“I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality” – Frida Kahlo.
Frida Kahlo is more than a legend, but one who has left an indelible mark in the realm of art, fashion and culture around the world. One of the most iconic artists of all time, and today even a celebrated fashion icon, when I first read about a woman wearing pantsuits and creating ground-breaking art in the 1930s, it immediately ignited my curiosity about her background and the kind of life she must have lived. Turns out, every bit was as eventful and colorful as her language of art.
The more adversities life set upon her, the more Frida rose against them strongly. She acted as a breath of fresh air amidst typical norms of tradition. By exaggerating her ‘masculine features’ with her feminine side – she proudly adorned a sense of vibrancy in her outlook. All her glamour coupled with her progressive political views has elevated her stature from being just an artist to a symbol of passionate liberation in the modern world.
Getting to know Frida
She challenged normative ideals beautifully through her work of art. Setting herself as the muse for most of her works, her art pieces are a reflection of her state of mind and which has been displayed thoroughly through her self portraits. Having gone through hardships very early on in her life – she endured a terrible illness, and even worse accident, all of which added up as significant milestones for her achievements.
The unfortunate accident led to some detrimental injuries not only to her spine and pelvis but majorly to her self-esteem. This body-altering event led to her metamorphosis – she became her own cheerleader, her own muse. Her horrible physical condition became the inspiration for her morbid and macabre paintings. Much like a generation of young people today, Frida knew how a constructed self-image could empower; and the worse she felt, the more she drew attention to her clothing.
At the age of 18, when women her age were up and about flaunting their beauty, she was struggling to find comfort in her medical braces which became her life support.
Her husband Diego Riveria, a renowned photographer played a significant role in helping her accept herself – even though they both shared a bitter-sweet relationship due to his relentless infidelity. His gaze became her lens to view herself differently and eventually carve a niche for herself. She resorted to elaborate hairdos with floral accessories and fashioned the unconventional unibrow with bright-hued lips just to set her own standards of beauty, moving away from the traditional norms.An inspiration to all today, Frida once battled her identity issues until she found acceptance in her appearance by ways of identifying herself as someone unique. From here on, there was no looking back for her.
“Kahlo’s pain created works focusing on the death, decay, and brokenness of the human body.”
A Walkthrough La Casa Azul
The more I read about Frida, the more interest I started gathering in other parts of her life. Having set foot in Mexico City became the perfect reason to get to know her more as I booked myself for a tour at the famous ‘La Casa Azul’ (The blue house) – Frida’s residence which has now become a museum open to tourists to get a glimpse of her memorabilia throughout her life.A traditional colonial house with bright cobalt blue walls was inviting enough to walk into her life. Very quickly did I realize that the house was more than just a museum, but a reflection of Frida’s creative persona. Diego also lined the ceilings of the house with mosaics and the walls with shells to make it their very own.
The first few items that were striking were of course her gorgeous outfits – these included beautiful pieces like Rebosos (fringed shawls), embroidered huipiles (square-cut tops), enaguas (skirts) – some specifically hand embroidered by her and her mother. She may have possessed over 300 pieces of clothing, but these weren’t discovered all at once.After her death in the year 1954, the house was turned into a museum in 1958 to keep her memory alive. However, to protect her privacy, her husband requested her bathroom to be left aside. Respecting his wishes, her bathroom was only re-opened after 15 years by the authorities wherein most of her outfits were discovered. These were then refurbished and restored in the museum that is now home to all of Frida’s belongings which speaks of her artistic spirit and the kind of life she lived.
The collection is nothing less of an extravaganza and displays her love for vibrant colors and bold attires. In fact, her favorite lipstick – Revlon’s “Everything Rosy” and an ‘Ebony’ eyebrow pencil were still kept intact in the house. Every piece found there is like walking towards her.
Self Expression as liberation
Frida’s physical challenges never stopped her from assuming the title of a fashion icon – even during her time. Even though she had a difficult time recovering from her spinal injury and suffered its aftermath for as long as she lived she never lost hope in herself. A large number of medical corsets painted with political symbols and imagery were found to be displayed. Being bed-ridden with these uncomfortable corsets didn’t stop her from churning out her artistic side.She transformed these into her canvases and continued painting on them with the help of a mirror installed in her ceiling – all the while she lay for hours and hours on her bed. Frida’s disability is a testament to the image of the awesome strength she projected.
Paintings and Photographs
Frida was a prolific painter and she made generous donations of her paintings to people of influence. Portraits of some of the most sought-after political figures of the time, such as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Tsetung – are stylishly displayed on the walls of Frida’s La Casa. Not only are they indicative of her particular interest in political principles but also her active participation in its propaganda in her own ways. Her famous self-portraits are accompanied by portraits of friends, not to mention her lover, Nickolas Muray.Amongst the many gifts that she received throughout her life, some of the special ones were – an easel gifted by Nelson Rockefeller and the beautiful ‘Butterfly Collection’ by the Japanese Sculptor Isamu Noguchi. A lot of traditional folk art, artefacts, and Mexican culinary items which are believed to be collectively owned by Frida and Diego also held their place in La Casa Azul.Every nook and corner of the residence spoke volumes about Frida’s personality. To a tourist, La Casa Azul is like a treasure found at the end of a tunnel. The house stored every single item that reflected the lives of Frida and Riveria. Apart from the beautiful clothing and paintings, it stores several documents, books, drawings, and letters – these include illustrations of the womb and the developing human fetus, hinting towards the three troubled and failed pregnancies that Frida went through. The multiple tiers of drawers also had a drawing called “Appearances Can Be Deceiving” which shares its title with an exhibition that displays Kahlo’s dresses.
All these items have enriched her legacy and provided researchers an insight into the painter’s life. The house seems to be an intrinsic part of Frida’s artistic imagination. It houses some of the fondest items of Frida’s life that speaks of her creative instincts.
La Casa Azul continues to mesmerize the people who visit it. The taste of raw Mexican culture juxtaposed with Frida’s personal life leaves each one asking for more. No amount of journals on this subject seems to have done justice to what I experienced in my visit.
Author: Gneev Nagi | Cover Artwork by: Sarthak Grover | Trip Credits: Shraddha Gupta