She’s the woman who put female self-portraiture in the spotlight. She turned life’s messy ups and downs into highly personal creative fuel, long before the likes of Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian and Tracey Emin were mining their own dramas for song lyrics, selfies and artwork, and the concept of oversharing took root. And yet, Frida Kahlo – she of the iconic monobrow, the traditional Mexican clothing and the uncompromising stare – had the kind of life you couldn’t make up, so it’s no wonder it engages us decades after her death.

Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, a major exhibition running from June to November at the Victoria & Albert Museum, uncovers the many layers of Frida Kahlo: some totally raw and authentic, others contrived to elicit a response from the viewer, just as an Instagram influencer carefully curates their persona and spends hours setting up a spontaneous-seeming shot. The famous monobrow? Exaggerated with pencil. This exhibition does more to rally new and existing fans than to ruin the Frida façade, but exposing the truth behind her image helps maintain the V&A’s credibility. Sure, there’s time to look at childhood photos and early work, but visitors can read between the lines.

Though she properly took up art when bedbound after a horrific bus collision, and her paintings are often interpreted as a way of dealing with her new identity, Kahlo had grown up the favourite child of a photographer father who developed his own self-portraits and seemed fascinated by the potential personas he could create in front of the camera. She’d also battled Polio as a child, and cared for her father during his epileptic fits. Even if she hadn’t faced life-changing injuries and a long recovery time, she might have easily have fallen into self-portraiture in some way, having seen how much he loved it. Her lifelong health struggles are also linked by curators to ex-votos, a Catholic folk-art tradition of appealing to God and the saints after an accident with a detailed painting of the incident and recovery, sometimes with graphic blood spurts and shocked bystanders. Though Kahlo only drew her bus crash once, she repeatedly referenced her injuries and even decorated the plaster medical corsets and prosthetic leg she wore.

It’s a real coup for the V&A that Kahlo’s most personal items appear in the exhibition. Though her home, La Casa Azul, became a museum after her death in 1954, Kahlo’s corsets, make-up, prosthetic leg and outfits were locked away until 2004. Spinal corsets hang eerily in display cabinets, and pages of her medical notes are on display, too. The final room is awash with colour: 22 of her Tehuana outfits unapologetically clash, full of embroidery, beading and volume in huipil (tunics) and rebozos (shawls).

The love of Kahlo’s life, fellow artist Diego Rivera, also has work shown (ahem, not as good as hers, though obviously!). They had a turbulent relationship, both falling into multiple affairs with other people – her lovers included gallerist Julien Levy and Leon Trotsky, whereas his included one of Kahlo’s sisters. Kahlo’s chosen shade of lipstick was Revlon’s Everything’s Rosy, but her love life was unquestionably messy. Rivera features in many of Kahlo’s paintings, sometimes causing her pain, other times more like a child, but the exhibition also has letters and photos from several other partners, showing she didn’t need Rivera to feel valued. Private photos of her, taken by Julien Levy, show a much calmer and happier woman.

Her love of Mexican heritage and symbolism (mexicanidad) is impossible to ignore, and the V&A has really gone to town to prove it, from Aztec-inspired archways and archive Mexico City documentary footage, to specially-commissioned atmospheric music, and Tina Modotti’s Oaxaca images from 1929. Distinctive photos of Kahlo laden with jewellery and shawls appealed to viewers beyond Mexico, who embraced mexicanidad as a trend. There’s a brief reference to the time Kahlo adopted American clothing, but quickly reverted to her Mexican staples to show loyalty to Rivera; he was fired from a Rockefeller Centre painting commission in 1933, having depicted Lenin on a mural (they were both dedicated Communists). Despite not warming to American culture on the whole, Kahlo loved San Francisco’s Chinatown, and she even had her first solo show in New York, in 1938.


Though Kahlo would doubtless be proud of this huge show dedicated to her life and artwork, she’d probably hate the not-so-Communist prices in the V&A shop, where traditional Mexican miracle paintings (retablos) cost £220, and the £30 coffee table exhibition book is surely out of reach for low-income visitors. However, like the woman I saw repeatedly posing for her exasperated Instagram boyfriend in the V&A courtyard afterwards, Kahlo would surely enjoy the celebration of self-image, calculated or not.

Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, from 16 June – 14 November 2018. For more information, see the V&A’s website.