Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Posted on March 21st, 2019 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

Several weeks ago, Joanna Church and I were in Brooklyn for a meeting, and Joanna suggested we check out the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. She said there were more Kahlo canvases in one room here than there had been since her death. When Joanna’s text first came across my phone I immediately thought of some of Kahlo’s iconic self portraits (and then of her skeletal appearance in Disney’s Coco. What can I say, I am the parent of a first-grader), and I tried to remember the last time I’d seen a Kahlo canvas up close.  As I wracked my memory, I realized I had never seen a Kahlo painting in person.

That deficiency had to be rectified! Joanna arranged to get us the (very expensive) tickets to the exhibit, and we were set. (As soon as we emerged from the subway station, I knew these Brooklynites were my kind of people, as a giant “OY” statue greeted me.)

The exhibit was well-attended, with cattle-line stanchions set up to control traffic (luckily they were unnecessary for us, as it was after 7 pm when we arrived). As we passed through the bright pink and blue entry, helpful docents let us know that no photos would be permitted in the exhibit, and the excitement built.

On entering the first room, the exhibit was not what I expected. There were very few examples of Kahlo’s work, but a great deal of artifacts and photos from her life. From the very beginning, this exhibit helped me to deepen my understanding of Frida Kahlo, a figure who had become somewhat two-dimensional in my imagination.

My first surprise was realizing that Frida Kahlo was born Magdalena Frida Carmen Kahlo. In my two-dimensional caricature of her, Frida is unequivocally Mexican. That is undoubtedly true of the three-dimensional woman who lived and loved and painted, but IRL, Frida Kahlo was so much more complicated than I had given her credit for. One of her complexities was that even with her decidedly Mexican identity, she chose to go by the German “Frida.”

Just as they deepened my sense of the complexities of her identity, the curators of this exhibit provided me with context for Kahlo’s paintings—both personal, political, and cultural. Among the cultural context was a great deal of information about the history and usage of some of the costumes featured in Kahlo’s portraits. The most notable may be the Huipil Grande she wears in Diego on my mind. I was entranced by the illustrations of the article of clothing—totally unknown in my life experience—and appreciated the vintage film of young women wearing them.

Interspersed with the contextual cases were many photographs of Frida Kahlo throughout her life, and, somewhat surprisingly, photographic self-portraits of her father. Guillermo Kahlo was a German-born (his birth name was Carl Wilhelm), Mexican photographer, and young Frida grew up looking at her father’s self-portraits. There was a decided suggestion that his work was influential on her oeuvre.

(As an aside, it is really interesting to peruse museum exhibits with other, trained museum professionals. At one moment, early in the exhibit, I approached Joanna who was examining one of Kahlo’s scarves under a vitrine. She frowned and said, “I wouldn’t have displayed this that way.” Before I worked at JMM, I can tell you I never once heard or said that to a fellow museum-goer!)

As I moved through the several rooms of artifacts from Frida Kahlo’s life, I learned a great deal about her loves and losses and passions. Evidence of her repeated disappointment at her infertility (the fetus painted on one of her body casts was particularly poignant) both resonated with me and touched me. I was fascinated to read about her choices around presentation of gender and surprised by the realization of her disability (the reason for the cast).

Despite the reason I decided to come see the exhibit, the real heart of the Brooklyn Museum’s display is not Kahlo’s paintings. It is a trove of her clothing. According to the handout from the museum, “In 2004 a remarkable trove of personal items belonging to Frida Kahlo was brought to light at her lifelong home, the Blue House (La Casa Azul), in Mexico City. Locked away at the instruction of her husband, Diego Rivera, following her death in 1954, these materials—including exceptional examples of her vibrant wardrobe—are here displayed in the United States for the first time.”

It was the clothing that really stayed with me, probably because we are hard at work putting the finishing touches on our own clothing exhibit, Fashion Statement. By taking a deep dive into the motivations and of a single person, Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving investigates some of the same things we look at in Fashion Statement. My mind-caricature of Frida Kahlo as self-consciously Mexican was not wrong—in fact her Mexican-ness was an identity she cultivated through the use of traditional garments. But what my pre-exhibit understanding didn’t contain was that he loose-fitting tunics and long skirts were also helpful in disguising medical corsets and a limp—in other words, people are more complicated than we often give them credit for.

A deeper insight than the realization of the role of Kahlo’s disabilities in her clothing choices, was my new-found sense of just how deliberate all of Kahlo’s clothing choices were. The garments on view in Brooklyn suggest that she was regularly altering, modifying and pairing garments in unusual ways. Kahlo was highly aware of the connections she made (or rejected) for herself by what she wore and how she presented herself. She used her clothing to assert her affiliations and her heritage. She used her clothing to fashion her private and public identity.

(And, though I believe her influence and insights are sufficient for her inclusion here on our blog, I was tickled to learn that both Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera claimed Jewish heritage during the war, as a show of solidarity with Jews persecuted by the Nazis. Kahlo’s German father made her claim more believable than Rivera’s, though the Brooklyn curators do not suggest it was more true.)

Posted in jewish museum of maryland