A Woman in Full: Frida Kahlo Returns to SF

New exhibit features art and artifacts that had, until recently, remained locked away.

The house in Mexico City where Frida Kahlo lived and died has been a pilgrimage site for more than 50 years, with millions of visitors traipsing through every room and open space of the two-story structure — including Kahlo’s former bedroom, Kahlo’s former studio, and other areas that, before Kahlo’s 1954 death, only her friends, family, and lovers could enter. One room, though, was forbidden to unlock after La Casa Azul (the Blue House) opened as a museum in 1958: Kahlo’s former bathroom.

Until 2003, no one at the museum really knew what that bathroom — connected to her bedroom by a green door — contained, nor what was in a separate collection that remained unexamined in the house. That is why the new de Young Museum exhibit, “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” is such a revelation.

For the last two years, contents from these formerly sealed spaces have been exhibited outside of Mexico City — first at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, then at the Brooklyn Museum, and now at the de Young, where art-goers are seeing a more complete and more complicated side of Kahlo. 

Here we see the prosthetic right leg that Kahlo wore in her last year of life — as much an art piece as a working appendage, because of its embroidered silk and shiny, red leather boot. We see the plaster and bandage corsets that Kahlo wore to help support her spine, and which the artist also turned into art objects, with one featuring a bright red drawing of a hammer and sickle (Kahlo supported Communist ideals) and a clear drawing of an unborn child (much to her regret, Kahlo couldn’t have kids).

We also see Kahlo herself in paintings, drawings, photos, and film that reveal her life from its origins — not just Kahlo’s adult years and her frenetic relationship with Diego Rivera, but her seminal years with her parents, which highlight the essential influences of Kahlo’s interest in self-portraiture (Kahlo’s dad was an accomplished photographer), in Tehuana dress from Mexico’s southern region, and in doing art as an act of expression and creativity.

So “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” narrates Kahlo’s origin story while also revealing what Kahlo had chosen to largely hide from public view — though not from herself and her tight-knit circle.

Prosthetic leg with leather boot, V.8. (Photo: Javier Hinojosa, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

The exhibit’s subtitle comes from a Kahlo self-portrait, discovered in the unsealing of Kahlo’s possessions, that depicts her inside the silhouette of a large billowing dress. It’s as if we have X-ray vision and can see Kahlo’s medical corset; can see her shorter, polio-damaged right leg; and can see Kahlo’s utter nakedness. Appearances Can Be Deceiving has no date, so it’s unclear when Kahlo used charcoal and pencil to draw the work on paper. But the small piece aligns with the exhibit’s premise: That during her lifetime, Kahlo held different identities — and that, posthumously, Kahlo has become a global icon for a cross-section of interests, including disability rights, indigenous dress, gender fluidity, and art that was as uncompromising as Kahlo was. Why has Kahlo’s reputation endured so long? How did she transcend the art world and become symbolic to so many people around the world?

One reason is Kahlo’s suffering. Polio afflicted her in childhood, followed at age 18 by a severe bus accident that cracked her spine, shattered her right leg, and disassembled her pelvic bone, among other physical trauma. But “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” makes clear that Kahlo didn’t think of herself as a victim. Instead, the exhibit argues, she worked with what she had — which meant wearing shoes with a built-up heel for her shortened right leg, and adopting the Tehuana dress that covered and distracted the appendage.

Before the bathroom discoveries, scholars would credit Rivera for influencing Kahlo’s dress — the premise being that Kahlo wanted to “please” Rivera and synchronize with his admiration for that distinctive style of attire. Evidence to refute that idea was locked away some 50 years. It includes a photo, now at the de Young, that shows Kahlo’s mother and maternal family attired in Tehuana dress when Kahlo was a young girl. 

“This was one of the first visual cues that helped me explain why she had chosen her wardrobe … it was a kind of ‘Eureka!’ moment,” Circe Henestrosa, the exhibit’s guest curator, tells SF Weekly in a phone interview from Singapore, where she heads the School of Fashion at LASALLE College of the Arts. “This photograph of her maternal family shows her mother and different people all dressed in Tehuana attire, so this particular photograph shows that she had this legacy well before meeting Rivera. And when she adopts the dress, around the late 1920s, it symbolizes powerful women, it’s very Mexican, and it helps portray her Mexican beliefs and her political beliefs at a time of the Mexican renaissance right after the Mexican Revolution.” 

