‘I paint flowers so they will not die’: Frida Kahlo at the Victoria and Albert Museum

At the end of August, I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I went to their exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, which shows personal items that belonged to the artist. Below the V&A’s exhibition trailer, you’ll find my thoughts about the exhibition.

When Frida Kahlo died in 1954, her husband, Diego Rivera, locked away her personal items in a bathroom at the Casa Azul in Mexico City. The items sealed off in this room included jewellery, cosmetics, medical items, pre-Colombian artifacts, and over 6,000 photographs. When the room was opened in 2004, the discovery of these personal items was a revelation.

I’ve been a ‘fan’ of Frida Kahlo’s work since I was a teenager, so the exhibition was a fantastic opportunity for me to see personal items that belonged to the artist, alongside some of her artworks. I can remember doing a pencil copy of her Viva La Vida (Watermelons) (1954) for a GCSE Art coursework project on the theme of ‘self’.  The major theme of the V&A’s exhibition is also ‘self’, which brought back memories of looking at Kahlo’s works when I was at secondary school.

Frida Kahlo, Viva La Vida (Watermelons), 1954. Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City.

The exhibition itself displays a fantastic array of objects, with bright, coloured lighting all the way through, and rainforest sounds playing in the background. On entering the exhibition, visitors walk through a corridor. This is divided in to sections by white arches, and is lit with blue lighting. In each compartment created by the arches, photographs, prints, and short films are displayed on either side of the corridor. Here, I found the selection of photographs on display absolutely fascinating. These ranged from family photographs to ones taken of Kahlo by professional photographers. Nickolas Muray’s photograph Frida Kahlo with Olmec Figurine (1939) is particularly stunning; it’s a beautiful image when seen in a book, but the print itself is visually arresting.

Nickolas Muray, Frida Kahlo with Olmec Figurine, 1939.

The visitor then moves in to more open rooms, where a selection of Frida Kahlo’s clothes, paintings, and even more photographs are on display. The curatorial decision to connect Kahlo’s personal items with traditional Mexican crafts, such as the making of the huipil (a sort of loose fitting tunic traditionally worn in Central America) was particularly effective. It gave contextual depth to the items on display – particularly the photographs and paintings – that stopped them becoming one dimensional visual signs. Kahlo’s distinctive Revlon lipstick, corsets, and other medical items are also on display.

The exhibition is extremely popular: when I visited the V&A, tickets had sold out for the day. As a result some areas of the exhibition do get very crowded. It would also have been wonderful to see some more of Kahlo’s archaeological collection, in particular more of the pre-Colombian stone figures that feature so frequently in her art.

Despite this, I really enjoyed Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, and will try to get another visit in before it closes on Sunday 4 November. If you’d like to read some more reviews, you can find some here, here, and here.




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