The artist Frida Kahlo is iconic. She is known first and foremost for her vibrant paintings, but the woman behind her work was also very much ‘painted’. The wildly popular exhibition at the V&A museum ‘Frida Kahlo: Making herself up’ shows how intimately the artist’s work and her life were intertwined.
Kahlo’s geometric patterned Tehuana clothing, beribboned and flower-laced hair, and immaculate make-up were all to disguise her suffering. When she was eighteen years old, Kahlo was impaled by a railing during a bus accident which broke a huge array of bones and pierced her vagina. The rest of her life was filled with miscarriages, hospitalisations, and surgeries including the amputation of her gangrenous right leg.
‘Making herself up’ tracks Kahlo’s life, showing both her vibrant exterior and the concealed medical trappings that held her shattered body together. A visitor is treated to Kahlo’s colourful mexicanidad fashions, often lengthened in the skirt to hide her mutilated leg or with additional detail around the collar to draw the eye upwards. Also on display are Kahlo’s medical corsets (one decorated by the artist with Communist symbols to make it more attractive), her prosthetic leg (shod in an intricate red leather Chinese boot) and the colossal stock medicines that kept her fragile body working.
Whilst in life Kahlo might have tried to paint an illusion, her artwork showed her suffering openly. Kahlo once said ‘I paint my own reality’ and this is very evident. In ‘The Broken Column’, the artist depicts herself with a crumbling pillar as her spine and in ‘Henry Ford Hospital’ the artist is painted, twisted in pain and surrounded by a web of umbilical cords and a shattered pelvis.
Those applying to study Fine Art might find it interesting to explore how an artist’s work extends beyond what they put down on a canvas or in another medium. History of Art applicants could track the development of ‘the self’ in artistic representations throughout history. Future medical undergraduates may find value in studying the development of medical aids, such as prosthetics.
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