It’s Impossible to Label Frida Kahlo. That’s Her Power.
In life, Frida Kahlo rejected labels. Today, they plague her legacy. A new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum aims to explore Kahlo the complicated.
Frida Kahlo’s face has been plastered on T-shirts, posters, and lipstick tubes for the past 50 years, and each instance of merchandising can shell a different narrative.
There’s Frida the victim, crippled from polio, with lingering pain from a bus accident, painting in her bed through near-paralysis. There’s Frida the wife, shining through the shadows of her painter husband Diego Rivera. There’s Frida the feminist, Frida the communist, Frida the Mexican, Frida the folk hero, Frida the controversial Barbie Doll, and on and on.
Fresh off the blockbuster success of Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum comes the Brooklyn Museum’s Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving. This new exhibit, opening Friday, aims to strip the artist of such qualifiers and cultivate a portrait of Frida, the complicated.
The exhibit takes cues from past shows, such as the V&A’s display, which boasted 285,000 visitors (including both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May). Mexican fashion historian Circe Henestrosa curated that exhibit, which itself was based off of her original showing at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City.
More than 300 objects made their way from Mexico to London to Brooklyn, and the stateside exhibition was curated at breakneck speed, as the museum’s team only had five months to pull the items together. Many of the artifacts were discovered in Kahlo’s home in 2004, and this event marks their first U.S. display.
Those items include 22 ensembles pulled from Kahlo’s own closet, and dress is a focal point of the exhibit’s final room. Kahlo’s sense of style drew heavily from Mexican folk art, and her crafted appearance—Tehuana dress, floral headbands, that famous monobrow—has been marketed and fetishized to death.
Still, the event’s curators felt that Kahlo’s outfits were vital to telling her story as an artist. Some of her skirts are splotched with paint stains or pen ink, proving Kahlo’s dress played a role in the creation of her work.
“I think it’s a completely legitimate question to ask, ‘How can you do a show about one of the greatest female artists of the 20th century’s clothes?’” Catherine Morris, who co-curated the exhibit and leads the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, told The Daily Beast. “It felt vitally important to show [Kahlo’s] clothing, because she fully integrated that aspect of herself in her work, as she did with her disability and politics.”
After contracting polio in 1911 at the age of six, Kahlo was left with a permanent disability. A near-fatal bus accident in 1925 caused more lifelong pain, which left Kahlo bedridden for three months. She abandoned her plans to become a doctor and picked up painting (and posing, which she would practice in a mirror placed above her bed).
These devastating events set Kahlo’s course in motion, but the curators were weary of victimizing their subject. One theme of the show is “Disability and Creativity,” which is punctuated in museum notes by Kahlo’s quote, “In spite of my long illness, I feel immense joy in LIVING.”
As such, Kahlo’s medical corsets are displayed in glass cases, but point to her artistic spirit just as much to her immobility. Kahlo intricately painted her caster braces, adorning one with a fetus on the stomach and a red hammer and sickle at the heart. Similarly, a leg brace she wore is fitted into an opulent pair of red embroidered boots.
“There is so much language around Frida Kahlo about pain, suffering, and brokenness,” Morris said. “There is a very strong opportunity in this exhibition to prioritize how we talk about a person who lived with a disability. She was not just someone who overcame things, and she is not someone who is broken. She is a person, like so many people in the world, who had disabilities.”
That said, a trove of artifacts documenting Kahlo's illnesses, such as medicine bottles, doctor's notes, and a worn copy of Poems by Walt Whitman that Kahlo stashed near her deathbed, serve as sobering reminders of the immense physical pain Kahlo endured through her entire adult life.
“Thinking about all the painting Kahlo did on her back in a bed made me view her as a very strong person,” co-curator Lisa Small said. “I love the idea of flipping the overdramatized image of Frida the victim; we are definitely trying to stay away from that.”
The team tackled Kahlo’s sexuality with similar strokes; though the artist would at times darken her facial hair with makeup to appear more masculine and had relationships with both men and women, exhibit notes are hesitant to label her as gender fluid.
“People want to talk about gender binaries with Kahlo, and we do in the exhibition, but it’s very interesting to think about how we impose our 2019 language on a figure who would have never had those conversations,” Morris said.
Kahlo’s heritage is also examined, starting with her roots as the daughter of a Lutheran German immigrant father and indigenous Mexican mother. Kahlo spent most of her life in the family home, La Casa Azul, which is recreated with Mesoamerican art pulled from the museum's own collection.
Early portraits of Kahlo taken by her photographer father Guillermo Kahlo are on display, showing how she learned to be comfortable as a subject early on in life.
“Her father taught her how to sit for a photograph, head-on, and it was a pose she returned to for the rest of her life,” Morris said. “From her earliest childhood moments, she was fully aware of herself as a subject, and fully in control of it.”
All exhibit notes are written in both English and Spanish. Though the show clearly aims to celebrate Kahlo as purely as possible, museum higher-ups could not help but pepper some politics into press preview opening remarks.
In the wake of President Trump's demand for a border wall, Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak said she hoped the exhibit will “spotlight more dignified portraits of Mexico's great traditions and history.”
No more was said, but it did not need to be. It is clear this is Kahlo's show, and guests would prefer to let her boundary-breaking work speak for itself.
Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving is at the Brooklyn Museum, from February 8-May 12.