It took the 2002 death of Dolores Olmedo, the Frida Kahlo Museum’s overseer, to finally unlock Kahlo’s green-doored bathroom and unseal the other formerly forbidden spaces that contained Kahlo’s belongings. Just before his own death in 1957, Rivera had given Olmedo instructions to unlock the spaces in 15 years, but Olmedo never did. Henestrosa, who grew up in Mexico City and whose great aunts (Alfa Rios Henestrosa and Nereida Rios) socialized with Kahlo in Mexico, says archivists are still trying to catalogue and conserve the spaces’ contents. She also says the exhibit is personal for her, and no wonder: It turns out that Alfa Rios Henestrosa gave Kahlo her first Tehuana attire — a loose-fitting tunic called huipil. Alfa Rios Henestrosa hailed from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the area in southeast Mexico that’s home to the indigenous Zapotec people, a matriarchal society where women wear the long Tehuana dress that Kahlo became known for. Circe Henestrosa’s father’s side comes from the area. 

“Frida never went to that region,” Henestrosa says, “and my aunts were natives to the region and used to wear that attire. And when Frida adopted the dress, they brought her” more clothing. 

“I was looking back at my own roots,” says Henestrosa, who first gained access to the archive in 2009. “And when I started this research, I was interested in the disability and ethnicity aspects of Kahlo’s personal archive and her wardrobe, and how these two are related to each other.” 

‘Appearances Can Be Deceiving,’ by Frida Kahlo. (Photo: Gary Sexton, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

It should be noted that many of the objects in “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” have been on display at the Frida Kahlo Museum since at least 2012. When SF Weekly visited the museum in 2015, the line to get in snaked around the block, filled with visitors from around the world but also from Mexico. Kahlo has become an international symbol whose artistic language and looks continue to inspire. It’s not just Kahlo’s art that people respond to. It’s her moxie. And her makeup. The best-known photos of Kahlo, done by Nickolas Muray (who became her lover), show her with bright red lips that match her red hair ribbons and red flowers. Along with Muray’s photos and outfits from Kahlo’s collection and myriad other objects (including pain medications), the de Young exhibit displays the lipstick, blush, eyebrow pencil, and nail polish that Kahlo used until her dying days.  

When Kahlo visited San Francisco in 1930, and walked around with her colorful dress and distinctive makeup, children would walk up to her and ask, “Where is the circus?” Henestrosa writes in her essay for the exhibit’s catalogue. The de Young’s exhibit includes a special section about Kahlo’s ties to San Francisco, which she first visited when Rivera was commissioned to do a major mural.  

“When she married Rivera in 1929, San Francisco is the first city they visited abroad, outside Mexico, and San Francisco becomes a very important city because this is where she finalizes that Tehuana look,” Henestrosa says in her phone interview with SF Weekly. “This is where she wants to portray herself as very Mexican in the first foreign country she goes to. In the 1930s, the fashion was Hollywood and very European — so no one was dressing like that, not even in Mexico.” 

Photographer Garciela Iturbide, who was granted access to Kahlo’s former bathroom in 2005, has published a book of photos, El Baño de Frida Kahlo, that documents the room and its contents, including Kahlo’s prosthetic leg. What Henestrosa did was more like detective work — looking for many clues that would give her (and the subsequent exhibits) a fuller way to understand the who, what, where, and why of Kahlo’s life. That’s why “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving” is rewarding: It takes Kahlo’s almost mythological life and grounds it in a reality of pain medications and red lipstick, and in a reality of colorful dresses and attire underneath that held Kahlo’s body in place and steadied her while she navigated the celebrity and the tumultuousness of being Frida Kahlo. 

“Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving”
Through Feb. 7 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive (Golden Gate Park), S.F. $20-$35, 415-750-3600, deyoung.famsf.org


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