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Frida Kahlo at the Palais Galliera

an exhibition review written by Maud Quilici

On the 27th of January 2022, I went to the exhibition (Frida Kahlo : au-delà des apparences au Palais Galliera/musée de la mode. This same exhibition had taken place in Brooklyn, New York as well in 2019.

Frida Kahlo is one of those artists whose face has now become a very recognisable mercantile object, a full-fledged part of pop culture. While this vulgarisation has allowed Frida to become mainstream and therefore extremely popular, the depth of her art and the message behind it is therefore often lost. All we really see of Frida is her face. We see it on tote bags along with a vaguely feminist quote, on postcards, on blankets, on mugs and on pieces of furniture. If this exhibition manages to do one thing, it’s to remind the spectator of how alive she was.

The exhibition itself is divided into two parts; the first one being her background and life story/the evolution of her art plus the political context surrounding various stages of her life and the second part being her clothes. The exhibition was shown at the museum of fashion, therefore including the significance of clothing and how tightly it is interwoven with her personality and sense of self makes a lot of sense. The first part of the exhibition allows for a more complete understanding of the second one. Most of the outfits that are shown are Tehuana dresses. While the outfits are usually colourful and embroidered, the details vary depending on the occasion. For celebrations, the dress would be pink and white with a frilly white crown around the face, resembling a halo.

Self- portrait (1948)

Her story is told chronologically. She was born in 1907 in Mexico but later appropriated the year 1910 as being her date of birth, considering herself a child of the revolution. Indeed, during this year, intellectuals and liberals started to challenge the dictatorship in place led by Porfirio Diaz. She was the second youngest of 8 siblings all born between the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, two of whom died before she was born. She was born to a German father and a Mexican mother. Her father changed his name from Carl Wilhelm Kahlo to Guillermo Kahlo to make it sound more hispanic and therefore more fitting to the place where he lived his life. This mixed-race identity is a theme that seems to define Frida Kahlo’s work and her inner life.

Growing up, she experienced pain very early in life. She contracted polio when she was 6 which resulted in making one of her legs shorter than the other. Then at age 18 she had a bus accident which incapacitated her for months and stopped her from finishing school. She broke her spinal column, collarbone, hips, ribs and right leg. Furthermore, she was impaled by an iron handrail which pierced her body, from her hip and exiting through her vagina. She had to endure months of immobilisation in a hospital bed. This accident also stopped her from finishing school. It changed her and inspired her to start painting. But this immobilisation doesn’t end once she comes out of the hospital months later. She indeed had to plan her life around hospital visits and frequent surgical procedures. She repeatedly had to be confined, either in a room, or physically confined in casts and tight corsets. She often decorated those casts by painting on them and included corsets in her paintings. Therefore, she transformed those medical devices into an intention, a second skin. This allows her to change the narrative, she is not only a victim of her circumstances, she controls her own image. The idea of confinement becomes a pattern in her art and is both a physical prison and a form of freedom through art.

The broken column (1944)

When she was a young woman, she played with gender fluidity dressing like a man. After her accident, she seemed to find her style in traditional Mexican Tehuana dresses. These outfits were usually composed of a long and large skirt, and a top. The length and circumference of the skirt allowed her to hide her legs. One year after one of her legs was amputated, she died of a pulmonary embolism in 1954. She was 47. Through most of her life, she was partner to Diego Rivera, an artist 20 years her senior, with whom she entertained a very conflicted and passionate relationship. Her art became more subversive when her first miscarriage happened. In total, she had three.

She often expressed herself through self-portraits, showing duality and ambivalence. In these portraits, we often see tears streaming down her face (see self-portrait 1948).

Memory of the heart (1937)

Memory the heart (1937) displays three fragmented selves, with a German schoolgirl uniform, Frida herself, and a Tehuana outfit. Again, the iron handrail pierces her, this time through her heart. A separate heart is shown on the floor, outside of her own body. This painting tackles identity issues and dissociation.

The two Fridas (1939)

The motif of a dual identity comes through the repeated appearance of mirrors in the various photographs exposed in this exhibition. The photographs document most of her life, all the way to the end.

The symbol of the yin and yang is a redundant symbol in her art since it shows binarity and the idea of opposites complementing each other (see self-portrait 1948).

The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth, Myself, Diego and Senor Xolotl (1949)

In this painting for instance, light and darkness coexist together. And some kind of mother nature is holding Frida, who is herself holding Diego as if she were holding a child.

The violence of miscarriages frequently comes back in her work, showing blood, body parts (as in organs) and body hair.

My Birth (1932)

The imagery of birth and rebirth could all be called anti-nativity (a term coined from the exhibition) as she uses most of the iconography of nativity scenes and subverts them. Female nudity and the tradition of its representation is turned on its head, hereby creating a new tradition of visual womanhood in art.

The flying bed (1939)

Many critics found this fractured body to be too visually repulsive. However, one could say it’s refreshing for others to see a woman's body depicted by a woman’s gaze and experience, and therefore no longer embellished but full of fragility. Here the woman’s body is no longer solely a topos, it’s marked by time, pain and violence. Themes such as linearity, family and affiliation are also found in her work because Kahlo’s roots are clearly important to her.

My grandparents, my parents and I (Family tree) 1936

Her art was bold because it told us something profound about womanhood, humanity, motherhood, and the pain of a life living with disability. Her life was often led on the edge of things, from a hospital bed, looking at the world rather than living in it. She lived as a marginalised figure, struggling to find her place in the Western art world whenever she went abroad (in Paris, London or the USA). In fact, she had mostly bad experiences in the Western world, André Breton even mansplained her own art to her when in Paris. Even though she did find her crowd at home, she had to search within herself for a reason to live. That reason seemed to be creation. The role of a truly original artist is to expose the darkest most painful parts of themselves to reveal a deep truth about humanity. Most women can probably relate to Frida because her art screams something very painful about what it is like to be a woman and being part of a minority. Her art was deeply political. And politics held a crucial role in her life, about as pivotal as her accident since she became communist right after her accident.

A few small nips (1935)

A few small nips (1935) is one of the most political paintings. Indeed, it shows a woman who has been killed by a man. Her body is distorted, with her legs facing one way and her torso facing the other way, reminiscent of her own accident which metaphorically and physically cut her in two. She was inspired by an event that actually happened. The news report describes a drunken man who stabbed his companion but allegedly said they were only ‘a few small nips’.

If you are in Paris and unsure whether to go or not, then you definitely should if you can. Be sure to book a ticket though because you won’t be able to simply show up and come in. Perhaps the only drawback is that it isn’t free and therefore not accessible to everyone. Full fare is 15 euros, reduced fare is 13 euros, and free if you are underage. I would say the exhibition is so great that the price is worth it, but I am also aware that 15 euros is a lot of money to spend on an exhibition.

Today Frida Kahlo’s art still lives on through the impact she had on others. Many Mexican (and other) artists still use her as an inspiration for their own art. Cuban-American writer and playwright Odalys Nanin wrote a play about Frida Kahlo, suggesting that the artist did not die of an embolism but instead killed herself. The play Frida: Stroke of Passion premiered in 2020 in Los Angeles, California.

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