4Recasting the Art of Appearance in the New Epic Frida Kahlo Exhibit in Brooklyn

In just a few weeks, the mystique of Frida Kahlo’s personal aesthetic comes to Brooklyn. The upcoming exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” is set to be a total immersion into Kahlo’s carefully constructed image, featuring her artwork as well as her wardrobe which, until 2004, had been locked away in the bathroom of her Mexico City home-turned-museum. Part of the exhibit’s title, “Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” is pulled from a painting in which her outfit, rendered in translucence, reveals the apparatuses holding herself together beneath.

The Brooklyn Museum show also happens to share the title of an ongoing exhibition at the Museo Frida Kahlo in Mexico City, which has displayed her wardrobe, prosthetics, and jewelry since 2012. We know and connect with Frida Kahlo largely through these objects, a connection she cleverly manipulated to recast herself as a veritable work of art on and off the canvas. Through her appearance, she became a mashup of history and modernity, of the self and community, of beauty and the rejection of its standards.

The show at the Brooklyn Museum is based on an exhibition that wrapped in London last fall, which included a letter that she wrote to her mother after visiting the United States: “The gringas really like me a lot and pay close attention to all the dresses and rebozos that I brought with me,” she bragged. “[Their] jaws drop at the sight of my jade necklaces.” It’s as if she’s predicted her audiences’ experience at large art exhibitions like these. Get your tickets now, because this exhibition is a blockbuster; timed tickets for first weekend are already completely sold out.

3A Reinvention of Self

Claire Wilcox, the co-curator of the 2018 “Making Her Self Up” Kahlo exhibit at the Albert and Victoria Museum of London, explained to the New York Times that Kahlo’s style wasn’t just fashion or a brand, but also a reinterpretation of her body which had painfully undergone dozens of surgeries to address her physical disabilities, both congenital and accident-related. “The last thing you’d be thinking of when you saw her were her disabilities,” explained Wilcox. The carefully curated visual flamboyance of her style was meant to distract you from the broken, chaotic state of her body.

Kahlo had been physically disabled and bullied from a young age, but she didn’t formulate her style until as young adult she met muralist Diego Rivera. Prior to her meeting with Rivera, a man twenty years her senior, you wouldn’t have been able to pick Kahlo out of a photo if not for her unibrow and her maimed right leg; at the time, the budding artist dressed as any woman in Mexico would dress in that period.

It was only after she met the politically active Rivera that she became inspired by the politics that her appearance could represent, and she embraced the fact that her new style could mask her physical defects. She began to express her indigenous roots through her iconic aesthetic, a course suggested by Rivera who had great interest in indigenous cultures, anti-colonialism, Communism, and Mexican identity, themes that pervaded his own murals. Kahlo was so immersed in her own origin story that she even lied about her birth year, insisting she was born in 1910 to correspond with the country’s overthrow of a corrupt dictatorship; that way, she could claim to literally be a “daughter of the revolution.”

Kahlo was so immersed in her own origin story that she even lied about her birth year, insisting she was born in 1910 to correspond with the country’s overthrow of a corrupt dictatorship; that way, she could claim to literally be a “daughter of the revolution.”

Frida Kahlo Looks can be Deceiving Exhibit
Photo Credit Nickolas Murray Photo Archives

2Indigenous Homage in Modern Times

Kahlo herself was mestiza, born and raised in Mexico City by her German expat father (contrary to her claims that he was a Hungarian Jew) and her half-Spanish, half-Oaxacan mother, who had roots in what one might consider a matriarchal society located on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The women there shaped the community through their leadership in politics and commerce. They were bold in personality as well as dress. Like Kahlo, they fixed flowers and ribbons into their braids, creating crowns atop their heads.

Like Kahlo, the women of Tehuantepec also wore huipils, a square-cut, loose-fitting tunic that has been worn over the centuries in many Central American communities. Kahlo’s predilection for boxy, embroidered blouses glorified this indigenous tradition of clothing, but it also disguised a prosthetic device, her back brace that she’d worn ever since she survived a horrific traffic injury that broke her spine.

