LONDON — For Frida Kahlo, dressing up rarely had anything to do with a love of fashion.
The bright hair ribbons, bunches of flowers, spider web mantillas, voluminous folk dresses and heaps of jewelry were marketing strategies, clever disguises and a reflection of the complex emotions of a woman whose life is the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Modern.
Life was never going to be straightforward for the half-Mexican, half-German Kahlo, who had polio as a child and whose body was later shattered in a traffic accident. It was while she was recovering from the near-fatal accident that she began to paint, on a special easel positioned over her bed.
The show, “Frida Kahlo,” which runs until Oct. 9, traces her career, from sensitive, middle-class teen to committed Communist (she had an extramarital affair with Leon Trotsky) to the loving — and later heartbroken — wife of Mexican artist Diego Rivera and finally, to the terminally ill hospital patient who died in 1954 at age 47.
The show’s 90 works, including oil paintings, watercolors and even a fresco panel, mirror the recurring themes in Kahlo’s mind: birth and decay, genetic roots, passion and loss, national identity and, of course, the many faces of the artist herself.
“She sits alongside the female icons of the 20th century — people like Marilyn Monroe and Billie Holiday — who knew their image was their meal ticket. She created her own myth — and that has a very contemporary resonance,” said Tanya Barson, who co-curated the show with Emma Dexter.
Kahlo constructed that myth with traditional Mexican clothing and flamboyant accessories, all of which helped her stand out as a woman and a painter.
In “Self-Portrait Wearing a Velvet Dress,” Kahlo’s earliest known self-portrait, she’s dressed in a claret-colored number, in a pose reminiscent of Botticelli’s Venus. The painting was a gift from the 19-year-old to her then boyfriend.
In “Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera,” she wears a traditional, emerald green peasant dress and a bright red, fringed shawl. She chose the regional costumes of the Tehuana women of southern Mexico because of their proud indigenous culture, and the full skirts helped hide her right leg, which was withered from polio. Rivera also liked to see her in traditional costume, and encouraged her to paint in a more vernacular style.
Later in her career, she went beyond impressing the men in her life (and hiding her physical faults) and began constructing a persona she could sell.
In the self-portrait “The Frame,” she poses against a bright blue background. Her hair is braided and piled high with yellow flowers. In “Self-Portrait as a Tehuana,” or “Diego on My Mind,” she wears the dramatic white headdress of the Tehuana women. Her face is somber. In another self-portrait, she wears a purple head scarf and mantilla, and poses against a greenish-yellow backdrop that is meant to represent madness, sickness and fear.
Barson says Kahlo used to lay out all her objects — the hair ribbons, the jewelry, the dresses — with great care and detail, as if preparing for a photo shoot. “And when she’s dressed up, she knows she looks fantastic, and she uses it as a kind of commodity.”
Sometimes Kahlo used clothing to make political statements.
In “My Dress Hangs There,” a traditional Mexican dress hangs against a backdrop of New York skyscrapers, a dollar sign in the window of a church, a golf trophy and a toilet. Kahlo, who lived in the U.S. from 1932 to 1934 for her husband’s work, ridicules American values of the time, and flaunts her pride in her Mexican heritage.
“She had a talent for unequivocal images,” said Barson. “There is no room for misinterpretation.”