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It was about time this Brexit-plagued country got an injection of vibrant colour and a sense of creative stoicism – and here it is, courtesy of a spectacular exhibition at the V&AFrida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up.

Frida Kahlo:Making Her Self Up

The genesis of the exhibition was a bathroom in her house which, for 50 years after her death, remained closed on the orders of her husband, the great muralist Diego Rivera. Then, in 2004, came the Open Sesame moment. Out tumbled 6,000 photos and 22,000 documents, plus 300 personal items, many of which form a touching and surprising part of the exhibition.

Frida Kahlo:Making Her Self Up: with Diego Rivera

Frida died in 1954, aged 47, Diego in 1957, aged 70. Their relationship was hardly harmonious; each had his or her lovers (Kahlo even had a fling with Trotsky, while Rivera was a serial womaniser) and it was plagued by break-ups. But between the volatility there was mutual adoration and respect.

At the V&A, Rivera remains a shadowy background figure allowing the vibrancy and courage of Kahlo to come to the fore. Childhood polio followed by a tramway accident in her teens meant that she led a life of endless, excruciating pain – yet which ultimately nourished and inspired her  art.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

“Making Her Self Up” cannily refers both to her creative curation of her own striking image and to how she actually used make-up – in this case Revlon nail varnish and lipstick. Such frivolities aside, what this exhibition shows is the context of her life – from la Casa Azul (her childhood home where she later died) to her glamorous fashion style of huipiles, traditionally embroidered Tehuana dresses from Mexico’s Isthmus region, as below.

Frida Kahlo:Making Her Self Up - Tehuana dresses

Beside her jewellery are arresting black and white photos of Kahlo by photographers such as Lola Alvarez Bravo, a close friend, Imogen Cunningham, Gisele Freund and Kahlo’s American gallerist and lover, Julien Levy. The earliest portrait of her (below), aged 16, is by her father, Guillermo Kahlo, a German immigrant.

Frida Kahlo:Making Her Self Up: portrait by father

And of course her inimitable paintings are there too, many of which are self-portraits referring to the immense pain she underwent. One even depicts herself as a kind of Virgin Mary rocking a decidedly tubby little baby Jesus – aka Diego.

Frida Kahlo:Making Her Self Up

Here too are the ex-votos she collected, the prosthetic leg (duly decorated and with bells attached) she had to adopt after amputation one year before her death, and the plaster corset she was forced to wear during long agonising days spent supine in her four-poster bed. Of course the corset, too, was hand-painted with a hammer and sickle – both she and Rivera were militant Communists, typical of Mexico’s intelligentsia of the 1930 – 1940s.

Frida Kahlo:Making Her Self Up - prosthetic leg

So here we have a very full portrait of an extraordinarily imaginative, talented and courageous woman – no doubt a revelation for many. For me it whisked me back to Coyoacan, the prosperous suburb in the south of Mexico City where Kahlo grew up, later lived with Rivera and eventually died. La Casa Azul is now a museum in her memory – unfortunately no photos allowed inside, so all I took away is this pic of the cobalt blue courtyard dotted with pre-hispanic sculptures that the couple avidly collected.

La Casa Azul courtyard

And to end, here is a blast of colour from across Mexico – a country where it seems the skies are never grey – and where, even in the corner of a little market up in the hills of Veracruz, someone knows about Frida Kahlo.

The exhibition runs till November 4 2018

Veracruz village market with Frida

Mexico -Veracruz street


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