There is something troubling happening over at the V&A this summer – and it isn’t just the number tourists taking up space in the cast court. The smash hit of the season, dubbed ‘an extraordinary testimony to suffering and spirit’, is a show dedicated to Frida Kahlo. Nothing surprising there. It’s a familiar format for the V&A by now – fixing on a particular person, group or movement that has changed pop culture and making it seem so sexy it is almost impossible not to visit. From David Bowie to Pink Floyd to Alexander McQueen, the V&A has become a powerhouse for these kind of hit blockbusters.
2018’s Pop feast is Frida Kahlo, the spectacular Mexican painter known for her intimate self-portraits who reemerged in the 1980s as an icon of 20th century liberalism, fashion and art. In fact, devotion to Frida has become so popular that it has strayed into the land of cults.
With that heavy mono-brow, tumbling flowers in her hair and unforgettable style, inspired by the women of the Tehuantepec region of Mexico, Kahlo created an identity that has become much more important than her artwork. We could all pick her out of a line-up, but how many could name some of her most famous paintings?
Of course, the amount of work Kahlo produced during her lifetime was severely encumbered by the pain she experienced from an early bout of polio and the terrible road accident which left her spine in tatters and largely bed-bound. Even from this limited number of paintings, Kahlo’s art is still hard to find in a public forum because most has found its way into private hands. But for an artist that refused to surrender her paint brush no matter how badly her body protested, it feels wrong to covet her image so highly over the work she made. It’s hard to imagine that is what Kahlo wanted her fate to be.
The V&A show is dominated by some 200 objects loaned by the Museo Frida Kahlo, otherwise known as the miraculous Blue House where Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera lived. These precious items were discovered in Kahlo’s private bathroom, which Rivera had ordered to remain locked for 50 years after her death. In 2014 time was up and the masses entered the inner sanctum of Kahlo’s life, discovering pieces of make-up, personal letters and even the prosthetic leg she used after her amputation in 1953. Seeing all these objects now carefully labelled, archived and displayed in a museum is nothing short of creepy.
Director of the Museo Frida Kahlo, Hilda Trujillo, even hesitated when it came time to open the bathroom: ‘I felt like an intruder, for what right do I have to be there with Frida’s things? At times I thought I wasn’t entitled to do this, that no-one was. However, it was also important to restore, rescue […] the letters and photographs – had been left as they were, frozen in time, and some textiles – but they were in very bad condition. You could tell that cats and rats had made their way in and gnawed at them.’
The results are uncomfortable. The innermost secrets of Kahlo’s love affairs and the emotional and physical pain she faced are laid completely bare. There is a palpable melancholy and sense that something unspeakable has happened. Kahlo is no longer an artist, choosing to reveal her innermost thoughts and feelings through her art, but an object to be sliced up and consumed. We are all carnivores at this dinner party.
The idea of the artist’s personal story overtaking their importance as a creator is not something new, but when it comes to Kahlo there is a frantic religious devotion unlike any other. We have made her Christ crucified.
But when will this fetish end – will we be wheeling out Marilyn Monroe’s push-up bra or Jean-Michel Basquiat’s toothbrush next? Is it morally right to display the personal effects of a force of nature like Kahlo? And even worse to make them into something cold and unemotional behind glass? Museum directors, marketeers and sponsorship hunters would all say yes, but it’s hard not to feel like you’ve bought into a cult at this seance.