Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, Victoria & Albert Museum, Circe Henestrosa & Claire Wilcox, until November 4th 2018
Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing, Barbican Art Gallery, Alona Pardo, until September 2nd
There is at present a case in the V&A which houses some sixteen mannequins of papier-mâché with moulded crowns of braids. In their midst rises a glittering, gilded thing, resembling at once the skeleton of a tree and several sets of antlers. It recalls the surrealism which swirls through the art of Frida Kahlo, whose clothes adorn the mannequins. They are dressed according to that iconic formula we now associate with the Mexican artist: boxy embroidered blouses, shawls, and gathered skirts. They are bright and beaded. They are triumphant. They offer the image of Kahlo most known to us.
The shirts are known as huipils, the shawls, rebozos. They are specific to the indigenous Tehuana women of the Tehuantepec Isthmus, a region of Mexico near the Panama Canal. In dressing like them, Kahlo is in keeping with the contemporary configuration of a post-colonial, post-revolutionary Mexican identity which drew heavily on Pre-Columbian aesthetics. The Tehuanas’ societies are also matriarchal, which has specific ramifications for Kahlo’s lifelong engagement with her own gender. It is this self-fashioning which is the focus of the V&A’s new show Making Her Self Up.
Across town, at the Barbican art gallery, a similarly seminal exhibition is currently underway about another visionary woman. Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing marks the first time that several series of the documentary photographer’s most important work are being seen outside of North America. Although most of them date from the early to mid-twentieth century, they can tell us volumes about where we are today.
Lange was not an artist, instead insisting all her life that she was a tradeswoman. The exhibition opens on this note, with displays of her early work in commercial photography in San Francisco. Like Kahlo, she was primarily preoccupied with portraiture, although her fascination with the gaze was diametrically opposed to Kahlo’s. Instead of spending her career contemplating how best to receive that of others, she looked outwards, with a keen eye for that which was being ignored.
By far the most famous image of her career is the 1936 Migrant Mother. This picture of a woman forced into migratory destitution by the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, with her three children, stands for all that the Great Depression has come to represent in the American imagination today: self-reliance, determination, and perseverance against all odds. At the Barbican, it is displayed set into a partition wall. Walk behind it, and find yourself in a small annex of chapel-like space – all the better for the contemplation of icons.
It has been common to allude to the American Dream when discussing Lange’s images of the road-wearied migrant farmers, but the Dream as we now know it did not exist at the time. It was invented by it, and in no small part by Lange and others’ work. Of course, the notion of a national dream predates the Great Depression (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness), but the phrase which is now bounced between the chatterati on cable news (denoting hard work for material gain) is born from these portraits of exodus and its hardened, furrowed faces.
Migrant Mother was taken as part of a massive project coordinated by the Farm Security Administration, a government agency dedicated to the reform of agricultural policy. In the 1930s, it hired eleven photographers over seven years to document the effects of the Great Depression across the United States. (Lange was one such photographer; Walker Evans was another.) Their brief was to generate public support for the plight of tenant (now migrant) farmers, and they were told that to do so, it was necessary they train their lenses on white farmers. It is sadly not surprising, then, that Lange’s Ex-Slave With a Long Memory (1937) is not as widely known as Migrant Mother, despite being similarly arresting. Migrant Mother was reprinted in newspapers around the world; Ex-Slave was not. In the years since, Migrant Mother has been referenced and riffed upon a thousand times. It has cemented itself in the common consciousness, and this is partially because it is an image as old as time: Woman with Child. Dust Bowl Madonna. Flight to California. But her status as an American archetype also speaks to the inconvenience of acknowledging alternative national narratives: the black sharecropper of Ex-Slave, living under Jim Crow and recalling what preceded it; or so much of Lange’s other work.
Most notable among her non-FSA work are her some 800 pictures of Japanese internment. Although she was commissioned by the War Relocation Authority to photograph the ‘evacuation’ process in 1942, her images were impounded by the US government for fear they were too critical. There were concerns that her images of children anxiously swearing allegiance to the American flag, or of women with their hair in fully-Americanised 1940s curls would detract public support from the war. Lange was forced to waive the copyright to her work and hand over her negatives, which were deposited in the National Archives and not seen again until several years after her death (in 1965). In one, entitled Camp at Manzanar (1942), an American flag waves before a crisp-crested mountain. So far, so good: the ‘stars and stripes waving before impressive landscape’ forms an important part of the pseudo-fascist ‘Welcome to the United States’ videos played on loop at airport immigration halls across the nation. Unless, of course, we take into account the rows of tarpaper shacks in the foreground of Lange’s image. This is the fantasy of freedom and wilderness, turned concentration camp: a furious retort to America’s hollow promise of a place for all.
Both Lange and Kahlo suffered from polio in early childhood, leaving them with heavy limps. In the case of Lange, it has been popular to suggest that this provided greater empathy for her subjects. Later in her life, she would say that the physical impediment ‘formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, humiliated me.’ To paraphrase Joan Didion, however, it is more likely that Lange’s physical limitations brought on a certain ease in her subjects because her stature was unthreatening. She was perhaps predisposed by it to spend her career forcing the gaze, onto that which America’s establishment would rather not acknowledge. Her work is a determined attempt to debunk American delusions of universal opportunity, and remains just as relevant today. Even in this country, it highlights our misplaced preoccupation with the white rural poor. Like the Bergerism referenced by the show’s title, it tells us that there is no such thing as a single story.
Kahlo’s disability was compounded by the bus accident she suffered at eighteen, which resulted in a life of chronic pain and an inability to have children. This is how the exhibition at the V&A begins. The moving items in the first rooms are those which demonstrate Kahlo engaging with her disability face-on. There are a couple of her plaster corsets, which she painted in joyful colours. On one, a hammer and sickle are crossed above a foetus. On another, a broken column looks forward to the self-portrait of the same name. In a nearby case are some items of her make-up. There is a well-worn Revlon lipstick in a gilded case, and some red nail varnish which she used to keep on her easel, sometimes using it in her paintings. In these seemingly trivial objects, we can see Kahlo moving from the canvas of the body, to the plaster which supports it; to the bodies of her life-size self-portraits on the easel. As she made herself up with vivid clothes and cosmetics, she developed a holistic artistic practice, blending the body of the artist and the artist’s body of work.
Unlike Lange, Kahlo’s disability was so severe she also relied at times on a wheelchair or long periods of bed rest. There are several photographs of her in each. In one, she lies on her bed as if in state, dressed in her full regalia of skirt, blouse, and flower-threaded hair. In a society which would seek to hide disability, it is noteworthy that these pictures were taken at all. By their very presence, they testify to the desire to accord a sense of ceremony to her physical difficulties.
One of the most significant artefacts is her prosthetic leg, which she needed after an amputation below the knee, a year before her death in 1954. The flesh colour of the prosthetic calf tapers into a red leather boot, which Kahlo has decorated with a toecap of green silk. At its ankle are fastened a pair of tiny silver bells, so that her limp, rather than remain silent, could make music. It is arresting because it is beautiful, and because we are unused to seeing amputation dealt with in this way.
As a disabled, mixed race, childless, Communist, female Mexican artist in the wake of revolution, she dressed her body to meet the politicising gaze of the outside world. The image she created was an interweaving of race, gender, and class, of the indigenous and the Catholic, of art and of industry. She invented herself as an emblem of a Mexico blooming into post-colonial selfhood. It is a joyful becoming for the many in the face of great challenges. In this way it is a model dream for us all.
BY Stephanie Sy-Quia