Frida Kahlo invented her personal style and became one of the most recognizable faces in all art history. One could say the artist is more famous than her art. The exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, in the Brooklyn Museum, presents only 11 of Kahlo’s paintings among 300 objects. It’s not a show of the Mexican artist’s work, but a retrospective of her life through her clothing and items from her beloved Blue House, in Mexico City, where she was born, where she lived with Diego Rivera, and died, in 1954. She was 47 years old.
For the first time in an American exhibition, there are so many of Kahlo’s personal artifacts ranging from examples of her Tehuana clothing, contemporary and Mesoamerican jewelry, and many hand-painted corsets and prosthetics used by the artist during her lifetime. Shedding new light on one of the most popular artists of the twentieth century, these objects illustrate how Kahlo crafted her appearance, and shaped her personal and public identity to reflect her cultural heritage and political beliefs while also incorporating her physical deformities.
Kahlo adopted the indigenous Tehuana dress as a way to embrace her Mexican identity. Her fascination with traditional Mexican clothing became a part of her persona. But that choice – long, voluminous skirts, billowing blouses – though a purposeful statement of her politics, was also a way to camouflage her disabilities. At 18, after recovering from a childhood case of polio that left one of her legs permanently weakened, the artist was in a horrific bus accident that resulted in a severely broken spine.
Enduring more than thirty surgeries in three decades, Kahlo was periodically bed-ridden. As a treatment, doctors would wrap her torso in plaster corsets, which she would playfully decorate with political symbols and words. The corsets and spinal braces are on display along with many bottles of medicine, and the prosthetic leg Kahlo relied on for the last months of her life, after her own was amputated.
Sections of the exhibit are devoted to explaining her support for communism, her tempestuous divorce from and second marriage to Rivera, and her extramarital affairs. There are also pieces of her identity that she wasn’t always open about: her bisexuality and her exploration of gender norms.
In the galleries, warm coral and blue walls emphasize Kahlo’s black-and-white family photos mostly taken by her father, Guillermo Kahlo, a prestigious professional portraitist. Videos are projected at a floor-to-ceiling height, adding an extra level of sensory immersion and light in the space. As Kahlo’s paintings enter the mix, the colors within the frames take over, playing against a muted background of gray or white.
The walls are full of her quotes and sketches, revealing an artist sometimes at odds with herself or her surroundings. As the exhibit builds, it leads to a blue room, a homage to Kahlo’s Blue House, now a museum. In the middle of Mesoamerican figurines, statues of Kahlo’s favorite dog, and dolls she hand stitched, is another video of the two artists at home.
The final room is perhaps the most stunning of all, a long hallway filled with several outfits from Kahlo’s wardrobe. There are formal and casual clothes, striped shawls over white lace blouses, coveralls festooned with woven silk flowers, intricate skirts, colorful rebozos (shawls), chunky jade necklaces.
This exhibition originated at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London, curated by Circe Henestrosa. Here, it was co-organized by the Brooklyn Museum curators Catherine Morris and Lisa Small, assisted by Circe Henestrosa. The exhibition closes on May 12.