At the start of the month, the Brooklyn Museum opened the exhibit Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving. It is a massive show, packed with rooms of ephemera, clothing, artifacts, and of course art, based upon both last year’s Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the original exhibit curated by Circe Henestrosa at the Frida Kahlo Museum in 2012.
Aptly titled, the exhibit is deceiving in its appearance and scope. All three of the past exhibits advertise that they showcase Kahlo’s famed clothing and personal possessions that had been locked away behind closed doors for fifty years, following her death in 1954 until 2004. All boast of being firsts as well: the first exhibit to showcase the clothing (Frida Kahlo Museum), the first exhibit outside of Mexico to do so (Victoria and Albert), or the first to do so in the U.S. (Brooklyn Museum). However, this show is about so much more than Kahlo’s clothing or appearance…
It is about the experience…
Viewers to the museum are met with large bright pink LED screens with blue block letters yelling out “FRIDA KAHLO.” Here, the museum plays upon a growing need for viewer-digital interaction by offering a picture-perfect space for visitors to pose and take photos, excitedly waiting to enter the exhibit — and they do. Although guests are not allowed to take photos inside the exhibit (though Instagram confirms my observation that this rule appeared to be largely unenforced on my visit), the last room provides another photo opportunity for viewers with a larger than life image of Kahlo to bookend the entry and exit experience. This is particularly fitting, given that the museum is consciously exploring a self-reflective artist who, as Rebecca Kleinmann aptly points out, “meticulously crafted her own image on a par with Cleopatra” and even posthumously has approximately 830,000 Instagram followers today.
It is about Kahlo’s experience…
One of the most powerful rooms of the exhibition is one featuring a series of Kahlo’s changing medical orthopedic corsets and casts. Walking into the space, the viewer is surrounded by Kahlo’s art as a physical manifestation of her pain here in the earthly world. After having polio as a child that left her with a severe limp, and after sustaining lifelong injuries in a near-fatal bus accident at age 18, Kahlo wore an ongoing line of supportive corsets and casts throughout the remainder of her adult life — and she painted almost all of these while they supported her body. The room also showcases medical devices, shoes with different heights to adjust for her limp, a prosthetic leg, glass prescription bottles, and a note outlining her conditions in a plea for a doctor to understand and treat her ongoing physical pain.
As a viewer in this room, you are surrounded by glass cases with corsets suggestive of an army of corporeal presences. Through these imagined and ghostly figures, viewers are haunted by the constrictive physical reality of a body — and of our bodies — and yet, they are also confronted with the necessarily resilient power of art to expand one’s imagination and uplift the spirit. It is impossible to see this room without wondering at both Kahlo’s endurance and ability to continue producing art in spite of and perhaps even because of the physical pain. In one of Kahlo’s many well-known quotes from a 1953 ink on paper, she asks, “Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?” Even here, just a year prior to her death, Kahlo’s resiliency is palpable and inspiring.
It is about iconicity and historiography itself…
The exhibition rooms are filled with mixed media ranging from dresses on Kahlo-inspired mannequins to ephemera and letters, to jewelry and fashion accessories, to a wide selection of photographs, paintings, and antiques. As Jason Farago noted in his review of the show for the New York Times, there are indeed only eleven of Kahlo’s paintings included in the show.
And when I was at the exhibit, I was surprised at how little attention viewers often paid to those paintings. I got lots of personal facetime with these small works, which was a special feat given that I saw the show on a crowded Sunday of opening weekend. For instance, standing in front of Self Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940), I was blown away with such intimate details as the scissors portrayed in Kahlo’s hand (where you can see the singular lines of her brush), her delicately delineated and slender fingers on each hand, and the strands of hair strewn about and floating around her in turn.
But the show is not just about her paintings, of course. It is much more about the making of the icon that is Frida Kahlo, and hence Fridamania, Fridolatry, and Kahloism, as we know it today. But besides the deep dive into both her closet and the relics of Kahlo’s beauty regimen, such as her red lipstick, nail polish, and eyebrow pencil, viewers also see and learn about the ways in which Kahlo deliberately fashioned herself, through fashion.
In Appearances Can Be Deceiving (1946), the work after which the Brooklyn leg of this show was named, Frida Kahlo drew herself, showing an x-ray view looking through her Tehuana dress to reveal her concealed, injured leg and corset. This drawing reveals that she opted for traditional dress from Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, not only for the socio-political symbolism and alliances she wished to forge for simply for Diego Rivera’s personal likes; no, in fact she also opted for unrestrictive clothing that would conceal her limp, leg, and corsets.
The exhibit provides self-reflective language throughout; this is refreshing, and something always delightful at the Brooklyn Museum. For instance, notes in language throughout the show point to both changing times and the care of the curators. In one section called “From Disability & Creativity,” the introductory wall label contextualizes Kahlo’s struggle with her disability in a different era: “Language and terminology regarding disability have changed significantly since Kahlo’s lifetime. Wall texts in this exhibition relate her voice to current social ideas about disability.”
And in the “From Fashioning Gender” section, the wall text addresses Kahlo’s bisexuality and famed works like Self Portrait with Cropped Hair or her family photographic portrait featuring Kahlo in a men’s suit: “In today’s terminology, we would say Kahlo rejected binary categories and embraced gender fluidity. But the language and the choices of identity available to her regarding gender and sexuality during her lifetime were vastly different from today’s.”
However, some labels neglected to bring up key related points, as in The Bride Who Becomes Frightened When She Sees Life Open (1943). Here, the wall label describes the work as a gift to André Breton’s wife Jacqueline Lamba who, the label informs us, she liked better than Bréton himself. The show veers a bit in this way, by ignoring some important and relevant details to Kahlo’s life. Perhaps she did like Lamba more than Bréton, but additionally, as is now well documented, Lamba and Kahlo shared a sexual affair complete with love letters between the two preserved in Kahlo’s diary. Why not include this here, particularly when the show explores and so rightfully acknowledges Kahlo’s would-be rejection of the binary?
This offers insight into the changing history-telling and -making of both Kahlo’s story and image. The narrative, it seems, is still being constructed, construed, and woven in different directions, depending on the narrator. As curatorial advisor Gannit Ankori notes in her 2013 book Frida Kahlo, “any attempt simply to (re)construct a linear biography of this fascinating and innovative artist inevitably encounters a complex maze of conflicting information, documents, and memories — a weave of overlapping objective and subjective facts and fabrications.”
In the end, the show helps to construct — or perhaps helps us to see — yet another view of Kahlo and her many lives, incarnations, and selves.
An LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and educator, Ellen C. Caldwell reflects upon art, visual culture, identity, memory, and history for JSTOR Daily and New American Paintings. To see more of Ms. Caldwell’s work, visit eclaire.me.