A bathroom might seem like an unusual beginning for an exhibition about Frida Kahlo, but this is where most of the clothes and personal possessions to be exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London this summer were found.
The story starts in September 1957 when, in the last few months of his life, the painter Diego Rivera entrusted his friend Dolores Olmedo with the keys to a bathroom in the Blue House; the house with blue painted walls in Mexico City he had shared with his wife Kahlo until her death three years earlier. In the room was an archive of objects belonging to the couple. Rivera instructed Olmedo not to release them until 15 years after his death.
“That was how time stopped at the Blue House for almost 50 years,” says Hilda Trujillo Soto who is the director of the Frida Kahlo Museum (also known as the Blue House) in Mexico City.
“[When] Diego Rivera, along with his friend the poet and museographer Carlos Pellicer adapted the Blue House to function as a museum, they left in the chest of drawers and trunks things they did not consider important such as letters, photographs, costumes, corsets, and medicines. Dolores Olmedo did not speak about these spaces; researchers asked her to open Diego’s bathroom, nevertheless she respected Diego’s will for longer than he requested,” she says, adding that Olmedo “did not have a close relationship with Frida,” and was less concerned with Kahlo’s legacy than that of Rivera’s.
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For nearly half a century, thousands of items relating to the couple’s personal and political lives lay hidden. When opened, the bathroom revealed medicines, makeup, clothes, letters, and photos which added a new layer of complexity to Kahlo scholarship.
“During her lifetime she was sometimes viewed as ‘exotic’ or patronized and ‘othered’ but today her intersectional, and complex, self-constructed identity is better understood,” says Circe Henestrosa, the co-curator of the V&A exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up. Henestrosa has a personal link as the great-niece of Andrés Henestrosa, the celebrated Mexican writer who was a close friend of Kahlo. Henestrosa’s wife, Alfa Rios was an indigenous woman from the Tehuantepec Isthmus region in southern Mexico. She would bring Kahlo huipiles (traditional and brightly colored Mexican garments), which became part of the artist’s iconic look, mirroring the Tehuana women who were part of a powerful matriarchal community.
Kahlo, who was in and out of hospital after nearly being killed in a bus accident at 18, hand-painted her medical corsets and crafted a prosthetic leg with a rich red leather boot on the end. Henestrosa says these are a testament to how she lived with and ‘fashioned’ her disability; and something she highlights in the exhibition. “Kahlo never let her disabilities and personal circumstances define her,” she says, “she defined who she was in her own terms.”
Also brought to light were Kahlo’s love letters—evidence of her extramarital affairs. “I hope you enjoy these, they are sent with my love but my heart does not wilt,” writes Nickolas Muray, a photographer for Vogue and the New York Times in a letter that had been locked away. “For my darling love,” reads another, this time from sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Many letters and photos bear Kahlo’s distinctive red lipstick kisses on the back.
Other discoveries include a jar of Pond’s dry skin cream, a compact and powder puff, Revlon lipstick in the Everything’s Rosy hue and Chanel No. 5 lotion—everyday dressing table items for some women of her era; but as Henestrosa points out, they were part of a bigger picture of how Kahlo constructed herself. “As a woman, an artist, an icon, Kahlo has achieved a rare, almost universal, acclaim,” she says. “The dress choices she made reflected an intuitive ability to use a bold visual image in a time when men dominated the art world.”
“Frida had the power of seduction,” says Esteban Volkov, the grandson of Leon Trotsky who still lives in Mexico City and remembers visiting the artist at her house. Volkov, now 95, muses on the woman he knew when he was 14: “She was intelligent and you’d connect with her immediately.” His grandfather had an infamous affair with Kahlo; Volkov remembers Trotsky refusing a self-portrait from Kahlo to protect his wife’s feelings.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera have been mythologized past recognition. Like Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, their relationship as lovers and artistic partners has played out on the pages of literature and the silver screen. By all accounts, however, whilst Rivera and Kahlo’s mutual infidelities created rifts between them personally (Rivera notably slept with Kahlo’s sister Cristina and Kahlo herself had many prominent lovers in the art world) they always supported each other in their professional endeavors. Those working at the Frida Kahlo Museum believe that the bathroom where Rivera locked away both of their things, was an act designed to shield both artists’ private lives from unwelcome scrutiny.
Soto, in her capacity as director of the Frida Kahlo Museum says that the legacy found in the bathroom has changed the perception of Frida from a “sufferer” to a “strong woman.”
Frida Kahlo’s image is so iconic most would recognize her face even if they didn’t know her name. Her legacy is such that Madonna owns two of her works, Coldplay titled their album Viva La Vida after one of her paintings and fashion houses such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Givenchy have produced collections influenced by her style.
“Through her paintings she breaks all the taboos of the woman’s body and of female sexuality,” Diego Rivera once said of his wife. Many of the items uncovered testify that Kahlo broke taboos not only artistically, but also personally.
Hidden from the world for nearly half a century, the bathroom’s contents will have a wide audience in London this summer. Kahlo’s enduring appeal has resulted in the most presales of any exhibition in the museum’s history.
Frida Kahlo’s contemporary importance is something Henestrosa is keen to emphasize: “a Mexican, female artist who was disabled, looking for a place in a highly male-dominated environment in Mexico City. Aren’t we fighting as women for the same today? How much more relevant, and refreshing for our times she can be?”
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, sponsored by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland with support from Aeromexico, is at the V&A from 16 June to 4 November 2018.