Frida Kahlo is one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century. An active communist who would often claim 1910 as her birth year to position herself as a baby of the Mexican revolution (she was in fact born in 1907), Frida was a queer, differently abled Mexican woman of colour and a radical feminist who pioneered new forms, not simply in spite of but due to the childhood polio and horrific bus accident that left her bedridden for long stretches of her relatively short life. Proud of her Mexican heritage, Frida collected pre-colonial indigenous sculptures as well as traditional Catholic votives, painted by amateur artists to thank saints for miracles. A flamboyant and politically motivated dresser, she championed regional Mexican garments (most notably the embroidered, square-cut huipil tops of Tehuana), and rejected encroaching European beauty standards with her famous monobrow and light moustache.
It is incredibly exciting then, that more than 200 of Frida’s personal possessions – her clothes, accessories and makeup, as well as her medications and prosthetics – have just gone on show for the very first time outside of Mexico, at the V&A’s blockbuster exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up. The show is based on the recent discovery of these personal items in the bathroom of Frida’s family home in Mexico City, Casa Azul (The Blue House), where she was born and lived for much of her life, before she died there in 1954. Sealed up after Frida’s death by her husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, the bathroom was finally opened 50 years later in 2004 by Museo Frida Kahlo, which is housed within Casa Azul.
Speaking at a launch event on Wednesday, V&A senior curator Claire Wilcox told press that she and independent co-curator Circe Henestrosa had "pulled every article ever written" about Frida as part of their extensive research. It is a shame, then, that the exhibition focuses so exclusively on the much-commodified aesthetic of Frida’s look, with only fleeting mention of the radical politics that shaped it. Housed within a series of rooms painted deep blue to resemble Casa Azul, there are hints of Frida’s revolutionary socialism and feminism. In the first room, a photograph caption explains that, while in America with Diego (who had been commissioned to paint a number of murals), Frida "had been toying with American fashions" but reverted to traditional Mexican dress after Diego was fired by the Rockefeller Center in New York – for including a portrait of Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in his mural, and refusing to remove it.
Staunchly anti-capitalist, Frida detested having to socialise with the car magnate Henry Ford while in America, which she disparagingly referred to as "Gringolandia". Returning to Mexico in 1932, Frida painted "Self-Portrait On the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States", printing Ford’s name across the smoke-belching factory chimneys on the US side. "I’m more and more convinced it’s only through communism that we can become human," she wrote to an American comrade after the trip. For an artist who once titled a painting "Peace on Earth so the Marxist Science may Save the Sick and Those Oppressed by Criminal Yankee Capitalism", one wonders what she would make of the exhibition sponsor Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, part of Grosvenor Group, one of the world's largest privately owned property developers. According to its bio, the company "creates and manages high quality neighbourhoods" and "will be activating the estate’s core destinations of Mayfair & Belgravia throughout the exhibition… with bespoke Frida-inspired products and experiences".
It is thrilling to see two of the plaster corsets Frida wore to support her spine included in the exhibition. But rather than any serious consideration of the significance of the communist hammer and sickle she painted in bold red across both breastplates, the exhibition text focuses on the ingenious system of mirrors – one fixed above her sick bed, and one handheld – she used to paint them. Nor are the curled foetus painted on the stomach of one, and the hole cut into the other – references to the life-threatening miscarriage she had while in Detroit – considered in their context as radical feminist art. In a strict Catholic country in the 1930s, it was a revolutionary act for Frida to be so open about her illegal abortions and subsequent miscarriage.
Frida’s early forays into genderfucking are shown in a 1926 family portrait, in which she wears a three-piece suit (likely her father’s). But the euphemistic discussion of how her "androgynous facial attributes" – aka her moustache and monobrow – help to "express a complex sexuality" serve only to erase her bisexuality. Frida's affairs with women, thought to include fellow artist Georgia O'Keeffe, the Mexican singer Chavela Vargas, and the legendary dancer Josephine Baker, among others, are nowhere to be found, though there are many references to her affairs with male artists, photographers and activists.
The V&A’s exhibition is absolutely worth a visit. Packed with intimate and revealing photographs, stunning Mexican traditional dress, jewellery handmade by Frida, a number of her famous paintings, and the medical corsets that stop you in your tracks, it is possible to build a picture of her personality. Little details, like the "IDIOTA" missive she scrawled on the back of her own communion portrait after renouncing Catholicism, hint at a rebellious nature. But it is a real shame that, with major property developer funding and the incredible opportunity to bring the possessions of an artist of such stature to audiences outside of Mexico for the very first time, that they shy away from the headline issues: the radical, feminist gaze of her self-portraits; the revolutionary fervour of her socialist politics; her passionate anti-colonial embrace of her heritage; her radical openness about her abortions; and her liberated, open bisexuality. Just as the cactus-print socks and hot sauce in the V&A gift shop do a disservice to Mexican culture, the exhibition does little to expand on the sanitised, Barbie-fied caricature embraced by capitalist culture.