I entered the V&A with the resistance I associate with having to pay to see an exhibition and the subsequent question of will it be good value, an ominous starting point for engaging with any art. The £12 ticket gives you a timeslot and you queue to gain access on a one-in, one-out system to avoid overcrowding.
You first enter through a narrow dark corridor that feels and serves as a bottleneck. This space is used to exhibit a series of black and white photos of Frida Kahlo as a child, young woman, adult. The public jostled cattle-like for space and air; to assert your stance in front of any one image took bravura and I found myself unwilling and disengaged. I opted to move on quickly and was glad as each subsequent room gave physical and emotional expansion to my experience.
Kahlo’s personal belongings, displayed bright and bold in glass cases, gave pathos and depth to her work. A greater part of the exhibition is given over to the items of clothing that both served as a purposeful self-fashioning on her part, and as a means of obscuring and accommodating her physical disability and the surgical structures she relied on daily: corsets, false shoes and boots, metal braces. As these items amassed, the artist persona receded against the physical reality of Kahlo’s short life, the disability and extreme pain she lived with, the multiple operations, periods spent bedbound. No wonder she painted herself, constructed her art around her own form.
Kahlo’s art does feature in the exhibition, it’s fitting that it is hung on the peripheries of the spaces you walk through with the artist’s clothing taking centre stage. The tomb-like network of chambers offers an apt, non-linear passage through her life. Separated from my party I explored the space half-lost, disorientated, increasingly anchored to Frida’s world. The exhibition mirrors the ornate threads in the outfits she wore, the viewer’s gaze weaves back and forth between artwork; artist; photo; pain; artwork; husband; artist; letter; pain; artwork — and so on. It is a complex tapestry with each viewer having agency over which part they work; I left knowing that I had experienced something acutely personal, un-replicable, profoundly moving.
Oddly, those images that I had barely glanced at in the bottleneck flashed sharp in negative as I walked through the kaleidoscopic spaces: Frida in a suit; Frida as a girl; Frida at a party. I cannot think this an accident. The curators crafted a visually purposeful, visceral experience for the audience with the first photo gallery acting like a zoetrope of image imprint in preparation for the most astounding onslaught of colour and pain that follows.
You exit into a gallery shop adorned by Kahlo-colour and consumables ranging from £2 tat to £200 shawls. It’s a shame. After the exhibits you don’t need any more colour and you don’t need to take anything home. And there’s distaste at commodifying the clothing synonymous with Kahlo and her physical pain — which we’ve just seen. As the V&A kitsched its own good work I pushed past the till into direct sun, eyes reeling in magnesium light. Those images flashed up again. Frida in a suit. Frida in a mirror. Frida: in black and white.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up ran at the V&A, London, UK, from 16 June to 18 November 2018.