Kahlo also was drawn toward long peasant skirts to pair with her blouses. Wearing big floor-length skirts disguised the fact that one of her legs hadn’t properly developed following her contracting polio at the age of six. From then on, her right leg was thinner and shorter than her left, and she began to wear socks upon socks to level out her gait. She always walked with a limp, but you couldn’t tell by the way the long skirts swayed at her feet. Eventually, her leg began to develop painful ulcers that would never heal. She depicts her leg in some of her portraits, dressed in bandages. Later in life, post-surgical infections led to gangrene and finally an amputation of the limb. In place of her leg, she then wore the wooden prosthetic that was on display in both Mexico City and London.

1Becoming a Icon to Herself and to the Public

Adorning her look with jewelry from traditions past and present, rebozo shawls that evoked a history of revolution, bold red lipstick and painted fingernails, occasionally sporting an otherworldly resplandor but always accentuating her hirsute brow with an ebony Revlon pencil, she became the vaunted subject of her own self-portraiture while capturing the interest of photographers in the art and fashion world. “The totality amounted to a continual homage to a defiant multifaceted Otherness that was central to her finely detailed paintings and captured in staged photographs,” summed up New York Times art critic Roberta Smith. Kahlo had become such an icon that she was featured in a 1937 issue of Vogue posing in front of a large yucca plant in her characteristic ensemble.

Even now, how she made herself up is considered bold, pushes the boundaries. “In her lifetime, Frida Kahlo’s appearance was unconventional, and she did not try to disguise what she described as her masculine features,” said Wilcox in an interview with Vogue last year, noting that Kahlo did nothing to reduce the appearance of her fine mustache. She sometimes even opted to wear trousers rather than skirts. “[Today], her fearlessness and self-confidence has made her a role model for independent, free-thinking women who do not necessarily want to conform to societal norms of beauty.” More than a symbol of feminism though, Kahlo is a queer icon. She embraced the gender-fluid characteristics of her appearance, a topic whose relevance makes this exhibition aptly-timed; she was also openly bisexual, yet another facet of her character that couldn’t be bound by gender norms.

You wouldn’t be able to deduce the radical complexity of her identity from the Frida-branded collectibles that will certainly crowd the shelves in the Brooklyn Museum gift shop (lest the institution take a principled stance on feeding into Fridamania through the proliferation of her image). As an aesthetic icon, Kahlo has become so popular that even toymaker Mattel had to get on board, releasing a Barbie last year which garnered mixed reviews; we saw that Kahlo’s relative abundance of facial hair, one of the many trademarks of her appearance, didn’t quite make it onto her doll, causing an uproar among people who watched her identity and artistry being replaced by conventional, able-bodied femininity.

Art Imitating Life

With the exhibit largely focused on the ways that Frida Kahlo cast herself as an icon, a work of art in her own right, it will also display her paintings, which she began to create following the accident that kept her bedridden for an extended period of time, when she was only 18 years old; physically broken and confined to her room, she began to thrive in her creativity. At the time, the public thought little of her work, and even to this day art critics write her off as a celebrity rather than an artist, classifying her as a surrealist when she would liked to have been classified as a realist. “I painted my own reality,” she insisted. Her self-portraits display her experiences, her fears, her passions, her physicality and superficiality, all set in a mythical world she created to feed her spirit.

In one of her artworks, painted shortly after her divorce from Rivera, Kahlo artistically severed herself from the aesthetic identity that she had long relied upon to advertise her image to the world, painting her body into a large man’s suit, perhaps her ex-husband’s. (They would remarry within the year.) She holds a pair of scissors in her hands and there are thick tendrils of her long black hair everywhere, shorn her hair from her head. Her hair was one of the features that Rivera had loved the most about her. Above her seated image, she has inscribed the lyrics of a Mexican folk song: “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore.”

Without her self-appointed iconography, would we still love Frida?

“Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” opens at the Brooklyn Museum on Friday, February 8th and runs through May 12th.