Ishiuchi Miyako’s Frida on view at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, until 12 July 2015

It’s easy to get worked up about Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). In the wake of the massive physical tragedies that befell her she was an amazing human being. She was a great painter and Surrealist, and her work (especially self-portraits) continues to inspire contemporary artists - not to mention the selfie movement. Also, she was gorgeous.

But the stories delivered to us about her (and there are so many) make her even more than an artist, more than a woman. In the streetcar crash that broke her bones and speared her uterus, and later as her body made its way along the ramp to the crematorium, she transcends her physica mortal bounds: she is glowing, golden. Even as she came apart, as she was robbed of her body, she is magical. 

She has an entire vocabulary of color… Riding a bus at eighteen, Frida stood next to an artisan carrying a pouch of gold dust. When the streetcar hit them, his pouch was broken open by the force of the collision and Frida’s body, ruined on concrete, was covered in what the pouch held. Gold was sunlight on asphalt. Gold was the gleam of metal through an open wound. Magenta, on the other hand, was the color of blood. “El más vivo y antiguo,” Frida called it—the most alive, the oldest shade. “He who sees the colors.” Frida was the one who had to wear them.

Leslie Jamison,  Paris Review 2011

Frida in magenta and gold, and red with blue.

Frida in magenta and gold, and red with blue.

As frenzied mourners watched the earthly remains of Frida Kahlo roll away into the crematory, the artist, known in her day for her macabre sense of mischief, played one last ghoulish trick on her audience. The sudden blast of heat from the open incinerator doors blew the bejeweled, elaborately coiffed body bolt up-right. Her ignited hair blazed around her head like an infernal halo. One observer recalled that, deformed by the phantasmagoric, flickering shadows, her lips appeared to break into a grin just as the doors closed shut. 

Amy Fine Collins, Vanity Fair 1995

Kahlo spent most of her life in her Blue House in Coyoacán, Mexico City. She perfected the garden and raised a pack of parrots, hairless dogs and monkeys there. Built by her father the year she was born, it’s now a museum devoted to her memory.

Frida at the Casa Azul (Blue House)...

Frida at the Casa Azul (Blue House)...

Her husband Diego Rivera  (“the Michelangelo of Mexico”) donated the Blue House upon his death 1957,  three years after Frida’s. When Kahlo died, Rivera had sealed her collection of most personal things in a small bathroom. And there it remained, apparently undiminished, until the treasures emerged in 2004.

You can visit the house, and the effort is certainly worth making. Catherine Q. O'Neill, an Allure beauty editor, recently visited the Blue House and wrote about seeing Kahlo’s beauty products and corsets and clothing in the flesh:

The collection reveals a woman who loved beauty—including Guerlain Shalimar, Revlon nail polishes, cat-eye sunglasses, flower crowns, and rich red lipstick—but it also reveals a woman who used beauty to shield her vulnerabilities while unapologetically projecting her femininity. 

Then, in 2011, artist Ishiuchi Miyako was invited to document the objects so recently uncovered there. You can find a really lovely selection online, to whet your appetite:

Cat-eye sunglasses that belonged to Frida © Ishiuchi Miyako "Frida by Ishiuchi#50"

There’s really no substitute for the immediate physical presence of beloved things - especially if they’re yours, but even when they belong to someone else.  They bear the marks, the dirt, the wrinkles: traces of a life lived. This is basically the thesis of my life. And it certainly plays into our Traveling Light series.

Neither is there anything on the internet that approximates the richness of a high quality print of an excellent photograph. 

So it’s not surprising that Ishiuchi Miyako’s Frida, now on view at the Michael Hoppen Gallery - has received a ton of amazing press. The show is actually also related to a 2011 book of the photographer’s work, Frida by Ishiuchi  (£35) , which I would buy yesterday if I didn't have to spend all my money on cardboard boxes instead. 

Ishiuchi Miyako is remarkable enough on her own, her training in textile arts somehow helping her to capture Kahlo’s ghost in the things she left behind the way she was able to do the same for her own mother's possessions (and, actually, her body), in her 2000-2005 series Mother. The photographer’s prints demonstrate that traces of Kahlo are still tangible in her clothing, beauty products, prostheses, jewelry - and especially in the corsets that held her shattered torso together.

I recommend the show highly, and if you've got three thousand quid I'd absolutely recommend springing for a small print of the oddly haunting remnants of nail varnish...

xo, Barbara

PS: Hurrah for my hometown! London is also where the first international retrospective of Frida Kahlo’s work was held - in 1982 at the Whitechapel Gallery