What Frida Kahlo was hiding under those skirts: The artist’s private life revealed at Brooklyn Museum


Nickolas Muray, Frida in New York (1946, printed 2006). Emily Winthrop Miles Fund, 2010.80. Photo by Nickolas Muray, © Nickolas Muray Photo Archive. Photo: Brooklyn Museum.

This month a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum examines the art and life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Featuring a mix of personal artifacts from Kahlo as well as pivotal paintings the artist produced over the course of her career, Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving gives viewers a unique peek into Kahlo’s private life, and in the process, reveals personal details most people might not realize.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving in the first major show of the artist’s work in the U.S. in almost a decade. The exhibition was inspired by a 2012 show at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico, but the Brooklyn version takes on a slightly different feel and includes elements such as a biographical film that was not in the previous edition, as well as 40 rare photographs of the artist from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art. Also unique to this show is a Mexican makeover of the museum’s onsite restaurant, The Norm, featuring a rotating lineup of guest chefs and events that will complement the art on view. 

This bio-exhibition format is one that the Brooklyn Museum has seen success with before. In 2018, many flocked to the borough to see the widely popular David Bowie show, which featured a number of costumes, liner notes, artworks and other personal items from the musician. A 2017 exhibition of Georgia O’Keefe that is now traveling, as well as a 2015 show of Basquiat, also followed a similar format.

This latest exhibition engages a similar trajectory, offering viewers a rare glimpse into the enigmatic artist’s life. After Kahlo’s death in 1954, she requested that her personal items not be opened until 15 years after the death of her husband Diego Rivera. (Kahlo was a deeply private person, as this story in The Guardian points out.) Rivera passed away in 1957, however, it wasn’t until the early 2000s when Kahlo’s personal items began to be closely inventoried by staff at Casa Azul, the artist’s residence in Mexico City that has since become a museum.

The prosthetic leg Frida Kahlo detailed with flourishes like a dragon painted onto a leather boot. Museo Frida Kahlo. Photograph Javier Hinojosa. ©Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums

Appearances Can Be Deceiving features a wide range of personal effects from Case Azul including pieces of clothing such as hand-painted corsets, Tehuana skirts, dresses, and tops, and a number of pieces of contemporary jewelry. Other belongings such as Revlon nail polishes in various stages of use and colors, lipstick tubes, and a portable ashtray also show a more intimate side to Kahlo.

Kahlo’s sense of personal style is a trait that she would also become well known for over the course of her career. From her famous unibrow, to her use of men’s clothing such as suits, as well as her oversized skirts and dresses, the artist’s look was as much a matter of choice as necessity. Many of the garments in her wardrobe incorporated aspects of her Mexican heritage, but were also worn to hide her disability.

At the age of 6, Kahlo contracted Polio which left her with a limp. Hurt in a bus accident at the age of 9, Kahlo recovered in a full body cast for three months. The accident resulted in a broken spinal column and changed the course of her life. The injuries she sustained from it likely impacted her ability to have children, and also resulted in a long recovery time with several surgeries.

This experience greatly informed how she would come to approach the world and was often reflected in her artwork. One painting from 1929 titled, “The Bus,” features a range of people from different walks of life sitting on a bus, but is also a direct reference to the bus that hit her. Another drawing from 1926, “The Accident,” depicts two buses crashing into one another, a hospital in the background and Kahlo laying in a bed with a cast on her right leg.

In 1953, Kahlo’s leg was amputated from gangrene, resulting in her wearing a prosthetic. The show features one of the prosthetics she personally designed with a red leather boot that laces up the front and an Asian-inspired dragon design outlined in green with an orange body.

Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair “(1940). © 2019 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

There are also a number of paintings in the show that call attention to the artist’s personal history and rely upon the imagery she employed throughout her career. Often Kahlo used herself in her paintings depicting her unibrow, as well as other aspects of her life that she infused with surrealist imagery. Her sense of fearlessness and larger elements of gender play are particularly evident within “Self Portrait With Cropped Hair” from 1940. The painting is a self-portrait of the artist in a suit sitting in a yellow chair with a floor covered in strands of Kahlo’s hair that she has appeared to have cut off.  

This deeply intimate look into all sides of Kahlo’s life reveals many details about the artist and how she would come to deal with issues both publicly and personally. The show also raises larger issues surrounding traditional notions of femininity and masculinity. But with such a fashion-heavy focus, it does in some ways detract from Kahlo’s larger artistic practice. While Kahlo was celebrated as fashion icon, her art was at the center of who she was, and having a show so split between her clothing and her work does not elevate her art.

Today Kahlo has come to be viewed as a revolutionary feminist icon for being openly bisexual in an era when this was looked down upon; tackling tough issues in her art; and redefining beauty standards in the process. Appearances Can be Deceiving provides insight into one of the most unique artists of her generation, but also showcases how complex Kahlo was as a person.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving is on view at the Brooklyn Museum until May 12, 2019.

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