In June 2018 the V&A Museum will open the first Frida Kahlo exhibition to be held outside Mexico.
It’s not just Frida’s art that has become iconic; her style, sense of colour and even eyebrows have become fashion touchstones. You can wear Frida how you choose; her portrait adorns everything from door stops, to make-up bags. Even Theresa May sported a bracelet with Frida’s face on it at a Conservative party conference. The Mexican artist’s influence is a constant on the catwalk (Comme des Garcons, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Balenciaga have all been inspired by Frida), while a film adaptation of her life, starring Salma Hayek, released in 2002 was nominated for six Academy Awards; and Madonna, Beyonce, Rihanna and FKA Twigs all quote her as an inspiration.
Kahlo was born in 1907. She suffered polio age 6 which left her with one leg shorter than the other. In 1922, she was accepted into a prestigious school - one of only 35 girls out of 2,000 students - where she planned to study natural sciences. But at the age of 18 she nearly died in a bus accident which left her with multiple fractures and injuries that haunted her for the rest of her life. It dashed her hopes of becoming a doctor.
Kahlo had always enjoyed art and, confined to long periods of recovery in bed over many years, over many operations, she began painting – herself. She said; “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” More than a third of her work today consists of iconic self-portraits. "Frida Kahlo’s life story sang in acid-bright colours from her canvases" said Kate Hodges, author of I Know a Woman: The inspiring connections between the women who have shaped our world.; “She was the “original selfie queen”, said Susana Martinez Vidal, author of Frida Kahlo: Fashion as the Art of Being.
Kahlo had a lust for life, a fiery temperament and and poisonous tongue. She was political and joined the Mexican Communist Party where she met her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. Theirs was an unconventional and tumultuous marriage, both having numerous affairs (Frida with men and women); and they divorced and remarried.
It was only as her health declined that she gained recognition in her home country. After her death at the age of 47 in 1954 was she heralded as a feminist trailblazer, and the cult of Frida grew.
Kahlo died in her beloved Blue House, Mexico City, and her husband, Rivera, closed the doors, locking away more than 300 of Frida’s possessions. They remained untouched for 50 years. Clothing, medical corsets, jewellery, make-up, photographs, letters, self-portraits – a fascinating collection to enrich our understanding of one of the most iconic and trailblazing artists of the 20th century, a feminist long before it became a buzzword.
Her portraits convey a taste for brightly-coloured indigenous dress; and a true acceptance of her looks. She “highlighted her flaws to vindicate the beauty of imperfections”, said Vidal. She penciled in her unibrow with eyeliner, painted her lips bright red, and exaggerated her upper-lip hair – her attitude was progressive and she refused to confirm to society’s expectation of women.
It’s perhaps her radicalism that makes her so popular today; she was a woman ahead of her time. Her eventful, sometimes painful life adds in another layer of intrigue.
A Frida Kahlo portrait isn’t a Frida Kahlo portrait without dangling, mismatched earrings; chunky, decorative necklaces, an excess of rings and cultural headpieces; and a lot of colour. Check out our Arlette Gold ceramic Frida Kahlo ring by artist Fleur de Carotte.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up will run at the V&A from 16 June 2018 to 4 November.