Out of the Box: Between Photos, Paintings and Prosthetics

Written by Dr Birgitta Huse

 Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939. Photograph Nickolas Muray. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939. Photograph Nickolas Muray. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Do you also posess a nicely adorned haberdashery box with threads, needles and buttons that you use for repairing clothes? This personal box often is connected with dear memories, as it might have already been used by ones mother or grandmother. Maybe you have experienced special moments with your grandmother while she did some needlework?

When having a look at the wooden sewing box with velvet, silk, leather and paint of Frida Kahlo shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition in London, we might imagine how some of those intimate moments would have felt together with this famous Mexican artist at her home, the Casa Azul (Blue House) in Mexico City in the first decades of the 20th century. Would we have heard her talking about her feelings for her husband Diego Rivera? Or about the love affairs she had? Maybe she would have told us about her views on life. Personal stories about her journeys to the USA and Paris would have been very interesting, too. Maybe her friends and family would have been a focus, or perhaps her love for gardening and animals? What about simply imagining a chat with Frida about fashion and her beauty products and dresses? The pieces shown in “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up” until the 4th of November 2018 inspire our phantasy with regards to such a conversation.

 Exhibition view, Victoria & Albert Museum, photograph by Birgitta Huse

Exhibition view, Victoria & Albert Museum, photograph by Birgitta Huse

In the year 2004, Frida’s bathroom that was sealed following the instructions of her husband Diego Rivera after her death at 47 years of age, was opened. 50 years long, this treasure of 6000 photographs, 22.000 documents as well as around 300 personal items was locked up in the Casa Azul. Now a selection of her clothes and intimate possessions like her prosthetic leg, cosmetics, letters and jewellery, some of them never been shown before, is displayed together with key self-portraits and photographs, a union offering “a fresh perspective on her compelling life story”, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Photos taken by Frida Kahlo herself and her father Guillermo as well as by photographers like Tina Modotti, Nickolas Muray, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Héctor García, Leo Matiz and Edward Weston present themselves as an album to us. Somehow the exhibited objects come alive through them. We can see how they looked like when worn and used, and also how Frida combined the pieces of clothing for different occasions. The photos taken by Leo Matiz, for example, actually look like fashion photography: They capture the diversity of Kahlo’s wardrobe and show her standing near a tree or posing in front of a wall with her hand raised to her face or sitting near a furniture that serves as a base for her arm. Especially if we have been to Mexico we can imagine how the recorded moments must have felt like: the smell of certain plants, the canals in Xochimilco and food, tortillas for example, that are freshly prepared for the meals, the warm sun on the volcanic stones, the sound of crinkly skirts... We have the chance of getting more familiar not only with Frida but also with Frida Kahlo’s family and friends while strolling through the exhibition rooms. It is like meeting someone in person that you have not met before. Except that here we are offered intimate documents and objects of daily use and we can have a look at them as long as we wish, a situation we would not usually find ourselves in with people we know and less so when meeting them for the first time.

Frida Kahlo was very interested in clothes as a means of forming and expressing her identity. Her family background is quite a typical one for Mexico, her mother being of indigenous and Spanish origin (so called mestizo) and her father being German.  She was familiar with various styling possibilities of which to choose, namely indigenous, mestizo and European, and she made the most of it. She is internationally known for her paintings, especially her self-portraits in which she regularly presented herself in colourful, exotic Mexican dress. Her favourite garments were the Tehuana clothes, meaning the ones from the region of the Isthmus de Tehuantepec in the southern Mexican state called Oaxaca. The basic elements of this regional outfit until today are a huipil (blouse-like tunic) and a skirt on a waistband with a wide flounce. Following different fashions and individual taste also Kahlo created her own clothes in terms of colours, embroidery motifs and styles and fabric used.

 Exhibition view, Victoria & Albert Museum, photograph by Birgitta Huse

Exhibition view, Victoria & Albert Museum, photograph by Birgitta Huse

As a creative, Kahlo naturally invented something completely new: she mixed traditional garments from different regions with each other. A very good example is one of the exhibition highlights: she wore a Guatemalan cotton coat together with a huipil from the indigenous group of the Mazatec inhabiting the Sierra Mazateca in the state of Oaxaca. The coat itself is very special as it is made out of two huipiles together and cut down the middle. A black floor-length black skirt completes this outfit. Surprisingly Kahlo also combined chinese garments she found while travelling to the USA with Mexican huipiles.

 Exhibition view, Victoria & Albert Museum, photograph by Birgitta Huse

Exhibition view, Victoria & Albert Museum, photograph by Birgitta Huse

How often she used her sewing box in order to diversify her garments, adding some new details or making short huipiles longer by adding a section of cloth at the bottom for example, we do not know. The 22 outfits presented to us in the exhibition together with detailed explanations inspire us to think about Frida designing her garments and doing needlework – just as she painted her plaster corset in an individual way or had boots made of luxurious red leather decorated with bows and pieces of silk with Chinese dragon embroidery for her prosthetic leg.

 Prosthetic leg with leather boot. Appliquéd silk with embroidered Chinese motifs. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives

Prosthetic leg with leather boot. Appliquéd silk with embroidered Chinese motifs. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives

Together with perfume flacons, lipsticks and nail varnish of well known brands in reach of our hands in thematically concerted display cabinets, not to forget the varied photo and also film material presented to us, visiting this exhibition feels like getting to know stories – out of the box. Frida’s box…and some of the stories even told to us by herself.

 

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland

16 June – 4 November 2018

www.vam.ac.uk/FridaKahlo

 

www.birgittahuse.com