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Thursday, Oct 24, 2019

The inner life of Frida Kahlo

A walk-through of the Mexican artist’s retrospective makes you understand the truth about her life — and your own

brunch Updated: Aug 05, 2018 14:33 IST
Shunali Shroff
Shunali Shroff
Hindustan Times
Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939
Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine, 1939(Photo: Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives)

This July, I ventured into the hallowed halls of the Victoria & Albert museum, with the highly coveted tickets of Making Herself Up in hand. The exhibition promised to offer a fresh perspective on Frida Kahlo’s compelling life story. I knew what most of us know about Kahlo already: she was a bold and passionate artist, a communist by belief, an obsessed lover; she had a bad back, a polio leg and she spent a lot of her childhood in bed, looking at herself in a hand mirror and sketching her own images. What more was there to know about her?

Frida Kahlo’s exhibition at Victoria and Albert Museum has her prosthetic leg, a contraption attached to a red boot, with appliqued Chinese motifs
Frida Kahlo’s exhibition at Victoria and Albert Museum has her prosthetic leg, a contraption attached to a red boot, with appliqued Chinese motifs ( Photo: Javier Hinojosa. Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives )

There was however, a yearning in me to see her major artworks, and I impatiently walked from one room of the exhibition to another, hurrying past her family photographs, pictures clicked by her photographer father, her rebozo shawls, other pieces of her iconic wardrobe, and the footage of the revolution. The only time I paused was when I came face-to-face with her vividly hypnotic self-portraits. There weren’t as many of her works on display as one had expected, but the ones that were spoke in vivid colours of beauty, ideals, love, exploration, joy and pain.

Love and pain

Very early in the retrospective, one picked up details of her accident through images, personal notes from her diary and sketches. Frida was already crippled by polio when a bus accident at the age of 18 caused trauma and internal damage to her body, ripping apart her uterus and fracturing her back and leg in several places. She recovered from it for some time and went on to fall in love with Diego Rivera with whom she shared her political beliefs and love for art.

Frida’s self-portrait on the border between Mexico and the United States of America, 1932
Frida’s self-portrait on the border between Mexico and the United States of America, 1932 ( Photo: (c) Modern Art International Foundation , Courtesy María and Manuel Reyero )

There are breathlessly romantic letters exchanged between her and Diego on display too, along with translations. Kahlo affectionately called Diego ‘frog’ because his bulging eyes and body reminded her of one. Their marriage was complex and tumultuous but it did not discourage her from marrying him twice.

“I have suffered two major accidents in my life, one was when a street car knocked me down and the other was Diego,” she is known to have said.

Self-portrait of Frida Kahlo, 1941
Self-portrait of Frida Kahlo, 1941 ( Photo: (c) The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection )

Frida’s enduring love for Diego compared only with her commitment and love for her country Mexico and during her long travels to the US, even as she was surrounded by admirers, she missed Mexico and longed to return to it.

Frida was already crippled by polio when a bus accident at the age of 18 ripped apart her uterus and fractured her back and leg

The video footage of the blue house (La Casa Azul) where Frida was born, raised and died, is comforting and affirmative to look at against the backdrop of all the information that one has on her life. She lived in that house with Diego after they were married; Diego’s infidelity caused her great anguish, so the footage that features the two of them in it gives a heart-warming glimpse of their good days together.

Sore feet, soaring wings

It is only once you arrive inside the room that has on display her medicines, medical equipment, corsets, plasters painted with communist symbols, crutches and photographs of her with foot in traction, painting a canvas with great effort from her hospital bed, that you begin to appreciate the courage and forbearance that defined Kahlo’s short life.

Self-Portrait of Frida Kahlo, 1948
Self-Portrait of Frida Kahlo, 1948 ( Photo: (c) Private Collection )

Among these very personal belongings is also her prosthetic leg, a contraption attached to a beautiful red boot with appliqued Chinese motifs on it. She had it designed as per her specifications, and it is a very personal article that one is not sure she would have ever wanted to display to the world. The hand-painted plasters that speak of the pain they could not confine, make one wince, especially when one realises that one is staring at extreme human suffering, not mere plasters. ‘Pies para qué los quiero si tengo alas para volar’, reads the inscription of a painting displayed next to Kahlo’s crutches. The quote translates to, ‘Feet, what do I need them for, when I have wings to fly’. 

Art isn’t just about how you draw and paint but also how you present yourself to the world and Making Herself Up uncovers that aspect of Frida’s fierce personality. One of the earliest feminist icons, she maintained her famous unibrow and the prominent hair on her upper lip, refusing to succumb to conventions she felt were forced upon women.

Frida’s suffering wasn’t limited to her limbs and back alone. While her spine that was broken in various parts was held together by corsets, there was another irreparable setback that left her devastated. She suffered a miscarriage.

“I cried a lot, but it’s over, there is nothing else that can be done except to bear it,” Frida wrote to her personal doctor.

“I have suffered two major accidents in my life: one was when a street car knocked me down, and the other was Diego” —Frida Kahlo

An illustration depicting her miscarriage hangs inside one of the cabinets at the exhibition. It shows a woman mourning the loss of her unborn child and an artist holding a palette in her hand, conveying to the viewer a sense of the mother’s grief but at the same time also the artist searching for creative expression.

Expressionless mannequins wearing reproductions of her unconventional skirts and intricately designed blouses fill up a room. Her clothes were an expression of her individuality but more importantly a beautiful way to mask her disabilities.

When I finally exited the exhibition, what stayed with me was the realisation that pain was Kahlo’s constant companion.

Making Herself Up didn’t seek to elicit sympathy for the artist. It was a homage to her physical agonies and it exhorts us to view the artist’s entire life as a work of art by itself.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, is on till November 4

Shunali is a writer, an avid traveller and the author of the bestselling book Battle Hymn of a Bewildered Mother. (It is, however, her strong opinion on Twitter that often gets her the most attention.) Follow her on social media at @shunalishroff

From HT Brunch, August 5, 2018

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First Published: Aug 04, 2018 19:26 IST

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