Frida Kahlo: No Pain No Gain?

Yesterday we went to Brooklyn Museum to see the exhibition on Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving that opened in early February. The exhibition explores a number of thought-provoking themes related to this German-Mexican artist and displays items borrowed from Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City, La Casa Azul (the Blue House), which has been converted into a museum to commemorate her life.

What makes this exhibition particularly interesting is that the curators were able to create a multi-media experience, offering visitors access to Kahlo’s photographs, video footage, jewellery items and corsets, her legendary clothes, and of course her paintings:

A video screen displays a film introducing Frida’s work in the first exhibition room
There are several video and audio displays included in the exhibition
Frida Kahlo presented a visually very striking image and photographers loved taking photos of her

There was a large section dedicated to Frida’s legendary sense of fashion that attracted a lot of attention to her when she and her husband Diego Riviera (whom she married twice) stayed in San Francisco, New York and Detroit, as her traditional Mexican outfits were so incredibly exotic against the backdrop of sleek, fitted, plain colour costumes American ladies used to wear at the time:

Her jewellery was equally outstanding and memorable:

It was very interesting to see how Kahlo used her clothes to shape her identity as a Mexican patriot, and was very committed to wearing the most traditional type of Tehuana national dress:

Lace headdress and skirt from Juchitan in Oaxaca, Mexico
Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait in a “huipil grande” lace headdress known as “resplandor”

I found this aspect of her public persona particularly interesting given that Frida was only half Mexican as her father Carl Wilhelm was a German photographer who was born in Germany and moved to Mexico at the age of 20, where he met her mother. It therefore appears that Kahlo deliberately cultivated her Mexican heritage, which was strongly linked to her patriotic political views and engagement, at the cost of excluding any public acknowledgement of her German provenance. At the same time, when selecting her public name, Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon chose her German middle name, Frida, to be her ‘known name’, which is raising a lot of interesting questions within the context of her identity.

Her exotic taste also extended to how she decorated her house and even her pets – she famously kept pet monkeys, parrots, and fawns in her La Casa Azul

Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait with her pet monkeys

Despite this opulence and exoticism, however, the whole exhibition is permeated with pain. Most people know that she suffered greatly from the very early age, when polio affected her spine and leg at the age of six. A devastating bus accident at the age of 18 left Frida permanently disabled when the bus Kahlo was riding collided with a trolley car and an iron handrail pierced her abdomen and uterus and left her incapable of having children. As a result of the accident she suffered several injuries: a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone ribs and pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder.

At the end of her life, in her late 40s, one of her legs was amputated in 1953 and she died shortly after in 1954. She suffered from pain, was taking a large amount of medications and painkillers all her life, and had to wear restricting corsets and spend a large part of her life in bed since her bus accident. She was heartbroken to have to abandon her dream of studying medicine following the bus accident, and couldn’t have any children. These two themes as well as her numerous injuries are strongly present in her art.

Everything related to Frida is steeped in suffering, every object of the exhibition exudes pain. Not only her paintings, in which she often confronts her ruined body and its damages and limitations, but also other objects on display all speak volumes of her life that can only be compared to a life of a colorful bird with a broken wing. It is even more striking, then, that she managed to find ways of turning herself into a work of art on a daily basis. She skilfully hid her disabilities underneath her loose Mexican costumes. She even decorated her iron plaster corsets, for example, using a mirror, and was regularly photographed exposing them to make political statements:

Even her prosthetic leg that she had to wear following her amputation was beautifully decorated with a pair of custom-made boots that fit her bold fashionista personality:

Overall, this made me think about how many famous artists went through extraordinary experiences in their lives, mostly painful and hurtful experiences, to be what they are or were. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger definitely stands, but do strong emotional and psychological shocks also make us more artistic, creative, open-minded? While Christian Mihai in his blog argues against this idea, the Forbes’ magazine claims that feeling discomfort is key to success in all areas of our life. The jury is out on this one, and I would be interested to know your views.

Thank you Frida and Brooklyn Museum for such a thought-provoking exhibition.