The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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APR 2019 Issue

Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving

The exhibition does well in its exploration of who Kahlo was as a person, and offers a reevaluation of the feminist icon at a time when public understanding and awareness of disability and pain have grown.

<p>Nickolas Muray,<em> Frida in New York</em>, 1946 (printed 2006). Carbon pigment print, 14 x 11 inches. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives. Photo: Brooklyn Museum.</p>

Nickolas Muray, Frida in New York, 1946 (printed 2006). Carbon pigment print, 14 x 11 inches. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives. Photo: Brooklyn Museum.

On view
Brooklyn Museum
February 8 – May 12, 2019

Following its presentation at the Frida Kahlo Museum, in 2012, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2018, curators Catherine Morris and Lisa Small bring Frida Kahlo to Brooklyn. Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving presents Kahlo's paintings and photographs of her by other artists, alongside a trove of personal possessions from La Casa Azul (The Blue House) that Diego Rivera barred from the public view until 15 years after his death in his will.

The exhibition's focus is on how Kahlo became a global icon through art and fashion, and as such, it neglects Kahlo's role as a painter, with only 11 paintings featured in a show of over 300 objects. (Her masterpieces are on view, such as Kahlo's Self-Portrait with Monkeys [1943], but their role is to assist us in understanding Kahlo the person, not the artist.) More a photography and fashion exhibition, the show makes the complexity of Kahlo's life apparent and digestible through a presentation of select emblematic objects chosen to help viewers closely examine Kahlo's marriage to Rivera, their shared belief in mexicandad (Mexican identity), and her ability to deal with pain.

Plaster corset, painted and decorated by Frida Kahlo, Museo Frida Kahlo. © Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Archives, Banco de México, Fiduciary of the Trust of the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums. Photo: Javier Hinojosa, courtesy of V&A Publishing

That Kahlo experienced physical pain was publicized during her lifetime, yet it is still jarring to witness, through her possessions, the suffering she dealt with on a daily basis. Her personalized medical corsets were as commonplace as, and shared space in her closet with, her famously bright traditional indigenous dresses and necklaces of obsidian blades. One gallery features three medical corsets with different symbols hand drawn onto them by Kahlo. Two have prominent hammer and sickle symbols, a sign of Kahlo's Communist leanings, while the third offers a nod towards Kahlo's consistent physical suffering with a design comprising a white pillar surrounded by dying roots amid a muddy wasteland. A leg brace fitted for a specific shoe sits next to the corsets, displaying how Kahlo incorporated her physical needs and pains into her sense of fashion and color.

Las Apariencias Engañan, the show's namesake drawing, is presented in the gallery. The titular motto ("appearances can be deceiving") is written under a self-portrait near Kahlo's signature. The phrase is an apt one for such a portrait, which shows the artist standing in a green dress, purple hues outlining her body. Despite the presence of the dress, Kahlo's body shines through—suggesting that what we see is not quite what we get. A red undershirt and green boxers are visible underneath the dress, and translucent enough for a brown pubic mound to be seen at the junction of her thighs. Blue butterflies cover her left leg. A dark corset confines her torso. A white rod runs parallel to her spinal cord, a reference to where her three vertebrae were broken from the metal rod of a streetcar.

Kahlo's clothes were as much a stylistic statement as they were a defense mechanism, a manner in which the Mexican painter could dazzle while also ensuring that her scars would be hidden from the world. The drawing highlights Kahlo's desire to not let her injuries or disability prevent her from being prolific, while also conceding that her disability represented a constant reminder of her accident, a moment undoubtedly that can be viewed as the nadir of her suffering.

Installation view: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, Frida Kahlo Museum, 2012. Photo: Miguel Tovar. © Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera Archives. Bank of Mexico, Fiduciary in the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museum Trust.

With a carefully curated wardrobe, Kahlo used her sense of style to define and conceal herself at will fashioning an iconic status and establishing herself as a Mexican pop cultural figure. She used the fact that her clothes had to be customized to fit her body and accommodate her disability to her advantage—a choice that is still paying dividends more than 60 years later, especially outside of Mexico. As Kahlo noted during her time in San Francisco, in a quote displayed on the museum's wall, "the gringos really like me a lot and take notice of all the dresses and rebozos that I brought with me. Their jaws drop at the sight of my jade necklaces and all the painters want me to pose for them."

Frida Kahlo, Appearances Can Be Deceiving, n.d. Charcoal and colored pencil on paper, 11 1/4 x 8 inches. © 2019 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Though Kahlo loved her time in both San Francisco and later New York, she was baffled by the US's ability to desensitize class struggles. "There is so much wealth and so much misery at the same time," she observed while living 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." These words appear in the "Gringolandia" gallery, next to three preparatory sketches that give visual presence to her confusion and distaste. Each depicts the Statue of Liberty, drawn as a prison for oppressed people, holding a money bag and an atomic bomb in place of her customary torch. The names of Hitler, Truman, MacArthur, and Franco can be seen in the drawings, with Kahlo labeling them as problems of the capitalist system.

Such images are gripping ones and prove that Kahlo's art and vision are powerful enough to stand on their own. The exhibition does well in its exploration of who Kahlo was as a person, and offers a reevaluation of the feminist icon at a time when public understanding and awareness of disability and pain have grown. Yet, the immense focus on Kahlo's life, rather than her art, leaves something to be desired for those seeking further appreciation of Kahlo as a painter. The exhibition shows us how Kahlo persevered towards her goal of being a great artist. However, in its biographical focus, the show unintentionally suggests she never became one.


William Whitney

William Whitney is a writer who lives and works in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues