Frida Kahlo’s exhaustively documented crossover from artist to pop culture icon isn’t happenstance. The painter meticulously crafted her own image on a par with Cleopatra. If she were alive today, she’d probably be teaching a branding class at Harvard. Now it’s America’s turn to see how, and, more important, why she did it.
Some of the contents of the home she shared with her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera — known as La Casa Azul (Blue House) in Mexico City — will be accessible for the first time in the United States in “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, from Feb. 8 to May 12. Their belongings were to be locked away until 15 years after Rivera’s death, according to his instructions, but the task of unsealing and inventorying them didn’t happen until much later, in 2004. This is the biggest stateside show devoted to Kahlo and a considerably expanded iteration of last year’s exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The sweeping survey adds greater insight into Kahlo’s collecting habits through works culled from the museum’s vault as well as the New York chapter of her timeline, and includes works lent by local institutions and galleries. The supplementary mix of Mesoamerican objects, one of the many types of art the couple favored, with her paintings and photographs divulge her yearning for Mexico’s indigenous and agrarian culture and her conflicts with capitalism, especially in the income inequality she witnessed during her travels in the United States.
Visitors will better understand Kahlo’s skill in searing her likeness into the public imagination, even if it meant dangling monkeys around her head and cultivating her most recognizable physical traits — a statement ’stache and unibrow. Neither her disabilities from polio and a bus accident, nor her frequent relapses of pain deterred Kahlo. By the time she died at the age of 47 in 1954, she left behind a public persona that is still being mined well into the 21st century; today she has more than 800,000 Instagram followers.
“People have an insatiable curiosity with her, and this presentation is a rare opportunity to see how she built her identity,” said Catherine Morris, a senior curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, who organized the Brooklyn Museum’s version of the show with Lisa Small, senior curator of European Art. Here, they share some of their insights.
A mastermind at using fashion to her advantage, Kahlo delivered red-carpet moments wherever she went. “She even dressed that way to work in her studio,” Ms. Small said. Her ethnic ensembles, famously inspired by Oaxaca’s Tehuana, a matriarchal society, dismissed de rigueur looks dictated by Parisian designers and the soulless mass production of clothing. Vogue magazine took notice. Kahlo championed her homeland’s indigenous customs in wearing huipiles (woven tunics), rebozos (shawls) and flouncy, long skirts. They also drew attention away from her polio-ravaged right leg and body casts from several operations after her near-fatal bus accident. She frequently referred to herself as the great concealer.
The Body As Canvas
Besides its feminine allure, jewelry struck a more personal chord for Kahlo. Like her intricate updos embellished with hair ornaments and blossoms, chandelier earrings and bold necklaces drew onlookers’ focus to her face. They were also another vehicle for her to express her passion for Mexican crafts including contemporary silver jewelry and native materials like jade, favored by the ancient Maya. “She most commonly wore gold rope necklaces and Mesoamerican jade stones, which she’d string into extraordinarily chunky necklaces,” Ms. Small said.
A Microcosm of Mexico
In one gallery, the curators set out to re-create the vibe of Kahlo and Rivera’s home. Azure-painted walls and a case of Mesoamerican ceramic and stone sculptures and vessels, from the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection, evoke its spirit. The ancient objects convey the couple’s eclectic taste and deep appreciation for Mexican art and archaeology. “They’d have a colonial portrait next to a pre-Columbian piece next to a gas mask from the 1940s,” said Ms. Small, who located a Colima dog sculpture in the museum’s collection similar to those at La Casa Azul.