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Frida Kahlo: Where does the art stop and the person start?



Frida Kahlo: Where does the art stop and the person start?

A reflection on the vagaries and charms of fashion


We are all to some extent our own inventions. The stories we tell about ourselves are a carefully crafted shorthand of symbols created for public consumption. Our appearance is like a PowerPoint presentation with animated bullet points for signifying attributes. More so now that we can codify our visuals on Instagram and Facebook (even those of us who aren’t so-called influencers). In a sense we are all rummaging in the dress-up basket of our lives – choosing the costume that best expresses that strange amalgamation of id and superego, the personality.Even the people who think they are free of such considerations are making choices all the time, demonstrably so. You might think that innocuous check shirt and chino combo is free of  semantics – but you are screaming from the hilltops, my friend. What is more, our society most validates those who do the exercise in self creation really well.
Consider the retrospective that has just opened in London celebrating the sartorial choices of Frida Khalo. Here are her nationalist skirts and dresses, her Mexican blouses, her jewellery, her beautifully embellished prosthetic leg, her painted medical corsets, her bells and whistles – all on public display after years of untrammelled preservation, having been locked up in a room of the house she shared with Diego Riviera.This is a fascinating and slightly unnerving personal catalogue of intense invention that has lain in perpetuity, like Ms Havisham’s wedding, since her untimely death at 47. Here are all the parts that made up the whole, even her used lipstick, her dark eyebrow pencil for the infamously considered unibrow.  Here in these almost talismanic objects resides the spectral ghost of Frida Khalo. Hear her howl.As any actor will attest, to put on the costume is to put on the character. To see Frida’s Mexican flamboyance is to understand the character she created. A larger than life icon, in the old religious sense of the word. Something like a pagan statue made to be worshipped and carried along in the imagination. A character she thoroughly enjoyed inhabiting, she wrote to her mother back in Mexico from her first New York exhibition, describing the rousing effect the clothes were having on the gringos up north.
Her clothes were like a magnificent disguise – invented to draw attention away from her physical ailments and onto her newly minted self, rising like a phoenix – celebrating her Mexican otherness in a world of Western conformity. Her costume is like the iconography of  a new religion – each item like religious relics of St Frida. Instantly recognisable and worshipped around the world. So enmeshed with her art that it is hard to tell where the artwork ends and the person begins.Years ago I remember being struck by the oddly amusing sight of one of Queen Victoria’s mourning gowns. She was not a tall person, and her girth was wide. She had loomed over the British Empire for the better part of a century,  but to witness the tiny round dress she once embodied, presented innocuously in the fashion museum in Bath, was to understand something terribly human about this hugely symbolic widowed queen. She seemed stolid yet fragile, and the black was very much a full stop. This dress spoke reams, like a message someone had sent into space  200 years ago, a tinny echo from the past living on in the fabric present. Just like Frida’s clothes, which are still shouting loudly at us from wherever she has gone: “Look at me , here I am.”

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