24 Oct 2018

Go See: Frida

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up: 
seductive glimpses into a life of art, pain and artifice.

Paul Cardwell, Creative Partner

She is the greatest female painter that the world has yet seen. But don’t just take my word for it, ask any sensible art critic. Or Madonna. Or Salma Hayek. They would agree, although they’d insist on deleting that gender-qualifying adjective.

The Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A is beautifully assembled, as intense and personal as the great Alexander McQueen show. The title is perfect - “Making Herself Up” - because if ever anyone assembled herself from a few shattered fragments, it was Frida Kahlo.

The story is well known. The girl on the bus. The horrific crash. The shattered spinal column. The steel handrail that went right through her uterus and out the other side. Eleven fractures in her right leg, the foot crushed and dislocated, never to work as it should again. Collarbone. Ribs. Pelvis. Shoulder.

That she survived at all, in the heat and dirt of that Mexico City street, was a miracle. But it was only the first of many, although after that day they were miracles that she created herself.

She wasn’t meant to live. She wasn’t meant to walk. To paint. To marry the greatest artist of the day. And then to outshine him and leave a legacy of priceless, incandescent masterpieces.


"I didn’t want to be that little crippled lady. So I wasn’t."


She challenged everything. All the time.

She wore exotic, beautifully crafted peasant clothes. Disdained to discipline her wonderfully dramatic eyebrows. Tons of jewellery. She never looked less than fabulous. And whatever else she was wearing, she always remembered to pile on loads of attitude. Hers is the only wedding picture I’ve ever seen where the bride is nonchalantly dangling a cigarette. Only Chanel could make a fag look so cool. Well, you’ve either got it, or you haven’t.

She had affairs. Men and women. Even Steven. Well, even Trotsky. A famous fling with leonine Leon. (History misrepresents this man. He had charm: Lenin feared Trotsky because people liked him. His need to change the world is well known, his sense of humour less so: ‘Spread love and happiness. Use violence if you must’. It should be the mantra of all creative leaders.)

The first rooms of this show are narrow galleries of small, intimate photos. Look closely, they are worth it. The wedding picture is amongst them. Also images of Frida at work in her wheelchair, where you start to get an idea of what she was up against. You cannot feel the pain, but you can see the damage.

Then you step into the first big room. And here are all the contraptions and devices that kept her going. The prosthetic limbs. The plaster cast corsets to prop up the spine that could not support itself. The steel frames and canvas slings that look like medieval instruments of interrogation and that most have been torture to wear. I saw men in tears in that room.

But everything, every single thing, is defiantly decorated. The hammer and sickle on her plaster breast. The red flag wrapped like a bandage round one leg.

Then the last room. And here are her clothes. The dresses blaze behind the glass. The fabulously exotic combinations look like beasts from the jungle that have been released into the drawing room. Everything that fashion is trying to do today, she was doing then. Locally-sourced, ethnographically authentic. The relevance and reinvention of tradition. The fabrics. The textures and weaves. The stones. The silver. The  sheer, outrageous, heart-stopping, uplifting glamour of it all.

When she walked into the room it must have felt like someone switched on a chandelier.

She was something special.

The curators have had the sense to leave the last word to Frida. “I have enjoyed being contradictory.”

But you were more than that, Frida, so much more. You were, and you are, the brightest and the bravest and the best.