When a wealth of possessions was unearthed from the home of Frida Kahlo in 2004, it shone a light not just on her creative life, but her beauty regime, too. For among the vast rainbow of Mexican costume, letters, medicines and thousands of photographs by Man Ray and others, were the contents of the Mexican painter’s make-up bag. All perfectly preserved by her artist husband Diego Rivera, together, these objects form the central narrative of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, a monumental exhibition opening at the VA this week, exploring the many layers of her rich, complex identity.
On display, alongside the self-portraits that made up close to a third of her artistic output, will be Kahlo’s jar of Pond’s cream; her Revlon “crimson” blush and lipstick; and an extensive collection of perfumes and nail polishes. What’s absent is equally poignant: the powder compact sent to her by the beauty magnate Helena Rubinstein, a keen collector of Kahlo’s work who deemed the artist simpatico, is not here. And besides the products that accentuated her famously winged brows, no eye make-up was found. There’s no foundation or concealer either, suggesting that she kept her skin clean and minimal.
That Kahlo favoured an undone beauty look is borne out both in the products she used and descriptions of her from the time. Seen together with her body of work, they paint a vivid picture of the artist’s daily beauty rituals: “She possessed – and even radiated – a strange and alluring beauty,” wrote Olga Campos, a psychology student who befriended Kahlo later in life. “She had a special skill for applying make-up and achieving a natural look, and spent a lot of time on this effect. She was always made-up and well dressed, even when she did not expect visitors. She knew how to transform herself into a sensational beauty, irresistible and unique.”
Fashioning Frida: Inside The VA’s Frida Kahlo Retrospective
Kahlo’s appearance inspired awe: “People stop in their tracks to look in wonder,” said Edward Weston, who photographed her during a visit to San Francisco in 1930. She styled herself in Tehuana dress to mark her Mexican heritage, piling on the jewellery. Her daily routine involved tightly pulling back, plaiting and pinning up her hair, adorning it with colourful woven yarns and floral corsages (at night, each pin was removed, one-by-one, and the hair unwoven in an exact reverse order). She would then add a carefully drawn lip, powder blush and nail polish in matching r and oranges – or sometimes magenta to match her signature shawl. “Make-up was simply another tool in the construction of her identity. Everything she did, she did precisely,” says the VA show’s curator, Claire Wilcox, of her process. “I don’t think she ever dressed for anyone but herself.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that cosmetics, like clothes, became something of a mask for Kahlo. Her life was etched by physical struggle after polio left her disabled at aged six, and a bus accident fractured multiple bones, including her spinal column, at 18. “Kahlo came to rely on make-up,” says Wilcox, who sees her lipsticks and powders as a powerful transformative tool. “When her body let her down, her face became her canvas.” A woman who knew how to wield a brush could easily transfer her painterly skills from artist’s palette to make-up palette. As a painter, Kahlo spent much of her life surrounded by mirrors, surveying her own visage; they were scattered throughout The Blue House, which bookended her life; mirrors were even positioned above the bed in which she was so often confined.
The stark reality is that, despite her flamboyance, Kahlo often lacked confidence in her looks. She titles a self-portrait from 1933, which captures the young artist with her face unadorned, Very Ugly. “Of my face, I like the eyebrows and the eyes,” she wrote, matter-of-factly. “Aside from that, I like nothing. I have the moustache and in general the face of the opposite sex.”
About those celebrated brows: Kahlo’s beauty kit contained both an “Ebony”-hued Revlon eyebrow pencil and a product named Talika, which was first developed in Paris after the war to treat soldiers with burns, but also encouraged hair growth. It suggests that not only did Kahlo refuse to tweeze; she actively enhanced those bold brows, which Rivera poetically compared to “the wings of a blackbird.”
It’s her eyebrows that posed one of the greatest challenges to Judy Chin, the make-up artist behind Salma Hayek’s portrayal of Kahlo in the 2002 biopic, Frida. (The film has since garnered controversy after Hayek’s admission of her ill treatment by producer Harvey Weinstein.) To recreate their strength, Chin applied a small swatch of lace, hand-spun with angora, between Hayek’s brows, sometimes adding the occasional single hair. For extreme close-ups, she would painstakingly hand-build the brows, hair-by-hair, with glue and tweezers, layering them with brow pens from Stila and Kat Von D.
“Kahlo loved a bold red lip and a strong healthy blush. Her smile seems confident, but there’s a vulnerability to it too,” says Chin, whose moodboard was plastered with Kahlo’s paintings and family photographs. “I tried to mimic the intensity I found in Frida’s eyes with light and shadow. I sculpted Hayek’s more round and youthful face to bring out her bone structure to represent Frida in her later years, using rosy and peachy tones by Tarte and Paula Dorf to create a natural flush in her cheeks and her lips.”
As Kahlo aged, and her health deteriorated, her make-up became markedly more colourful and decorative. This beauty evolution is best viewed in the work of Nickolas Muray, a Vogue photographer who pioneered the use of duotone colour imagery, and with whom Kahlo embarked on a decade-long affair. When he captured her against a lush green backdrop, her hair flush with roses, her face was lit up by ruddy cheeks and bright burnished orange lipstick and nails.
In fact, she wore a fully painted face for every one of her sittings with Muray, whose pictures are included in the VA show. “The make-up really jumps out in Muray’s photographs,” says Wilcox – she is convinced it was the photographer, who shot campaigns for Revlon, who encouraged Kahlo to wear more make-up.
“To my mind, make-up was a part of a sensual awakening for Kahlo,” she continues, adding that the artist often sealed her most intimate correspondence with a lipstick kiss. “The psychology behind cosmetics is much more complex and revealing than it first seems. Kahlo must have known their power as a morale booster. It’s very poignant. Nothing can be more personal than the lipstick that touched her lips.”
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, sponsored by Grosvenor Britain Ireland, is at the VA from 16 June to 4 November 2018.