An Encounter with the V&A, my mother, and Frida Kahlo

My mother, who regards being on time as already one minute late, called me at exactly 4pm. Where was I? I was in the underpass, the Victorian cave that leads from South Kensington tube station to all the major museums on Exhibition Road. She was at the main entrance of the V&A. I should have remembered: she prefers to be in the daylight. I entered the Museum to meet her; turned right, into what should have been the galleries of artefacts from China and Japan, with a glimpse into that strange, double height room of ornate gravestones, before swinging into the grand hall hung with the glass chandelier that looks like Medusa’s head, and out through the revolving doors to the noisy street.

My mother and I have been coming to the Victoria and Albert Museum together since I can remember. This place is one of the scenes of our lives. We have had major conversations in its dim walkways. We have seen things we talk about for years to come.

But this time, I got lost. I found myself going round in circles inside a display about women’s fashion. Dresses stood stiff and starched in sealed, perspex cases. Each one was clinched at the waist with a corset. Some of the corsets made the dresses lean over, tilting the mannequin’s pelvis so much that any real-life wearer would be in a position of subservience all day. I recently heard the broadcaster Samira Ahmed talk about trying on a corset. She said it made her whole body feel weak, that it was hard to breathe; and yet the contraption transposed those feelings onto her. Once she took the corset off, she was left with the lingering idea that her muscles couldn’t work on their own, that she needed the corset to stand straight again.

Eventually, I found my way out of the cabinet of curious women and went in search of daylight. I felt a sharp prick of cold air and stood for a moment, disorientated. I was not at the main entrance to the V&A, with its reassuring markers of nineteenth century civic pride. I was next to a glass box and a series of half finished pillars and some steps that didn’t seem to go up or down.

Suddenly, I remembered: I hadn’t been here since they built the new, side entrance to the V&A. This must be it. I’d read that this entrance was ‘deconstructed’; the lines between the inside and the outside are confused, and so was —

I headed through the deconstruction and onto the street. The twenty first century has also removed the barriers, here, between pavement and road. The idea is to engender a more relaxed, sharing space. In reality, this road is filled with chauffeur driven cars, taxis and coach tours, none of which are particularly interested in sharing.

A visually impaired colleague has told me how she feels about this type of street design: it’s hard to negotiate new boundaries, she says, when you have no idea where the old ones have gone.

Finally, I turned the corner and found my mother, who was scanning the streets from the top of the steps of the nineteenth century. We were here to see Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up, an exhibition about the life of the iconic Mexican artist. Working in a painterly tradition that owes more to Mexican art histories than European ones, the power of Frida Kahlo’s work has mostly eluded me. This is partly what happens when an artist becomes ubiquitous — you see their images reproduced on postcards so much that you never encounter the real thing. And it is also what happens when artists are used as emblems of a simplified idea. Frida Kahlo appears on curricula of Women Artists who represent Women’s Issues. And so if she doesn’t represent me, I thought when I came across her as an undergraduate, then she’s either a bad artist or I’m a bad woman.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait (1948)

The first few rooms were about the Mexico in which Kahlo grew up, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Kahlo’s father was a photographer who collected images of contemporary Mexican engineering for the government. He took photographs of bridges and museums, their handsome forms silhouetted against a grayscale sky, their brickwork lit like statues.

In keeping with the remit of the V&A, this was not an exhibition of Kahlo’s art but of her personal possessions. A necklace she made out of stones. A shawl she wore. A pair of earrings. There was a strange feeling here, too, like a growing tension. It began with a disorientating noise, like the sound that a body makes in an ultrasound scan; like the sound that a living thing makes, underwater; like the sound of a living thing being translated from one realm to the next. There was an abstract musical composition being piped through the windowless space, becoming imperceptibly louder as we reached the penultimate room. The effect was like moving deeper and deeper into a bodily mass. The rigid forms of Mexican architecture had been left behind; we were in the realm of the personal.

My mother and I seldom talk when we go round an exhibition together. We tend to look in silence. Somehow, we make sure we are in the same room at the same time, enveloped in the same moment of thought, considering the same objects, the same context, the same shadows; but we save our conversation for the café afterwards. This silence is my favourite type of intimacy. Without the pressure to make sense of my thoughts, I am nevertheless thinking in companionship with someone else. It is a private type of closeness: both private to myself, and private to me and my mother. In these moments, it doesn’t matter what I think. It only matters that I am thinking, that she is thinking, that we are thinking together.

Here, where the music reached its crescendo, was the treasure of the exhibition: a selection of Frida Kahlo’s personal possessions that were kept, after her death, by her husband, the artist Diego Riviera. He sealed them in the bathroom of their family house, where they remained, hidden, for the next fifty years. Medicine, cosmetics, the plaster corsets Kahlo wore to recover from surgery, the false leg she used towards the end of her life, a stacked shoe. These intimate things were exhibited in darkness and part-mirrored cabinets. My own body loomed next to her false leg; my own face, to her half-used lipstick.

