Making Her Self Up

Image credit: Nicholas Murray, 1939

The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo made herself the theme of her art. Her vibrant self-portraits intimately reflect her experiences, dreams, hopes and fears. Born in 1907 she suffered a serious accident at the age of eighteen. Although it left her crippled and unable to bear children, she was determined to live life to the full. In 1929 she married the flamboyant artist Diego Rivera. Their tempestuous relationship was punctuated by divorce, remarriage, and numerous affairs – Kahlo's intermittent lovers included Trotsky – but they were still together when she died in 1954.

Today Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera have iconic status. Both, in their different ways, helped to shape the cultural identity of twentieth-century Mexico. The Revolution of 1910 banished European influence in the arts. Kahlo and Rivera were at the centre of an intellectual circle that glorified the achievements of ancient Mexican civilisations. Folk art was revered. The couple surrounded themselves with weavings, papier-mâché figures and toys from street markets. Many of Kahlo's most powerfully autobiographical paintings show her surrounded by tropical fruit or flowers and dressed in regional clothing. Native clothing symbolised her political allegiance to peasant cultures, but it also shaped her own highly personal style. With her embroidered blouses, huaraches (sandals), fringed shawls and floor-length skirts, Frida caused a sensation wherever she went.

To complement her 'exotic' costumes – her collection included more than 180 garments, mostly from the state of Oaxaca – Frida braided her hair with bright ribbons or decorated it with combs and flowers. Frida mixed different costumes to make a carefully composed ensemble. There was, however, one combination that she favoured above all others: the costume of Zapotec women on the Isthmus of Oaxaca. Today, during festivals, the Tehuana women of Tehuantepec and Juchitán still wear a close-fitting top, termed a huipil, over a long gathered skirt with a flounce of starched lace at the hem. The velvet ground of gala garments is covered with large satin-stitched flowers. For added splendour, some women wear an elaborate headdress of starched lace. Tehuana women, widely regarded as sensuous and strong, play a dominant role in Isthmus life. Their poise and courage no doubt appealed to Frida.

Extract from the Blossom issue. Words by Chloë Sayer.

If you are interested in learning more about the life and art of Frida Kahlo, Making Her Self Up is on at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK until 4 November 2018. It is the first exhibition outside of Mexico where visitors will be able to look at Kahlo's clothes and personal possessions. Together with Kahlo's famous self-portraits and photographs, these items tell a story of Kahlo's life and art that is inherently more intimate.

Find out more here:

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