The Guardian newspaper site, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jun/10/frida-kahlo-making-her-self-up-v-and-a-cindy-sherman-spruth-magers-review [accessed 30/7/18]
• Faith, S., 8/6/18, ‘Frida Kahlo Artist or Cult Figure? Making Her Self Up at V&A’, http://www.artlyst.com/reviews/frida-kahlo-artist-cult-figure-making-self-va/ [accessed 30/7/18]
• Gaboriault, H., 15/4/13, ‘Unveiling Frida Kahlo’s Closet’, Madam Meow blog, http://madammeow-hollygaboriault.blogspot.com/2013/04/unveiling-frida-kahlos-closet.html, [accessed 30/7/18]
• Levy, D., ‘Under her skin’. New Statesman [serial online]. June 29, 2018;147(5425):48. Available from: Supplemental Index, Ipswich, MA. [accessed July 29, 2018].
• Vitarelli, C., 17/10/13, ‘Appearances can be deceiving: the dresses of Frida Kahlo’, Grey magazine site, http://grey-magaziC.ne.com/appearances-can-be-deceiving-the-dresses-of-frida-kahlo [accessed 30/7/18].

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