The most compelling objects were the medical corsets which Kahlo painted in rich tapestries of allegory and colourful designs. One depicts her own miscarriage. One depicts the hammer and sickle of the USSR. But the painted casts seemed to be of a different order to other effects displayed nearby. There were also undecorated casts here, and commercial cosmetic products, and standard issue medical equipment. Here, side by side, in the darkness and the unanswered questions.

Why were these things hidden for half a century? Was it to protect them, or to keep them unknown? Was it done in malice, or envy, or love? Was it a decision of Frida’s, or Diego’s, or of the curator of their house-turned-museum? Was it a decision at all, or an act of desire? Or grief? Or madness? And what of the contemporary historian who peers at them in the daylight, picking through Kahlo’s used cosmetics with tweezers and latex gloves?

Neither does it matter, exactly, what my mother and I say when we go to the café to talk afterwards. The conversation is a relation, not a transaction; a gesture of our affection for each other, rather than a bid for our ideas to be understood. I am not sure any of us can ever be understood: especially, perhaps, by our mothers. And although I used to think, childishly that my opinions mattered, or that they would one day, I no longer do. I am no longer sure that anyone’s opinions matter as much as their actions, their small kindnesses, their companionship in the world. Sometimes I think this is because I have abandoned patriarchal and capitalist models of individualism, and sometimes I think it is because I have failed at them.

The curation seemed to suggest both that there was a malign intent behind the fifty year embargo — that Someone did not want the public to have these intimate moments with Kahlo’s intimate self — and a great mystery to be revealed by disobeying it.

But what is a self? Who has a right to its intimacies? And why should these objects provide access to Frida Kahlo’s?

The tyranny of the individual is one of the reasons I’ve never identified with Kahlo’s work: her life, her experiences, even her colour palette seemed too far removed from my own, for me to understand her as an archetype of a woman. I was not encountering Kahlo’s work, of course, but her totemic presence as a Woman Artist. I was trapped in a double bind — the individualism of society as it acts on me (in which my identity is tantamount to my permissions to navigate the world), and the individualism of systems of knowledge as they act on art histories (in which artists are required to be exceptionally representative of a certain class, in order to demarcate these permissions).

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Famously, Kahlo’s self portraits are painted from the same angle. Three quarter face. Piercing eyes. Head held high. She painted herself like this over and over again, for decades. In this exhibition, some of Kahlo’s portraits were shown in black and white reproduction, next to the personal artefacts that were meant to represent another, revelatory version of herself. There were films and photographs, too — imprints of the artist made by other people. Here, she appeared softer and more multiple than in her paintings, her emotions passing over her face like the breeze.

Frida Kahlo, Thinking About Death (1943)

And here, in an exhibition that was not of Kahlo’s artwork, I finally understood something about her artwork. I understood her portraiture as a series of symbolic gestures, as opposed to a search (in the classical European tradition) for the authentic self. Frida Kahlo does not look out of her paintings in the same way as Rembrandt, for example, searches for his soul in his own reflection. Instead, Kahlo constructs a series of gestures — maps of herself within the world, relationships between self and other. I finally understood Frida Kahlo’s work as a cocoon of layers of the self, coalescing rather than cohering; each new symbol also a metonym for the fragility of the life that holds them together. This is a type of individualism that is not about an essential origin, but a situated consciousness. It is a practice of the self: an ethics as well as a poetics of being. And for the viewer, it is an invitation to relate, not to identify.

Much has been made of the contradiction between Frida Kahlo’s communism and the heavy merchandising of her image on sale in the V&A. You can buy pencils, pencil cases, bags, scarves, postcards, notebooks and badges emblazoned with her famous face. In contrast, the exhibition has been praised for ‘making visible’ Kahlo’s disability. But its own subtitle suggests she would have been just as appalled at this take on her life. ‘Making herself up’ suggests Kahlo knowingly constructed an image of herself in order to play a role in the world. It suggests she was independent and self-determining. It relates to the woman who painted her corsets and her portraits, not to a person defined by her difference from a concept of a physical norm.

The final room was filled with cases of mannequins wearing Frida Kahlo’s clothes. I was lost again. Swimming in a space where the outsides of a person mark how they act, what they do and what they think, instead of the other way round. I watched my mother wander slowly to the exit and knew we were nearly at the end of this routine of ours, this private intimacy in public. Soon it would be time to talk about everything and nothing over coffee.

The last display showed a model in traditional Mexican dress, facing away from the viewer and towards a box of mirrors. My mother’s body was reflected on one side and mine on the other; between us, a life-sized doll. I thought of layers instead of clothes. Positions instead of bodies. Gestures instead of explicated meaning. How impossible it is to be understood, how futile the cult of the individual, how meanings coalesce over time, how any single act must change with the practice of living.

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We don’t choose the bridges or bedrooms or dimly lit galleries that are the contexts of our lives, but we do choose what we do with them. Silently and in unison, my mother and I moved our bodies out of the exhibition.