In 2015, the New York Times ran a story under the headline “Frida Kahlo Is Having A Moment.” It wasn’t entirely true—the American public has long been obsessed with the 20th-century Mexican painter, and her “moment,” at least her pop-culture moment, probably started around the time Madonna told Vogue that she uses Kahlo as a litmus test for good taste. “If somebody doesn’t like this painting,” Madonna said in 1990, gesturing towards a painting of Kahlo’s that imagined the artist’s birth, with Kahlo’s grown head emerging from a vagina, “then I know they can’t be my friend.”
There’s always been plenty of gatekeeping and clamoring around Kahlo’s persona—Madonna, who owns one of five paintings Kahlo made while living in Detroit, once refused to lend the painting to a local art museum, and in the ’90s, was angling to play Kahlo in a movie adaptation of her life. (She thankfully never did.) But Kahlo’s face is everywhere, on clothing items and tchotchkes; her likeness has been reproduced and repackaged into a kind of lifestyle brand that is rarely described in any more detail than “feminist” and “icon.”
The question of how this happened has been asked and answered many times—so “Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” the Brooklyn Museum exhibition about Kahlo, doesn’t bother to tell it again. It focuses instead on the details of Kahlo’s life, the days before she was transformed into an icon, still unknown, except to a few colleagues and early admirers. It offers a view into the time before Kahlo was made into a celebrity; before the fabricated brand overtook both her and her uncanny paintings. It shows a softer side of a young woman navigating an undue share of pain. It’s strikingly more honest than the empowerment feminism that surrounds Kahlo and, to a lesser extent, her work today.
There are over 300 objects in “Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” which opened earlier this month, many for the first time on display in the U.S., but fewer than a dozen are paintings by Kahlo. The majority of the objects included in the exhibition are photographs taken of Kahlo by other people—by colleagues, lovers, or both. There are also sections dedicated to her clothes, her spinal braces (which Kahlo kept and painted over), and knick-knacks like her makeup (at the press viewing, I received a make-up bag of Revlon products inspired by Kahlo).
That said, the exhibit doesn’t spend too much time on the significance of what Kahlo wore and the aesthetics of her home—which, while clearly political, is well-trodden ground and has often distracted from meatier, more insightful conversations about her art. When the exhibit does touch on her personal style, it is careful to point out how those things aligned Kahlo with an emerging nationalist sentiment in post-revolutionary Mexico. Kahlo, who was born into a middle-class family, chose to wear dresses associated with indigenous women from Oaxaca, as an expression of her Mexicanidad; painting her house that vibrant shade of blue you’ve seen over and over on Instagram held greater significance at a time when citizens were encouraged to reconnect with their pre-Cortesian roots.
But many of the photographs in the exhibition skirt obvious politics altogether. Some just show Kahlo at home. To the world, while she lived, Kahlo was often dismissed at Diego Rivera’s wife (in 1932, a newspaper headline stated she “gleefully dabbles” in painting), but many of the people who knew her were artists themselves; in their portraits of Kahlo, there’s a sense of tenderness, along with mutual admiration and respect.
The exhibit features photographs by Nickolas Muray, the photographer with whom Kahlo had a longtime affair, as well as Tina Modotti, Lucienne Block, and Lola Álvarez Bravo. In some photos, Kahlo at work is painting, but in most, and in the videos that play on a loop included in the exhibition, she’s posing for the camera. In one video projected on the wall, Kahlo adjusts flowers in her hair and steals glimpses at the camera. In a series of photos taken by Julien Levy, the art dealer who mounted Kahlo’s first solo exhibit in New York in 1938, Kahlo is topless, doing her braids, holding a cigarette (Levy and Kahlo were rumored to have had an affair).
These photos show a side of Kahlo that only her close friends and trusted allies might have seen. In one, taken by Rivera, Emily Lou Packard, a painter and friend of Kahlo’s, who was visiting shortly after her husband died in a car crash, has her arms thrown around Kahlo as the two are sitting down. It’s one of the only portraits where Kahlo is wearing pants—she usually opted for long, Tehuana dresses to hide the fact that one of her legs was shorter than the other. She’s off-duty here, and you get the sense that was almost never the case.
It’s disappointing to see so few of Kahlo’s pieces, but that might have been due to outside restrictions; it’s historically been very difficult to get Kahlo’s pieces on loan. The curators clearly wanted to do justice to Kahlo’s legacy—by highlighting her leftist politics instead of her relationships with men, by including sections that touch on Kahlo’s disability, the ways she played with gender, and her anti-American sentiment (although notably, there’s a very positive section on Kahlo and her relationship to New York, even though Kahlo once said New York was “deep down, a real piece of shit.”). But each of these sections could have been an exhibition themselves.