Zeitgeisty is perhaps the best word to describe the Brooklyn Museum’s popular exhibition Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving. The show taps into the variety of ways that celebrities and everyday people alike have been ruminating on and self-fashioning their identities. Kahlo’s various life experiences as a woman, the Indigenous Other, a Communist, a bisexual, a polyamorous wife, and a person with disabilities proffer a series of fascinating facets of her life from which to consider her work. By cultivating a rarified persona from this complex web of intersections, she prefigured the curated images that are currently populating Instagram feeds everywhere. The show leans heavily on Kahlo’s wardrobe to tell its story, channeling the popularity of recent fashion-centric shows such as the Metropolitan Museum’s blockbuster hits Savage Beauty (2011) and Heavenly Bodies (2018). This approach offers an enticingly direct relationship to the artist by rendering her life experience tangible — as in the display of Kahlo’s famous “Self-Portrait as Tehuana: Diego On My Mind” (1943) alongside the lace headdress that inspired it. It is a retrospective of sorts — not of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, but of her persona.
Appraisals of Kahlo’s career have more recently lamented the marginalization of her artistic contributions to the periphery. The exhibition’s editorial voice rightfully dismisses the “condescending” and “patronizing” attitudes expressed by critics of the 1930s and ’40s who belittled Kahlo as the bored housewife of celebrated muralist Diego Rivera, merely trying her hand at her husband’s profession. Attempts to deliver the artist from Rivera’s long shadow and valorize her singularity have had the unfortunate effect of reducing her to an equally two-dimensional status — for instance, as a style icon defined by her mestizo and sometimes non-gender-conforming apparel. The Brooklyn show likewise takes for granted the idea that Kahlo’s artwork is merely an extension of her constructed persona, a fact which becomes obvious when one notices how few of her paintings actually appear on the walls. The sum of her works on display, when considered together with her dresses, jewelry, and other personal items combine to form a diffuse smattering of the artist’s self.
Documentary film footage of Kahlo, anonymous Indigenous women, and clips from government travel films intended to spark tourism punctuate the liminal spaces that divide the galleries among various biographical themes. The films reassert the influence of traditional Tehuana women’s dress on the artist, a style that she embraced, but also the foil against which she would stage a playful rebellion against conformity. Notably, the portraits of Frida Kahlo captured by famous photographers — Edward Weston, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Tina Modotti, and Nickolas Muray — far outnumber the paintings by the artist herself. Muray’s rich chromogenic prints of Kahlo pay tribute to the vibrant buildings and foliage of her native Mexico in their intensity. Over time, these eternally recognizable pictures have become seared onto the public’s imagination, forming the iconic image of the artist that exists in the collective memory. More importantly, as eye candy, they testify to Muray’s talent as a commercial photographer, underscoring perhaps the most questionable aspect of the exhibition: the increasing — although perhaps unintentional — tendency to essentialize, and in some cases objectify, Frida Kahlo to the point of commodifying her very being.
Analyses of Kahlo’s art that fail to distinguish the woman from her practice are nothing new, and the exhibition covers the history of this interpretation, beginning with scholar and fellow Communist Betram Wolfe in 1938, who described Frida as a “product of her art.” There is truth to the fact that most of Kahlo’s canvases, including her famous self-portrait “The Broken Column” (1944), served as visual archives of the excruciating physical and psychic pain that she experienced throughout her adult life. In its use of ephemera and heavy-handed reliance on biography, however, the exhibition builds an altar to her formidable cult of personality, one rife with contact relics, such as the multitude of hand-painted plaster corsets that once propped up the artist’s shattered spine.
Even more problematic are the stealthy branding opportunities facilitated by the artist’s personal effects. Enclosed in a display case in the show’s final room are a handful of makeup products, all of which were once sealed into the time capsule that was Kahlo’s home Casa Àzul for the 50 years that followed her death. Included are a box of emery boards, a tube of bright coral lipstick named “everything’s rosy,” a vibrant fuchsia blush compact, nail polish in colors such as “frosted pink lightning,” and an eyebrow pencil in the shade of ebony, all emblazoned with the Revlon logo, her preferred makeup brand, but more importantly the exhibition’s corporate sponsor. It is be hard to imagine what Kahlo, a self-avowed Communist, would have thought of such conspicuous product placement.
Offering tantalizing access to the artist’s tools for self-fashioning, including the actual pencil with which she darkened her renowned monobrow, the show advertises her identity as a look that can be copied at home. The high-saturation photograph by Nickolas Muray at the exhibition’s end shows her in full Tehuana regalia. This being the only space where photography is allowed, is perfectly designed to take selfies with the artist. In its transition to the pop-up gift shop — an exhibition staple — the show comes full circle. Exorbitantly priced Casa de Azul-inspired artifacts provide the opportunity to take home a piece of mexicanidad — and even the artist herself.
Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving is on view at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Park, Brooklyn) through May 12. The exhibition is based on exhibitions at the Frida Kahlo Museum (2012), curated by Circe Henestrosa; and the V&A London (2018), curated by Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa, with Gannit Ankori as curatorial advisor.