This weekend I attend Frida Kahlo: Looks Can Be Deceiving at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit is packed with rooms of 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.
Even though attendees are not able to take pictures throughout the exhibit (and my daughter requested that I not nerd out with my writer’s notebook) the clothing, art, photographs, and personal items are ingrained in my mind. There were two rooms that were the most powerful.
The first featured a series of Kahlo’s changing medical orthopedic corsets and casts. Kahlo contracted polio at age six, which left her right leg thinner than the left and left her with a limp, which she disguised by wearing long skirts. When Frida was 18 she was in a horrific bus accident returning home from school. “An iron handrail had impaled her through her pelvis, as, she would later say, piercing “the way a sword pierces a bull.” Kahlo’s pelvic bone had been fractured and the rail had punctured her abdomen and uterus. Her spine had been broken in three places, her right leg in 11 places, her shoulder was dislocated and her collarbone was broken. These experiences and events contributed to Frida Kahlo’s long term health struggles and her art.
Kahlo wore 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.
Walking through the room room you wonder 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.
Whereas many would see this as a disability, her voice and social ideas about disability are shown through her writing, painting and dress. She, in fact, dressed in traditional dress from Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, not only for the socio-political symbolism and alliances she wished to forge; no, in fact she also opted for unrestrictive clothing that would conceal her limp, leg, and corsets.
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.”
The last room of the exhibit showcases many of Frida Kahlo’s clothing that allow us to view of Kahlo and her many lives, incarnations, and selves. 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.”
As The New York Times reports, Frida Kahlo used her body as a canvas for both art and political statement. The fabrics that she chose for her dress were vibrant and gorgeous. It is evident that Frida Kahlo took great care and pleasure in her dress. Frilled shirts, heavy necklaces of jade and coral, and pinned flowers all directed attention where she wished it to fall: “The adornment is concentrated from the torso up,” Ms. Henestrosa, curator of the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London said. “The beautiful headdresses and jewelry distracted you from her legs and her body.”
There are many connections that teachers can help students make throughout the exhibit beyond a biography about the artist’s life. Aspects of creativity, disability and ability, fashion as political statement, and the role of culture shaping our identity are all ideas that can be addresses while experiencing this exhibit and learning more about the life and art of Frida Kahlo.