Monobrows, Self-Portraits And Polio: Frida Kahlo's Life Bared At V&A

Frida Kahlo, V&A ★★★☆☆

Monobrows, Self-Portraits And Polio: Frida Kahlo's Life Bared At V&A Frida Kahlo, V&A 3
Kahlo poses between Mexico and the US showing the cultural and industrial divide in a politicised work. Copyright Modern Art International Foundation

What's the first thing we think of when it comes to Frida Kahlo — self-portraits, fabulous dresses, feminist, nationalist — or is it the Frida Kahlo Barbie doll? Yes, the latter exists and so does a whole load of other Frida inspired merch.

Her legend has grown so large that she's been transformed into a celebrity personality, so it's easy to forget about her as a person and a painter. The V&A is aiming to set the record straight with its new exhibition about her life — though be warned there's plenty of Frida tat in the gift shop at the end.

Kahlo's prosthetic leg she used after hers was amputated. © Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo Museums.

The show kicks off with many albums of photographs setting out her life from her childhood, where we learn her sisters also had the trademark monobrow. It wasn't an easy childhood as she contracted polio aged six, and was impaled by a handrail in a traffic accident.

Even in adulthood, her marriage to fellow painter Diego Rivera was tempestuous, she wore corsets to help with her back issues, suffered two abortions and her toes and then leg were amputated due to gangrene. It's enough to challenge anyone, but as she said:

I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.

Frida Kahlo did go on because through her art she found her voice... but that's also where this show starts to unravel. There are some paintings here, but they're vastly outnumbered by the photographs and out-staged by the dresses that take pride of place on a pedestal in the final room. The exhibition feels like a 60/20/20 split between photography, fashion and painting.

Most of the photography is in black and white, this is a rare colour one. Copyright Nickolas Murray.

We can tell a lot about someone through their photographs — and even their clothes if they were a particularly stylish person like Kahlo was — but the ultimate biography of any artist is their artwork. Sadly, we don't see much of that here. Some of her wonderful self portraits are here, including a fantastic political one which she produced after her trip to the US. In the image,  she stands between the two countries — Mexico spiritual and fertile on one side of her, American a belching industrial factory on the other. There's no doubt which one she preferred.

There are enough paintings here to have filled a room, but as they are smattered throughout the exhibition, they've become a side show. There's no way to know what Kahlo would think of this show but it's reasonable to assume she'd like to be known foremost as an artist and we just don't get that here.

Another self-portrait. Courtesy Jacques and Natasha Gelman collection.

This show does a great job in painting a picture of Frida Kahlo the woman, but it only just about puts brush to canvas when showing us Frida Kahlo the artist. Guess we'll need to fly to Mexico to find out about her.

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at V&A is on from 16 June to 4 November 2018. Tickets are £15.

Last Updated 14 June 2018