Inside the exhibition hangs an overlooked sketch by Frida Kahlo. A standard 8×11 piece of paper is the canvas of a self-portrait done in charcoal and colored pencil, displaying Kahlo in a lengthy, ruffled-up green dress with purple contours outlining her petite figure. Her body is visible underneath the translucent quality of her dress.
Her torso is constrained by a tight corset, with a white rod running parallel to her spinal cord. Her right leg is visibly shorter than her left and is decorated with blue butterflies that flutter upwards toward her pubic hair.
Although simple in its construction, this sketch allows viewers to see how Kahlo’s image, although perfectly put together on the outside, was riddled with harsh physical limitations, showing viewers how appearances can be deceiving. “Las apariencias enganan,” Kahlo wrote underneath her figure in cursive.
The exhibition Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving at the Brooklyn Museum takes its name from this line and is Frida Kahlo’s largest exhibition in the United States in 10 years. It is also the first in the U.S. to display her collection of clothing and other personal possessions, “which were rediscovered and inventoried in 2004 after being locked away since Kahlo’s death, in 1954,” according to the museum’s site. The exhibition holds more than 300 objects, ranging from clothes, makeup and photographs of her taken by friends and family, as well as other possessions that give insight into her thoughts, physical condition and sources of inspiration.
Kahlo’s careful aesthetic is what makes her image iconic. Her traditional native fashion is inspired by the women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region of Mexico, which consists of huipiles (square tops), lengthy and loose enaguas (skirts) and rebozos (shawls). The aesthetic was complete with her hair in braids and decorated with flowers. Her neck donned heavy gold jewelry and prehispanic gems. Some of her accessories are rare sights, such as a necklace made of obsidian blades or mesoamerican jades among other priceless substances.
This careful curation of clothing was not only a celebration of her mexicanidad, or Mexican identity, but also a means to conceal her disabled body, a part of her identity that contributed immense pain and served as the subject of many her paintings.
At the age of six, Kahlo contracted polio that shorted her right leg and was eventually amputated in 1953. Later in life, Kahlo suffered from a trolley bus accident which severely damaged her collarbone, spine and right foot. On display at the exhibit are the various medical devices that Kahlo had to use, such as corsets that she decorated with communist symbols, shoes that were custom made to account for her height difference and prosthetic devices. Various medical records and her unfortunate miscarriages propel the story further and inspire sketches of anatomy, paintings of open wombs and motherhood.
The exhibition is more of an exploration of Kahlo as a person than her role as a painter; from her early life, representation of Mexican heritage and the various identities she held. Only 11 paintings of hers are on display, some of which are her most famous, such as her “Self Portrait with Monkey” (1938), “Self Portrait as a Tehuana” (1943) and “Self Portrait with Cropped Hair,” (1940) that reflects the time she cut her hair short following her divorce from Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Unlike her other paintings, she is not donning a traditional Mexican dress but rather she sports an oversized men’s suit. Seated, Kahlo holds a pair of scissors in one hand and a lock of hair in the other, her tresses scattered on the floor.
“There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego,” Kahlo said about her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera. “Diego was by far the worst.” The portrait could be mourning the end of their marriage, but could also signify her newfound independence.
Her marriage to Rivera often defined her. Newspaper headlines almost always referred to her as the “wife of Diego Rivera,” and regarded her art as a hobby or of lesser quality than that of Rivera. Their trips to the U.S, or “gringolandia” as she liked to call it, highlights her dislike for United States capitalism, its numbness to income inequality and indifference to class struggles.
“There is so much wealth and so much misery at the same time,” Kahlo said about her time in New York, “it seems incredible that people can endure such class difference, and accept such a form of life, since thousands and thousands of people are starving of hunger while on the other hand, the millionaires throw away millions on stupidities.”
In these small snippets, viewers can immediately notice that Kahlo was not one to be afraid of voicing her opinion. She was outworldly a communist, had lovers that were men and women and embraced meso-american and Mexican indigeneity when many succumbed to assimilation into mainstream values and ideals.
At a time where a woman’s identity was defined by her relationship or marriage, Kahlo shaped her own.
“It is her construction of identity through her ethnicity, her disability, her political beliefs and her art, that makes her such a compelling and relevant icon today,” said curator Circe Henestrosa.
Hurry to the Brooklyn Museum before it’s too late, exhibition ends May 12. Learn more or purchase tickets online at https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/frida_kahlo.