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Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Updated: Feb 14, 2019

Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving is the third iteration of the acclaimed exhibition presenting the personal wardrobe and affects of Frida Kahlo almost sixty five years after the artist's death. The show was first presented at Kahlo's home La Casa Azul, now Musea Frida Kahlo, in Mexico City in 2012, and then a second time in 2018 at the V&A in London. After Frida's death in 1954, her husband Diego Rivera instructed the appointed caretaker for the home, Dolores Olmedo, to keep certain rooms locked for fifteen years after his death. Rivera passed away in 1957, but Olmeda refused to have any locked areas of the home opened until after her own death in 2002. In 2004, the bathroom adjacent to Kahlo's bedroom was finally opened and there inside was the entirety of the artist's wardrobe. As no photography was permitted in the exhibition, I have included promotional photographs made available through the Brooklyn Museum and Google Arts & Culture (click through for image credits).

On Saturday, February 9, curator Circe Henestrosa and curatorial advisor Gannit Ankori presented supplemental research in celebration of the opening of the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Ankori spoke on Frida's visual vocabulary of trauma and loss evident in much of her artwork. Ankoir emphasized that this exhibition helped the curatorial team to focus on what Frida chose to display to the world. Her repeated themes of missing limbs and lost infants in utero are the evidence of repeatedly coping with trauma. Shame over her body, beginning in childhood, would shape Frida's outlook on life, and consequently her artwork. After several abortions and miscarriages, Ankori posited that perhaps painting was a stand in for what Frida could not create.

Circe Henestrosa focused most of her curatorial talk on Frida's identity as a disabled person. After being stricken with polio as a child, and surviving a horrific bus accident as a teenager, Frida was left with a crippled leg and a fragile body. Many pieces of her work reference the trauma she experienced at a young age and communicate the anguish that her physical impairment left on her physically and emotionally. As her legs were two different lengths, Frida often wore long skirts or pants to disguise the disability, and often chose blouses that drew the eye up towards her torso and face. Her use of accessories and love of pre-Columbian beaded necklaces also kept the eye captivated in much the same way. Frida's shame even led her to cut out her face or upper body in photographs and display "close up" portraits as opposed to full body shots. But, despite these things, as a disabled person and a woman in a male-dominated art field, Frida used her wardrobe to subvert expectations and enabled others to confront these issues by captively observing her adorned body.

"The adornment of the Tehuana dress is centered around the upper part of the body."

After her marriage to Diego Rivera, Kahlo began dressing in traditional Tehuana attire, consisting of huipils and long cotton skirts. The thesis of Henestrosa's exhibition hinges on her claim that her family was part of intellectual circles in which her Aunt Alfa frequented alongside Frida. As Frida never visited Tehuantepec herself, Henestrosa believes that it was her aunt who brought her Tehuana clothing. There does not seem to be solid proof of this agreement, but regardless, someone helped Frida acquire the pieces that she desired.

Scholars disagree about the reasoning behind Frida's choice to dress this way; some say it was purely to please Rivera, others believe that she had familial heritage linking her to Tehuana dress. In In my opinion, after observing Frida's self portraits, as well as the many photographs of her featured in the exhibition, a strong argument can be made that Frida dressed this way largely for Diego, and in a secondary way to hide her disability. Photographs of Frida, pre-marriage, as well as during the year of her divorce from Rivera, show the artist often in androgynous, trousered looks or more European looking ensembles. She seemed to return to Tehuana dress only when with her husband.

When she did wear Tehuana dress, Frida often did not adhere to traditional norms in terms of fabrics or matching patterns/colors. Within her wardrobe she would incorporate Guatemalan, Chinese and American clothing, which set her dress apart from a traditional Mexican wardrobe. She also sewed some of her own clothing and would personalize her footwear (i.e. after Frida's leg was amputated in 1953, she decorated her prosthetic leg lavishly and included a bell so people knew she was coming). In this way, she crafted a Mexican identity that was truly her own, and was easily adapted as she grew in to different seasons of her life and marriage.

From an exhibition standpoint, there was a good balance between the thesis surrounding Frida' wardrobe and identity, and supplemental materials such as photography and artwork.

One of my favorite sections of the exhibition was a room devoted to La Casa Azul. There, I learned about the folk and pre-Columbian art that Frida and Diego collected, providing me with an enlightened visual vocabulary when interpreting the complex symbolism in Frida's paintings. Their personal collection of Catholic votives provided direct insight in to Frida's work.

Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving runs until May 12, 2019 at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. If you can't make it to the show, the exhibition as it was presented at Musea Frida Kahlo is available, in part, through Google Arts & Culture.

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