Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A – the art and artifice of identity

How much can our outward appearance really say about us as individuals? Clothes and fashion have had such a contradictory impact on my own life that I find it bewildering. It’s only recently that I’ve started to find more confidence to enjoy clothes as aesthetic as well as merely functional, and for much of my twenties and thirties I felt paralysed at the prospect of expressing my *self * through the external medium of clothes.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, 16 June –14 November 2018. Sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland. Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photographby Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives


For Mexican artist Frida Kahlo though,  self-expression through clothes was cathartic; the epitome of freedom. Not merely the act of self expression, but the creation of identity through the language of clothing, the layering of cultural, familial and historical contexts through textiles, make-up and even prosthetics. This, along with her painting, was an expression of her inner strength, her defiance and even her politics.

What stuck me, as I took myself around the current exhibition at the V&A heralding Kahlo’s incomparable and irreverent style, was the way in which her artistic focus on self-portraiture and identity almost predicates the Insta-culture of today. The selfie, the curated feed and the IGTV channel, are all variants of the diverse ways in which we as individuals, business owners and influencers, choose to present ourselves. Yes, it’s all faked and filtered but that, surely, is the very definition of art?

“I have enjoyed being contradictory,” Frida Kahlo famously said. For me the contradictions manifest in the way her aesthetic playfulness both mask and reveal a more serious and complex inner discourse around her identity as an artist, an activist, and a woman whose health complications and chronic pain forged deep physical and emotional scars.

Kahlo remains such a popular cultural icon today, more than 70 years after her death, perhaps because of the way the viewer is invited to identify with her raw and shameless vulnerability, which chimes so resoundingly with today’s cultural zeitgeist around progressive identity politics. Embrace me in all my authenticity, Kahlo bids: my physical flaws, my cultural heritage, the things I cannot change and the choices I have made. And we do. I left feeling liberated. Brave. I had been given permission to be myself, to create myself and to express and celebrate that in all it’s flawed complexity.


Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up will be at the V&A until 4 November.




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