Frida Kahlo | Photographs by Ishiuchi Miyako

It’s not often we are privy to the artist’s world beyond the gallery. We’re usually unable to see beyond the surface of the canvas and contemplate the thoughts and motivations that inspired their practice. However, this isn’t the case with the exhibition, Frida, by Ishiuchi Miyako, which finished recently at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London.

Frida Kahlo, an artist who captured the imaginations of generations with her iconic self-portraits, now has her private possessions revealed in Ishiuchi Miyako’s intimate photographic exhibition. Overcoming the boundaries of public and private life, Frida looks at the personal traces left behind by the acclaimed Mexican artist (1907-1954).

Locked away for 50 years following Frida’s death in 1954, her personal effects were initially placed in the bathroom by her husband Diego Rivera, who gave clear instructions that the room should not be opened until 15 years after his death (which occurred in 1957). However it was only much later, in 2004, that the bathroom in the ‘The Blue House’ (which is now Museo Frida Kahlo) was finally opened. Curator Circe Henestrosa invited Ishiuchi Miyako to photograph the artefacts – 300 unseen relics of Kahlo’s private life.

An artist whose physical ailments greatly influenced her practice, Frida was an invalid throughout much of her life. As a young child she contracted polio and then at the age of 18 was involved in a near-fatal bus accident that resulted in numerous surgical operations. Recovering from her injuries isolated her from people, and this isolation impacted the artist’s works, many of which resulted in her self-portraits. The effect upon Frida’s work was clear, as she once stated, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject that I know best.”

With the recent rediscovery of Frida’s personal collection of clothing and objects, it is clear that her costumes became more elaborate as Kahlo became more incapacitated. It was Frida Kahlo’s time-capsule possessions, not her paintings, which initially captured Ishiuchi Miyako’s attention. The Japanese photographer comments, “Frida always receives attention for her extraordinary aspects, but coming in to her ordinary side greatly sparked my imagination and inspired me.”

Interestingly, Ishiuchi Miyako had not previously encountered the Mexican artist, knowing very little of Frida Kahlo when she was first invited to travel to Mexico. Historical objects intrigue Ishiuchi Miyako’s practice, which has previously focused on the social climate of post-war Japan after the devastation of the atomic bombs which ended the Second World War.

Clemency Cooke, Michael Hoppen Gallery Director, comments upon the value of this new perspective, saying, “One of the most interesting aspects of the series is that Ishiuchi Miyako approached the project with no preconceptions of Frida as a cultural icon. She got to know Frida through her intimate belongings and describes each article and artefact as having its own character.”

Switching to the personal context of Frida Kahlo’s life, Ishiuchi Miyako’s practice brings an air of fresh enquiry that couldn’t be achieved by a long-standing admirer of Kahlo’s. Isolating her enquiry from the baggage of fame and social critique surrounding Kahlo, Ishiuchi Miyako was able to photograph each object uniquely in its own right – focusing on the quiet stories each had to tell.

A refined process, in her earlier series ‘Mothers’ (2000-2005) and ‘Hiroshima’ (2007), Ishiuchi Miyako photographed previously worn garments and possessions of individuals, interested in the individual memories rather than the greater history of post-war Japan.

The cataloguing of Frida’s 300 possessions is like meeting her for the first time, ranging from the chic of her sunglasses to the delicate darning of her tights, bringing two unconnected artists into an intimate conversation.

Decorated casts and corsets, elaborate stitched detailing on dresses, bright fabrics and her chic sunglasses reveal the personal details that Kahlo armed herself with. Each object tells a very personal story, in particular her prosthetic leg. In 1953 Kahlo’s leg was amputated, a huge blow to her recovery. Photographed independently in natural light, the prosthetic leg holds its own, distinguished by its red leather boot decorated in delicate Chinese embroidery and a little bell. This personalised decoration of an object that was previously unrelated to her body, now personalised as part of both her wardrobe and body, is as strong an articulation of Kahlo’s self as the portraits she painted.

Through photographing the traces left by Frida on her belongings – including paint stains and stitchings – Ishiuchi Miyako creates a portrait in which the owner is very much present. The puckered darning of Frida’s wardrobe, the stitching and worn shoes are presented as imprints left behind. Studying Frida’s worn clothing and shoes, Ishiuchi Miyako comments, “The form of her shoes shows that Frida accepted the physical scars she had been burdened with all of her life and changed them from something negative into something positive.”

The markings of wear and tear held an undiscovered truth of Frida’s history, which was the greatest interest for Ishiuchi Miyako’s enquiry. Informing both a social and personal history, the up-close photographs of the corsets, braces and medical gear shed light on the personal struggle Frida had to endure her injuries. For Ishiuchi Mikayo these fabric scars were the same as body scars, and she was drawn to them “because they are so much like a photograph … they are visible events recorded in the past.”

The works in the exhibition are unadorned and not informed by a dramatic showcase of lighting. It is a reverent study that enables the objects to reveal hidden stories within their markings. Viewing the iconic wardrobe in Ishiuchi Miyako’s series greatly informs an awareness of the motivations that informed Frida’s practice. The relics, though each are photographed separately, as a whole form a portrait of the fascinating individual. An artist who channelled her struggles through creativity, this series invites the spectator to be privy to see the other side of Frida, the woman behind the iconic self-portraits.


Courtesy the artist and Michael Hoppen Gallery, London

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