Hard to imagine she once worked in shadow; when she had her first New York exhibition, in 1938, Vogue preferred to name her “Madame Diego Rivera.” For there may be no artist today as famous as Frida Kahlo, now recognizable from Oaxaca to Ouagadougou — with those big brown eyes framed by her notched unibrow, those pursed lips topped by a whisper of a mustache. Certainly no woman in art history commands her popular acclaim.
There is a Frida Barbie. A Frida Snapchat filter (with a suspicious skin-lightening effect). Frida tchotchkes on Etsy and eBay number in the tens of thousands. Beyoncé herself dressed as Kahlo a few years back, trailed by the usual “FLAWLESS” and “SLAY” headlines, and so did more than 1,000 fans who gathered at the Dallas Museum of Art in Frida drag. Even Theresa May, the British prime minister not overly accustomed to celebrating Communists, sported a Frida Kahlo charm bracelet during a major address.
Yet Fridamania, in itself, was not the only reason I went with some apprehension to “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” which opens this week at the Brooklyn Museum. The show is largely not an exhibition of the Mexican artist’s work, but a recapitulation of her life through her clothing, jewelry and objects from her home. A version of it first appeared at the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City in 2012, curated by Circe Henestrosa, who also helped curate an expanded iteration at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2018.
The V&A’s most visible recent shows have been lightweight spectacles of celebrity culture. There was every chance, I feared, that this exhibition would follow in the vein of the museum’s showcases of pop stars like Kylie Minogue, Pink Floyd and David Bowie, the last of which also toured to Brooklyn. It turns out to be a more rigorous enterprise than those, thanks in part to its organizers, Catherine Morris and Lisa Small, curators at the Brooklyn Museum, who worked with Ms. Henestrosa. The Brooklyn exhibition deepens and broadens the V&A’s version with new loans and dozens of pre-Columbian antiquities from the museum’s own collection. (Another good addition: The Brooklyn Museum has provided all the wall text and labels in Spanish, as well as English.) The clothes, lent from Mexico City, are fantastically elegant, above all the rich skirts and blouses from the Oaxacan city of Tehuantepec. As for paintings, there are only 11 here, in a show of more than 350 objects.
More than celebrity relics, the show argues, the clothes are key to Kahlo’s achievement. So are her jewelry and her spine-straightening corsets — Kahlo was in a traffic accident as a teenager, and this show puts a particular focus on her disability. Do her outfits have the weight of art, or are they just so much biographical flimflam? My mileage varied from gallery to gallery, but it’s worth considering, given her admirers’ intense love for her persona, how much can be displaced onto skirts and shawls.